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Three Moments That Can Make or Break Your Expat Experience

It’s crunch time… whether you’ve relocated to Budapest or Brasilia, Cape Town or Shanghai, the first few months of any expat experience can be challenging and a roller-coaster ride of emotions. Sometimes all it takes is a single experience, a defining moment, to determine whether you embrace your time abroad or spend it wishing you were back home. Here are three moments that can make or break your expat experience.

The Language Barrier

We’ve all been there, that moment you realize you really don’t understand a word of the local language. Maybe you’re at the supermarket in the middle of paying for some tasty treats, when the checkout lady turns to you and mumbles something in the native language. You panic and freeze as your face slowly glazes over. Your brain is working over-time, furiously trying to remember just three words from the language course you took before you arrived. But it’s no use! You admit defeat and just stare back blankly. Now the checkout lady starts to look irritated, repeating herself, with a sense of impatience in her voice. Your palms start to sweat, and heat rises to your cheeks, “did I give her the wrong change?”, “or maybe there is a problem with my foreign credit card?”

Then she holds up a plastic bag, and it sinks in, she was just asking if you needed a bag… Embarrassment hits, as you realize this is not the first time you couldn’t understand a simple, everyday question. There was the time only last week when you couldn’t understand your colleague, who was offering you a coffee. Or just the other day when your neighbor came over to see if you had a parcel for them.

Yes, you took a basic language course before you arrived, but it clearly didn’t do the trick. Learning a new language can be hard, especially when you’re trying to master a language belonging to the country in which you already live — it’s like being thrown in to the deep end of an Olympic swimming pool and being told to keep up with Michael Phelps. It would be easy to give up, to decide that this new language is too hard and just spend the rest of your time abroad living as a mime. Or this experience might make you decide to immerse yourself in this new language, maybe take an intensive language course. Being able to understand the local language means better understanding the culture of a country and will give you the chance to make some local friends, friends who can take you to the great local bars and restaurants, or that secluded beach, kept secret from tourists. 

The Phone Call Home

Moving to a new country, potentially thousands of miles from your family and friends, is never easy. At first the distance may seem unimportant. After all, you call them almost every day, and, in the meantime, you make sure to book a trip home in the coming months.

But then one day you get a phone call from your older sister. You pick up, expecting to discuss what each of you had for dinner or mum and her latest embarrassing Facebook post. Instead she screams down the phone with excitement… “Steve, just proposed! I am getting married! Can you believe it?” In this moment, all you want is to be back home, celebrating with your family. You wish you could be with your sister to give her hug, to sit with her and talk for hours, planning the most extravagant wedding the world has ever seen. To make matters worse, there is an engagement party tomorrow night and there is no way you could ever make it home in time, even if you could afford a last-minute flight.

You start to realize just how much you’re missing home and the people you have left behind. The distance, which didn’t seem like such a big deal, now seems so substantial, you might as well be living on Mars. You realize you’re missing out on important milestones, as your friends and family start to make new memories, memories which you won’t be a part of.

Feeling homesick is something everyone has experienced and at the end of the day there is no shame in choosing to return home if it is too much to bare. Everyone has to do what is right for them. But try to stay positive. You may be thousands of miles from your loved ones but now is your time to make memories of your own, as an individual. This is the chance to reinvent yourself, test your limits, meet new people, who you can make new memories with. Chances are you’ll surprise yourself. And if you ever feel you’re missing out on home life, try and stay connected though Skype — seeing someone over video call might not be the same as face to face, but until we learn how to teleport, it is a pretty good alternative.

The Labyrinth of a New City  

It’s been a long day at work, you’re heading home, the streets of your new city reaching out ahead of you. You have walked this route home more than a couple of times. But you must have taken a wrong turn because all of a sudden, you realize you don’t recognize any of the buildings or street names.

Looking around aimlessly and unable to read any of the street signs, you don’t feel confident asking the people around you for directions — they all seem to be busy darting about with purpose. Your heart sinks and you have a sense of hopelessness hanging over your head. You’ve been living in this new city for a few weeks now, and you’re still getting lost. Will you ever feel at home here?

Some would pull out their phones, call a cab, speed on home, open their suitcases, and just start packing. After all, feeling lost is scary and frustrating. But every cloud has a silver lining, you just have to open your eyes to the possibilities. Stop and look around. You may be lost, but you see a small café just a few meters ahead and decide to take a look. The people inside are friendly and the menu looks tempting. The waiter, who, by some miracle speaks your mother tongue, draws a map on your napkin so you know how to get home. Feeling eternally grateful, you make it back to your apartment with the help of the makeshift map, and what’s more, you keep it, so you can find your way back to the café. From now on you spend every weekend in that café where you meet some new friends, locals and expats alike, who are keen to show you their city and you start to feel like you belong.

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