Monday, 20 January 2014

Thoughts of Home: Banishing the Expat Blues

It's been a long time since I suffered the expat blues, the REAL expat blues, that point when life sucks, nothing is as good as it is back 'home', and you wonder what the hell you have gotten yourself in to. When I say a long time, I mean years. At least eight. But there were five years before that which were at times tough. 

I remember the countless times, driving on the M25 around London, leaving from my mum's or my dad's house back to one ferry port or another, feeling dismal. Feeling like it wouldn't take much to make me ask my Dutch partner to stop the car and let me out. It wouldn't take much to run in the opposite direction from the port. Tears would stream. Leaving again every time I went back to England was the hardest thing I had to do. But I kept doing it. 

And eventually, as life got easier and more comfortable in the Netherlands, leaving England each time got easier. Instead of feeling like I was leaving home to go back to 'the Netherlands' it started to feel like I was leaving England to go back home. Each boat or plan trip took me home, instead of merely taking me away from my family and friends, from everything familiar. 

And now, more than thirteen years after leaving England, I find it hard to imagine living back there. I would miss the Netherlands. I would miss my Dutch life. 

But that doesn't mean I don't miss things from my previous life, my British life. The obvious is family and friends - that is something that doesn't fade, but I have got to a state of acceptance. My best friend no longer lives in England, she too leads an expat life, so there are no guarantees, no matter where you live, that you'll be close to loved ones. People move. Things change. Expats know that better than anyone. 

I still miss the sight of miles of green, rolling hills. Sometimes, I miss being able to think in my mother tongue. I miss understanding why things are the way they are, I miss having the historical cultural knowledge to understand a bit more about why people do what they do. The culture in the Netherlands is not mine. I didn't live here through previous decades to know why things have evolved as they have - it's like taking a test on something you never studied. But I'm learning. I'm trying to understand. I'm trying to integrate as far as I can. And in doing so, I seem to have banished those expat blues for good. It doesn't mean I never miss some things in England, but I don't see it as home anymore. The Netherlands is my home. It's a mindset change.

Here are three tips to help deal with those expat blues, (all of which involve a lot of embracing):

1. Explore and Integrate

If you are an expat for the long haul get out and explore locally, and then make that circle of exploration wider. Join groups near you, both expat and local ones so you can meet others. Learn the local language. Get to know more about the local culture, even when the same language is spoken as back home there will always be other things that are vastly different - learn to recognise them and understand them so that you can in time accept them.

2. Embrace the Curve

There is no getting away from it, expat life can be rough. You will go through a huge emotional roller coaster curve when you move overseas. The first few days or weeks is the honeymoon period, you see everything through rose coloured spectacles. And then it hits, everything is different, nothing is familiar, this is NOT home. Culture shock hits. And then you'll slowly crawl your way up the curve again. Your curve maybe U shaped, it may be W shaped, but it's an inevitable process and you need to be tough. Embrace the curve, cuddle it, make it your friend. If you accept that what you are going through is perfectly normal, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel, then it makes those expat blues much easier to deal with. The mantra you should hum through the first four to twelve months after moving abroad should be "temporary, this is only temporary, life will get easier". And I promise it will. You can read a lovely example of what I mean here, written by "I Was an Expat Wife".

3. Embrace Change 

It's hard, but accepting that the only thing you can be sure of is that everything will be different will make life overseas easier. I am convinced that accepting change, and subsequently adapting to it, is what makes one expat more successful than another. It's a topic I plan to write much more about but as a summary, Aisha Ashraf puts it so beautifully in her post "Expats are Born, Not Made Discuss:
"Aspects of life in a new location may initially seem alien, even ill advised, but looking beyond pre-conceived ideas and striving to understand them is what marks out the successful expat from those ‘doing time’ abroad."
 So here's my best tip - when you move overseas, start by making the vow not to do time abroad, but to live your life abroad!

This is a link up with The Move to America as part of The Expat Experience series about missing home or suffering from the expat blues.


  1. Great post and advice - the one about the curve is spot on! It is so interesting to read all the posts linked up so far (thank you for doing that by the way) and how we all experience similar feelings.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. I loved reading this and your tips ae great! I was an expat in the Netherlands for two years and so far it's been my fave "expat country" - now I've been in Switzerland for last half a yar and I still miss many small details of the Dutch way of life.
    I think the curve is inevitable, but as you say, exploring and trying to integrate are key. I think one of the reasons I was probably so content in the Netherlands was because I had already studied some Dutch and really try to use it everyday and to improve my skills.

    Have a lovely week!

  3. I have to say this is one of the best posts I've read on homesickness and overcoming it. You are so right about it being a mindset amongst other things, i found myself nodding along as i read it. I'm bookmarking it to come back to read the next time the expat blues creep up on me, thank you for sharing :-)

  4. Thank you all for your lovely comments. I guess when you come out the other side it is far easier to give tips than when you are deep in the middle of the curve...... :-)

  5. Great post, you are so right about the curve. We've been lucky, moving to the East Coast of the US is not as much of a culture shock (although it has it's moments!) and we made the decision before we left to, as you say, live - make it home for however long we're here (which I touched on in my Feeling at Home post - I'm a very late link up to this series... Might get the last post up in time!). I do believe that how happy you are has a lot to do with mind set, seeing other expats in the same situation as me, but with a very different attitude has been interesting - I settled far more quickly. That's not to say I don't miss home, and I miss friends and family a lot, but I rarely miss 'stuff' anymore.
    Sara (@mumturnedmom)