Moving abroad as a fresh faced, newly graduated 21 year old for the first time, was the toughest thing I have ever had to do.
When my mother and I reached the departure point at the airport in 2011, it took every ounce of my physical strength to put one foot in front of the other and walk away. She was crying which made me want to stay but I knew if I didn’t go then, I would never go.
I made it to the other side of the security checkpoint, found the nearest chair and then I cried and cried and cried. At the time I didn’t know why I was crying. Sure I would miss my family and all that was familiar to me. But for as long as I could remember, I knew I wanted to live away from my hometown. So I was prepared for that. But now, when I look back I realise that I was crying because I was losing something I would never get back- myself. The city would be the same when I returned; the people I left behind wouldn’t change that much either. But that version of me that existed before I moved- that version was lost to me. I would never be that person again and my concepts of ‘home’ and ‘familiarity’ would go on to take drastically different definitions.
I eventually got on that plane and flew- Durban, Johannesburg, Hong Kong, Taiwan and finally I descended into Incheon International Airport, South Korea. I left 24 degrees celsius to land in minus three degree temperatures in a country where I couldn’t read any of the signs or understand anyone around me. I cried almost every night for the first 3 months. I was miserable, I struggled with culture shock and living alone for the first time with no support was harder than I thought. I hated everything and wanted to move back. I didn’t know how I would make it through one whole year. But then one day I woke up and I was ok. This was my life- one I had chosen- and honestly it was great! I started travelling solo, I found meaning in my work and I made friends. I returned to South Africa for a visit and realised that I was even more of a foreigner there than I was in Korea.
10 years later and here we are- I motivate and inspire teachers to move abroad.
Two marriages, one divorce, five countries and countless homes later, that one year break has turned out to be quite an adventure. You can’t go through a decade of non-stop transitions and culture shock without learning a thing or two, so here are 10 things I’ve learnt as through expat life:
1. Powerlessness is a high price to pay
Being an expat means being ok with being powerless. You have little to no control over many decisions in expat life as you experience the bureaucracy of foreign governments, the long process of document legalisation and so many other factors. You make peace with allowing strangers to help you, or just accepting things as they are. I missed my grandfather’s funeral. I was rushed to hospital after I couldn’t stop vomiting one humbling night. My ex husband asked me for a divorce via text because living abroad meant I earned more than him. All of these were humbling experiences.
There is always a price to pay for the life you lead. It comes with the learning that you can’t always control life and you just have to learn how to effectively deal with these experiences.
Truthfully though, I’ve also learnt that you can only grow through things that challenge you.
2. You evaluate what cultural elements you want to keep or throw out
Living abroad makes you realize that ‘normal’ only means what is socially or culturally accepted. Nothing makes you more open-minded than plunging into a different culture and a different society.
You will come across so many different cultures, traditions, ideals, and political and religious views that your idea of normality gets shaky. You start to realize there are other ways of doing things, and after a while, you notice that you have integrated a new culture into your identity. You even acquire new habits from locals you never thought you’d embrace. It’s part of expat life.
You also get to know yourself a little better, because you discover that there are things you truly believe in, while other ideas you once had were just the cultural heritage of the society you grew up in.
I grew up in a rigid culture where “That’s the way it’s always been done’ and “What will people think?” were the guiding principles of my community. So when I moved abroad and there was no one to care about what I did, I started to pick & choose what I wanted to keep from my culture and what I would no longer tolerate. Food & clothing found a permanent place in my life but subscribing to ideals of patriarchy, duty & honour ended up in the garbage. It was when I had to explain the reasons why to people who didn’t have any clue about my culture that I started to see how many things did not make sense in the 21st century.
There is no norm. There is only your choice to live a certain way and that choice is different for everyone.
3. It’s ok not to love where you live
The idea that people move to a place and then immediately fall in love with life there is incredibly misleading. Sometimes the career of your dreams is in a less than ideal country. Sometimes everyone else loves a place but it just doesn’t appeal to you. When I moved to Dubai, I moved for love and I didn’t find professional happiness or love the expensive & superficial nature of the city. No matter where you live, there are elements you won’t like. Living in Kuwait was a sea of racism; Abu Dhabi had a misery-inducing school system; I always stuck out in South Korea; Qatar has way too much traffic. Then again, when I’m in South Africa, I wish it could be more efficient and safer.
But as much as those downsides can get to you from time to time, there’s nothing to be gained from making those negatives the focus of your emotional energy.
Expat life means realizing that nowhere is perfect. You can make the best of a place when you focus on the positives (even if you do need to create an exit strategy in the meantime).
4. Money & career goals matter less than mental health
As I moved from job to job I realised that being an expat meant that my job situation would always be fragile. I would be the first to be let go if there was a crisis in order to save the citizens of that country. I experienced firsthand how you could lose your job for no good reason. And honestly, that changed my perspective on work as I navigated my expat life.
I stopped chasing money and accepting job offers on where I could make the most money. I started to look for professional opportunities that would be bring growth and meaning to my life. I also stopped allowing work to define me; I went from saying, “I’m a teacher’ to “I work as a teacher”. It’s a subtle shift.
I worked only during working hours and I did the best I could during that time. And maybe that made me a bad teacher or not a hard worker when compared to others. But instead, I prioritized my life outside of work including my hobbies (like this blog!) and my personal relationships.
I have no regrets and continue not to give any job 100% of myself.
My students- and most students- would appreciate a happy teacher doing their best rather than a miserable one giving it their all.
5. You can do more than you ever imagined
When I first moved, the small things tripped me up rather than the big things. I had to learn to grocery shop, cook, do laundry and manage a home- all things I had never done before and now I had to do them in a foreign country. But as time went on, I realised I could do all those things and more.
