Tuesday, 5 January 2016

4 Invisible Expat Challenges

When you choose to move abroad there are some changes and challenges that are blatantly obvious - right there 'in your face' obvious. Such as the natives speak a different language than you. Like the predominant religion is not yours. Like the food is different to what you are used to eating in your passport country. Like the weather is constantly hot and you are used to four distinct seasons. That kind of obvious.

But there are other challenges of a life overseas that you don't necessarily think about before you make the leap. Like these four things.

1. Living Life in a Second Language

Yes, you got that you'd need to learn a new language when you moved abroad but did you consider that you don't just speak a second language everywhere you go, but that you actually have to live your life in a second language? If you have moved for the long term, or have a local partner then you'll soon get that speaking in a tongue not your own is very different to living life in a tongue not your own.

My husband's first language is Dutch and I obviously knew that before I moved to the Netherlands. But now I realise just what it means when I say my husband speaks and is Dutch. It means my in-laws are Dutch. It means my children are Dutch and they go to a Dutch school - so their teachers speak Dutch. My children's friends communicate in Dutch, as do my children's friends' parents. I do my shopping in Dutch. My neighbours speak Dutch. People who knock on my door speak Dutch (mostly - but those are stories for other posts I think) and when the telephone rings there is a good chance there is a Dutch speaker on the line. Dutch, Dutch, Dutch. One the one hand that's great - you can't beat that kind of immersion when it comes to learning a language. Eventually you actually start thinking partly in Dutch too but are you really ever so fluent that you can be your true self in a second language?

No matter how many books I read in English, how often I speak to my kids in English, how many calls I make back to England to speak to family and friends or how many programmes I watch on the BBC there is no escaping that I live my life in Dutch. Even after 15 years in the Netherlands that is sometimes tiring and frustrating. The words I need to express myself properly are sometimes not on the tip of my tongue. Sometimes I come across as an idiot who can't string a proper sentence together. It can sometimes be a little bit lonely living as a minority of one.......

2. Emergencies and Illnesses Back 'Home'

When there is a medical emergency, or when a relative has little time left on this earth, running to go and see them is not a matter of hopping in your car. I unfortunately know from recent experience that such situations can leave you with a heart wrenching decision. It's an aspect of expat life that only gets harder as the years roll by. Bad news is a fact of life, even expat life. Illness and death do not always give fair warning.

3. Living Between Two Worlds

I'm not Dutch and I never will be. Even if I wandered off tomorrow and picked up Dutch citizenship whilst wholeheartedly renouncing the Brit in me, I still wouldn't be Dutch. However, after 15 years in the Netherlands I am also now too Dutchified to call myself a pure bred Brit. I live life walking along the middle line between two cultures - a cultural and national no-mans land if you like. It's a weird place to live.

4. Celebrations and Parties

Recently (though no longer as recent as I'd like) I turned 40, as did all my friends I went to school with in England. Popping back to celebrate the milestone birthdays with each and every one of them was just not on the cards. The same applies to weddings, christenings and other happy occasions. Logistics rule out joining in every party we're invited to back in my passport country. There are new parties locally to attend of course, but missing out on celebrating with loved ones back 'home' is tough.

Over to You: What challenge did you stumble upon that you hadn't expected or thought about before you moved overseas?


  1. My expat friends just talk about the weather - Australia is so damn outdoorsy they are all mad triathletes!
    Life Coaching Sydney

    1. Weather is a popular topic in the Netherlands too 😃

  2. life has to go even if there is no happiness same we have to move from every aspect of life

    life so long

  3. Moving to Shanghai, I came across a few who 'love it and are here to stay'. Until when? Chinese nursing home one day? Better be reeaally fluent and not forget the language when you do everything else.

    Or moving back to their home country in the end? And then, when you need help with your daily life, someone to put cream on that sore on your back, there isn't anybody around that you have done favors in the past. Like that young mom next door you helped out at each babysitter crisis. You will have to rely entirely on care professionals.

    Or maybe stay in the host country and count on the expat network helping to take care of you. I am just not so sure about this one. Expats come and go.

    I know I am painting a picture of extreme scenarios here. And of course, every expat situation is different. In your case, I would rather think of an immigration.

    Just saying, while my family are global nomads right now, I do want to go and settle somewhere while I can still anchor my roots firmly. Whether that's in my home country or my husband's.

  4. I'm also a Brit and have lived here for 15years, although I think I've only been here for 3!. The biggest thing for me now is when I know I have to speak to someone, the neighbour, or the Belastingdienst - I work it out in my head first what I'm going to say, to make my dutch sound as perfect as possible. Recently I went back to UK for 2 weeks over Xmas, I normally go for 4/5 days, so 2 weeks was a long time. I had to go into my old bank that I had had since I was a kid, I found myself whilst waiting in line (queuing properly) working out what I needed to say in Dutch, I had to remind myself I don't need to do that and I felt very empty!! Strange. This is something you would never know when you first become an expat, it's something that grows in you.

    1. Oh I can relate to that too! I work out in my head what I need to say in Dutch too. For me when I am back in England it takes a while to realise I can talk without thinking too hard about it in advance and it remains a relief even after 15 years! It's a strange thing indeed that I could never have predicted feeling!!!

  5. Exactly!....me, too, but in French. I have found after 4 years in France ( following 11 in Ireland - at least they spoke English....even if not the version I was used to :-) that I have much more of an "inner" than "outer" life. I used to be very outgoing but when you cannot express yourself in a language the way native speakers do it closes the door to the kinds of deeper conversations I would have with my English speaking friends, and I find that a bit difficult and sad. It means, for me, that there is more solitude in my life and that has come as a surprise.

  6. Once you leave your homeland, life will never be the same again. How close you were with friends and relatives, things do change and you are no longer part of their daily life and vice versa, that has been a big change for me since we left our homeland over 20 years ago. Our children were born in the UK and we now live in another country. They have never lived in our homeland. I turned into a true chameleon and change colour, adapt to where I live and who I meet and mingle with and that includes my accent, food taste, etc. While I still feel Dutch, I have to be honest and confess that I have not lived like a Dutchie for a long time and painfully reminded how out of place I am when we return home for a visit, I no longer fit it. On the other hand, I also feel that I am a "visitor" and will never become "one of them" when trying to mingle with the locals. The international school and community is therefore my safety network, the only place where I can be myself and where diversity is accepted and no big deal.