Sunday, 19 December 2010

5 Things to Conquer As an Expat

1. Learning the Language In my view, coming to grips with the language of your adopted country is the most important step towards successful integration. You will feel a perpetual outsider if you're struggling for words (say when shopping at a market), aren't able to reply to a friendly remark by a neighbour, or have trouble understanding numbers (makes paying so much more difficult!) Learning a language is fun and it is also an excellent way of getting to know people (fellow foreigners as pupils, or natives as teachers might be your first contacts.)

2. Marginalisation There is no way around this. Every expat will know the feeling of being an outsider. This can either be self-inflicted - because you "feel" you can't be the person you used to be at home (because of linguistic and cultural inhibitions) or it could be that as a foreigner you are made to feel you don't quite belong. It's important to accept those feelings as necessary stepping stones; there's little you can do about it. Marginalisation, especially during the first year, say, is just part of the process. Accept it as a stage.

3. Homesickness
This is the bread and butter of expat life. After all, you've left friends and family behind.Your new country doesn't (seem to) offer the same comforts as home. You feel alienated, alone and awkward. Accept that there is nothing wrong with homesickness but try not to wallow in it. It's probably not a good idea to listen to your favourite familiar tune while reading a letter from your mum, or looking through childhood snaps... Go for walks, look at sites, visit a museum (all visual rather based on language) and try to enjoy your new surroundings for what they have to offer. Another good way of conquering homesickness is taking photos, it helps to make you feel in charge.

4. A (temporary) feeling of dislike of your new country
Believe me, we've all been there! You feel you can't take it anymore, the customs, the people, the language, the weather, the rudeness, the traffic - whatever it may be, it will be powerful, all-encompassing loathing of "the other".Simply because it isn't home, there will be a period where you'll be convinced your new surroundings are inferior. Or that you just "have" to leave. Again, I would say this is a necessary stage you have to fight your way through. There will come a morning when you'll be enchanted by the light, a stranger will smile at you or you accomplish a whole sentence in your new language.

5.Your shyness
It's natural to be shy when you're a stranger. Potentially, a lot of things can go wrong. You don't know your way round - literally and culturally. But try not to be too self-aware and inhibited. People will cut you a lot of slack as a foreigner. There's no need to completely blend in, no need to get everything right. Be yourself, smile, speak the language (however inadequately) and try to make as many contacts you possibly can.


  1. How true Margit (...although not so sure that Point 5 resonates totally with my experiences with Brits abroad...). Maybe one should consult Mr. Chatwin and Mr. Lawrence on homeliness and homesickness. Maybe not being able to stick it anywhere is less the symptom of a warped psychology, rather the mentality of people who front up problems honestly rather than simply parroting cliches about everywhere being basically the same. Nice piece

  2. I'm glad you put learning the language first. I know so many expats who seem almost proud of their complete inability to speak their host language.

  3. "After all, you've left friends and family behind.Your new country doesn't (seem to) offer the same comforts as home. You feel alienated, alone and awkward."

    I saw this in a close friend who emigrated. Even though she went abroad with her parents and most of her family was already there, she felt really lonely. While her parents were worried about overseas medical insurance, driving licences, visas and all the top-level stuff, she was thinking "Will I fit in?", "Will I have to change to fit in?", "Will I be able to make friends?", "Will I lose the friends I have now?".

    It took her a long while to adjust and I have to admit, there were moments where I really did think she'd jump on the first plane back to England. But she didn't. She found herself and carved herself out a new home. She came back to England for a visit a few years back and it was a little like recalling a dream. She used to belong here but now she didn't. (She can often be quite critical of England now, which sometimes annoys me but I have to remind myself that she belongs to another country now)

    Fair enough, I've no experience of being an expatriate myself but I would hazard a guess that you can think so hard and try so hard to fit in that you're only standing in your own way. Sometimes, it's best to just see what happens. You may well be changing without even realising it.