Covid-19 has hit us all hard- overnight, everything and everyone we knew, was upside down or unavailable. Like everybody else, expats are currently living through the biggest health and financial crisis since World War II, subjected to the severest restrictions of freedom of movement. The situation has changed everybody’s lives and tragically, claimed many. Most people were not prepared for what life was going to become under the threat of an overpowering pandemic. Some people became trapped in their host countries; others lost their jobs and subsequently their visas. It’s been stressful to say the least.
While everyone and their cat grappled to deal with the new norms, there was a group of people that seemed to adjust better than everyone else- the expats. That’s when I realised that the experience of moving to a new country can be compared to this new Covid-19 reality. Here are a few ways that the response to this pandemic remind me very much of the experience of being an expat in a new country:
Spending time alone indoors is the new reality
Any expat will tell you that you need to be 100% open to the idea of spending time alone and if you aren’t, you need to get adjusted to it very quickly. Moving abroad alone comes with a period of hibernation that involves adjusting to a new lifestyle, time differences, masses of self-doubt, guilt, language barriers, and extreme cost-cutting measures as you budget for your new life. A lot of things are figured out by yourself, alone in your new home. I see people who are used to their regular socialising patterns and solid family visits struggling right now but I know that the expats will adjust quicker having gone through those harsh isolated times at one point or another during their expat tenure.
Not being able to see family is a norm
An unforgiving truth for most expats is that we have become accustomed to living thousands of kilometres away from our family members. Lucky expats see their families every few months, most of us see our family once a year for a few weeks and the unluckier ones tend to go for many years away from loved ones. I read the statuses about people complaining that they can’t go down the road to pick up curry from their mothers’ homes and I just shrug. Us expats have been used to this for years. Video calls and virtual friendships have been our jam for eons and the pandemic hasn’t changed this for us!
Grocery shopping is such a drama
When I first moved to South Korea in 2011, I was overwhelmed by trips to the grocery store. Products were not familiar to me, interactions were in a language I was yet to feel comfortable in and I struggled with how to make meals out of what I could find. It took such an effort to shop, that I shopped as little as possible. Translating languages (in the days before smartphones), finding substitutions, and taking advantage of what was in abundance (cabbage, soy bean paste & short grain rice) took it out of me.
I feel the same going to the grocery store now, dealing with wearing gloves, communicating through my mask and maintaining social distancing is strenuous but that’s the exhaustion of it all is not an unfamiliar feeling to me.
Covid culture is also a new culture
Moving anywhere for the first time is a minefield when determining what is socially acceptable. As a South African, physical touch is very much a norm. A pat on the back from a colleague, hugs from friends and handshakes during introductions are all normal. When I moved to the Gulf, all of that had to cease immediately. I wasn’t sure of what was appropriate or what was offensive so I kept all physical contact to a minimum. Very much the same way, physical contact due to the nature of this virus has been cut off and you know what… I am quite accustomed to that!
Living and existing is a tiring process at first
I don’t know about you, but the first few months of being an expat in a new place are gruelling. From worrying about when your documents when get finalised to learning a few conversational phrases to get by to keeping up with the family and friends in your home country, it can be rather overwhelming initially. I remember having to buy new clothes in South Korea because I landed in the middle of winter and the clothes I brought from my tropical city in South Africa were totally unsuitable. The act of going to buy new clothes was so complex: Where would I go that was cheap? How would I get there? How would I know my size? If I needed to ask for help, how would I do that? What should I buy and how would I convert the currency? A simple task became a trial.
Similarly, the adjustment to these new norms like social distancing and keeping up with governmental restrictions is leaving most of us knackered at the end of each day. Taking each day as it comes and not putting too much pressure on yourself to accomplish a million things is helpful to maintaining your mental & physical health during this time!
I’m a very different person now than I was before living abroad, thanks in large part to the many experiences I’ve had that come with being an expat and the challenges I’ve faced. It has made me see and experience the world differently, and I wouldn’t change it for anything. However, the “downside” of going through these changes while abroad is that they are difficult to explain to people who haven’t had the same experience. In a way, these arduous and unparalleled times that we are living through now will strengthen all of us- expats or not- if we allow ourselves to grow and re-evaluate what things are truly important in our lives. If we let it, this pandemic could bring us all together and gives us a shared experience the same way us expats have one- no matter where we’ve lived and where we continue to go.
If you’d like to read a funny post about the kinds of expats I frequently encounter while living in the Middle East, click here!
If you need more concrete advice on how to deal with the pandemic while being an expat, read this guide.
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What do you think? Did being an expat help you to transition easier into these confusing times? Let me know in the comments below!