Becoming an expat is a thrilling experience. At least at first. The excitement of moving house to an entirely different country is like no other. The sounds, the smells, the sights… they are all new and intriguing. But as time goes on, excitement wanes and ominous questions start to creep into the back of your mind. Here are seven fears that only expats understand.
1. Will it all come to an abrupt end?
Preparing to move abroad is a lot of work, and certainly an investment. I had to gather materials for my visa, buy flights, and manage that vulnerable time between moving and my first paycheck. And on top of that, it’s easy to feel anxious until you finally get that residency card or permanent visa in hand. But even if you do it all right, you can’t help but to think: will it all just come to an abrupt end one day?
This is particularly scary in current political times when countries are beginning to restrict visas and travel. Even if you are an upstanding addition to your community, your fate will always be at the mercy of the government. I’ve heard horror stories about expats losing their jobs on a whim and having less than 24 hours to leave the country. It’s unlikely to happen, of course, but that doesn’t keep it from the back of my mind.
2. Has everyone forgotten me? Or, worse, will I forget everyone?
Whether you’re gone for a few months or a few decades, life moves on without you. The number of weddings, anniversaries, births, and other celebrations I’ve missed in just two and half years breaks my heart. Living so far from home makes it difficult to be there during those important moments. And if I’m no longer a part of life’s big events, will I be forgotten?
Or worse, will I start to forget? It hasn’t happened yet, but I dread the moment a friend’s name or a favorite memory slips my mind. With so much happening on a daily basis as an expat, your mind begins to fill up space with new cultural norms, new languages, new challenges, and new memories. The longer I’m gone, the bigger the distance feels. I know it’s my responsibility to keep in touch the best I can, as I am the one who made the decision to leave, after all. But it’s scary how many weeks can go by without saying anything to my bestie.
3. Is this new life filling a void I refuse to recognize?
It’s the new, trendy question that expats face, and perhaps the biggest criticism from those that tend to judge our life decisions. Constant travel, as it’s claimed, is just a quick fix for a deeper issue. Is this true? Hear it enough times and you begin to wonder: am I running away from something back home? I don’t think I am, but those deep-seated issues are hard to crack. I can recognize my love for new experiences, like new cultures. I can recognize my love for challenges, like learning a new language. But could I fulfill those desires in my home country? Am I, instead, hiding from something? As long as I keep traveling, maybe I’ll never know.
4. Will I ever feel at home again?
No matter how long you live in a foreign country, you will never feel completely, 100%, “at home”. It’s a claim that has encouraged many a debate, probably because of fear.
I’ve watched myself try to acclimate to new cultures, and I’ve simultaneously witnessed my stubborn American upbringing in full force. There’s a lot of American-ness that I want to reject, but I will always have my upbringing, my homeland ideals, and my cultural norms inside me. They aren’t going to prohibit me from living somewhere else happily or thoroughly, but they will certainly have an impact on how I adjust. And that’s okay! You don’t want to lose yourself as a person; rather, you want these new cultures and experiences to enhance who you are. And so the fear creeps in: that easy feeling of home, will it ever be achievable as an expat?
5. Am I breaking the law?
This is really something that goes through my mind regularly! If I rent a car with my U.S. license, is it illegal since I’ve been abroad for over two years? A quick search answers that pretty easily, but why do they keep letting me?
You just feel extremely vulnerable as an expat. If I sneak candy into the cinema and get busted, will they deport me? There are some obvious rules, like stay calm during a political protest if you’re an expat. But what about the little stuff, like jaywalking or accidentally not validating your metro pass? See number one: you are at the mercy of the government and you don’t have as many rights. Tread carefully.
6. Have I lost my sense of humor?
Have you ever tried to joke with someone in a foreign language? It’s doable, but it can also be extremely uncomfortable. We’re talking major crickets and awkward silences. And, as it turns out, sarcasm doesn’t exactly translate that easily. I used to have some intense belly laughs with my friends back home. But living as an expat, and attempting to learn a new language, means humor is hard work. Friendship is hard enough, but jokes and laughter are an entirely different beast.
Even if you know the language from your studies or it’s your own native language, you are still in a different culture and language differs just as much as humor. After your jokes continuously fall flat, will you eventually lose your sense of humor?
Pro tip: find those other funny expats for a little relief.
7. When I return home (if I return home…) what’s gonna happen to me?
Being away for so long means you get to experience this really fun thing called reverse culture shock. (Did my sarcasm work there?) I’ve experienced it once before, and let me warn you, it’s rough. Your experiences as an expat will change you. It’s inevitable; how could they not? Moving, living, and working abroad is challenging. Attempting to navigate Spanish bureaucracy and trying to adapt to the educational system is far different from a week-long holiday on the Costa del Sol, for example.
It seems obvious, but not everyone realizes the differences. You will emerge changed, most likely in a good way. However, your friends and family back home might not understand why you aren’t the same person you were when you left. Now add that to the more tangible anxiety of finding a new job and getting back to life in your home country. For us Americans, that includes the battle of finding health insurance, probably buying a car, and gulping down pesticide-rich foods. Fun!