As you succeed in expat life, you learn that once-daunting challenges are very doable, and the thought of arriving in a brand-new country with no knowledge of the language, struggling with a new currency, navigating supermarkets, and dealing with the local admin all on your own, barely fazes you. Sure it takes some planning and research but is manageable and I can do it.
I took my drivers license test in Arabic in Qatar and I am conducting my PhD study across 7 countries.
Nothing is impossible to me anymore!
6. You have to appreciate your strength
Most people would never consider moving to another country and starting again – never mind doing it over and over again. When I think about how most people would react at the prospect of that life – with horror, or at least extreme caution – then I know that the moments of frustration and exhaustion are hardly surprising. Expat life is a lot for the body and mind to take.
Especially when conquering the impossible and doing things you never thought you would have to do- most of us doing them alone.
While I can celebrate my strength, I’ve also learned to embrace the weariness, those days of ‘I can’t listen to another word of Arabic, or ‘I just crave my mother’s food…’ I’ve learned to give myself those low days, to sit in those feelings, and recognise the resilience that is building on all the other days.
7. Expat life makes you do things you had never considered doing
Of course moving abroad means being open to new experiences and trying new things. But beyond new cuisines and cultural experiences, being an expat pushed me into situations I never thought I would find myself in.
When I moved to Qatar, Polar & I had just gotten married about 6 months prior ( I wrote about our elopement here), I had no job and no desire to work after my disastrous work experiences in the UAE. If you had told me even a few months before that I would be ok moving to a place relying completely on someone else financially, I would’ve balked at the idea. I never wanted to be that partner who was dependent on the other person.
It was unimaginably hard to give up my independence to follow someone else’s career. To become dependent on them, to lose autonomy and share a bank account.
That kind of trust is different to anything I have experienced before; I had to remember to trust that every decision we made was one that benefitted not only his career, but benefitted us as a family. However, it was a liberation too. An opportunity for reinvention. It offered me an opportunity to reflect, trace my growth, my development, everything I’ve learned, and decide what to do in the future. We struggled a lot in the time when we first moved to Qatar but I was lucky enough to find a job I found joy in and I stopped viewing my partner as the reason I had to come to Qatar. Our relationship deepened, the trust grew and honestly, so did I.
8. You start to appreciate the small unnoticeable things
Expat life has given me an appreciation for the things I used to take for granted. Reuniting with family and friends, picking right up where we left off, enjoying the familiar foods we miss (like a spicy bunny chow), dipping my toes in the Indian Ocean, and even seeing that sign with the words “Welcome to King Shaka International Airport ” written in the airport of my hometown. Believe me this wasn’t even something I thought about before I left!
The smell of the ocean, the sound of those hadeda birds, faces of family – all gentle reminders of where I’ve been and how far I’ve come. These are things I no longer take for granted.
Saying goodbye to family & friends, as difficult as it always is, also gives me an incredible gift. The gift of appreciation and the comfort in knowing, those things will always be waiting for me.
9. You find your people and you hold on tight
This may be an unpopular opinion but- your ability to find and maintain friendships as an expat can make or break your experience in a country. Friends from your home country are nice but moving abroad is a life changing experience- one that your friends who have never moved will struggle to understand. Your expat friends become your lifeline, the ones you explore your area with, the ones you travel with, the ones who rush you to hospital and the ones who understand just how infuriating it is to have to bite your tongue at work.
There are places I wouldn’t have survived had I not been fortunate to make good friends (Kuwait cough, cough).
Of course expat friendships do evolve. We are aware of the transient nature of expat life, where the place that we live is less important than the actual experience that we’re having.
Expat friends understand this, so you probably won’t lose them as friends in the same way that you might have lost friends when you originally moved abroad. The important thing is to be supportive of your friends. After all, they’re just trying to achieve their own life goals; sometimes that means you need to move on again.
You can develop a fantastically rich and diverse network of friends if you keep investing in them and stay in touch.
10. Parts of you exist all over the world
Being an expat means that you get to truly experience an in-depth immersion into a culture. You shop at the local grocery stores, experience the seasons shift, and know the most efficient way to get anywhere in town. You may not be local, but there will always be a part of that culture, that city, that will never leave you.
You will always have a connection through the time you spent living there and it will shape who you are. Many expats marry, become parents, graduate and even find fame in countries they never thought they would celebrate a milestone in.
There is a version of yourself that exists there and only there because once you move countries, you are never the same again.
I loved the young, carefree woman I was when I navigated the extensive subway system in Seoul, South Korea. I like to think that she is still there enjoying Korean sweet pancakes (Hotteok) as she navigates the snow in winter. But am I the same person now in Qatar, 10 years later? Not even close.
These lessons aren’t just about ME. They’re for anyone who’s ever challenged the norm. Who’s ever done anything outside their comfort zone. Made a mistake and later laughed hysterically about it. Stretched themselves when there was nothing left to stretch. Stepped out where there were no more stones to step on.
But after 10 years I can recognise that it’s a bitter-sweet feeling. I find it hard (and sad) to believe that I’ve been so far from my roots, my family and the life I once had, for so long. When I go back “home” I no longer feel at “home”, at ease… I feel disconnected, foreign. Though, at the same time, I am extremely thrilled when I am there. It’s confusing… but in a happy way.
I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, but I do believe that there is a lesson in everything that happens. As expats let’s be grateful for these life lessons. It’s how we grow to become stronger, wiser and self aware.
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What have you learnt since being an expat? Or are you thinking of becoming an expat? Let me know in the comments below!!