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How being an expat prepared me for life during a pandemic

June 1, 2020 14 Comments

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.

To pin this post onto your Pinterest so others can benefit too, click the pin below!

What do you think? Did being an expat help you to transition easier into these confusing times? Let me know in the comments below!


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  • France in Four Years June 1, 2020 at 3:15 pm

    100% agree! I love this article. I live in France and am a non-native French speaker, so communicating through a mask is challenging at best.

  • Katie June 1, 2020 at 3:56 pm

    You make such good points, totally think being an expat has helped me adjust to things way faster.

    • expatpanda June 2, 2020 at 6:26 pm

      SAME. Also working for your employer has definitely made you more resilient!

  • Zoya Kubra June 1, 2020 at 4:16 pm

    Definitely agree. In fact I’ve been thinking about this a lot – how life keeps hitting you with the same or similar experiences until you learn a lesson. For me, moving away to live at uni aged 18 was traumatic. It was the first time I was away from home and I really did feel like the typical desi daughter in law who can’t go home to her parents’ house lolllll. I was always crying. I thought a lot about cultural practices and how when girls got married young in the past and probably still today they’re told “That’s your new home now, don’t come back unless it’s in a casket”. It was tough but years later when I did eventually get married and move away, it didn’t affect me the same way. I adjusted very quickly to life with the in-laws and the period of homesickness was much shorter. In the same way, both those experiences prepared me for life as an expat and now life in lockdown. I wonder if people who have never moved home, never travelled away from their city etc – are finding lockdown harder or if they’re also as chill as us guys 😊. As always, a great post. Thank you.

    • expatpanda June 2, 2020 at 6:29 pm

      Thank you for sharing your experiences 🙂 I agree that while the initial transition phase is so HARD, it helps so much more in the long term. Gosh imagine not being able to go stay with your parents because they essentially never want to live with you again. Thankfully my parents aren’t like that. I do think that people who aren’t expats are 100% having a difficult time adjusting to this pandemic.

  • Expatcoffeetales June 10, 2020 at 11:33 pm

    I love this. Thanks so much for posting! I can totally relate to your post and you’re right there are so many similarities between the expat life and the pandemic lifestyle. Really do think I’m more mentally prepared for the challenges of the pandemic as an expat. Love your words. Keep being you 🙌

    • expatpanda June 12, 2020 at 11:50 am

      Thanks so much for your kind words!! Expat life has definitely helped most people be more flexible and willing to change to new norms, not jut during this pandemic but in all aspects of life!

  • higgledypiggledymom June 21, 2020 at 1:05 am

    Hope you’re staying well, we are. People ask how we’re doing…we’re fine, this is our retirement life, and then I get laughs, but it’s true. Again, great post and stay well!

    • expatpanda July 1, 2020 at 1:06 pm

      Thank you, I am doing well, just laying low and staying home. I am glad to hear you are safe 🙂

  • winteroseca June 29, 2020 at 10:54 pm

    I never thought of this, but it’s true! Being an expat has prepared me for the pandemic! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • expatpanda July 1, 2020 at 12:51 pm

      I am glad you can relate!

  • itsnotaboutyou July 23, 2020 at 3:22 pm

    I def agree on lots of the points you made! At work our boss always asked us in the first few weeks how we are doing and how hard it is to not see family and friends…and I was always like…not much has changed for me tbh. If anything things had gotten much better, because all my friends back home or abroad now all had time to skype at the same time which was often a challenge before. People who never lived abroad just can’t get their mind around what it is like and I felt like a warrior actually thriving in the new circumstances while everyone was falling apart (metaphorically speaking, but honestly I found myself rolling my eyes at lots of the others who were still visiting their families and how hard it is not to). Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • expatpanda July 25, 2020 at 4:06 pm

      Haha I felt the same! My life didn’t change too much either. The thing to realise is that some people are so dependent on the company of others so that’s why it was a huge challenge. But for expats, we have learnt to love being by ourselves!

  • mrssmithdordogne August 22, 2020 at 7:19 pm

    What a great post, and every word resonates. I especially relate to not seeing family and that feeling when others complain about Covid isolation from their families down the road.

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