Life as an expat.
7 months ago, we packed up our lives and moved across the globe. Again! Those of you who have followed my blog since its birth in 2016, will know that at that time we were living in Saline, Michigan. Before heading back to South Africa
for the last five years. Now, we find ourselves back in the USA.
Being an expat is like being trapped between two worlds: you’re not a local but you’re not a tourist, you’re not on vacation but you’re not at home, and you have a home back in your old country but you also have a home in your new country – Teaspoon of Adventure
I can honestly say that doing this a second time around was much more stressful than the first. Back in 2015, we were ignorant, young, and naive to the world around us. I don’t think we fully understood what we were doing. We saw moving across the globe as an adventure, not a reality. Needless to say. we learned a lot. Matured even more, and can now appreciate the enormity of the decision.
Life As An Expat
Expat life is an emotional roller coaster. As Riana from Teaspoon of Adventure puts it. You constantly feel like you are living in two worlds. And you don’t quite know where you fit in.
I reached out to a few friends who are now expats and asked them to share their experiences and thoughts with us. This is what they had to say.
I think the hardest part and moment for me personally was losing my Dad
as we were getting ready to head to Arizona. I think that moment at the airport and not being able to have him see us off was very emotional and difficult. The grief process on this side away from family is very tough but he blessed our special journey and I know I have him in spirit with me. Emigration is not for the faint-hearted because this journey is truly taxing and demanding in every possible sphere, especially when you realize the special family and friends you have to leave behind. We were lucky in our process so far, that it has been a smooth transition, the only thing we now await is having documents sent to us from Home Affairs
. I wish I had them done much sooner to us leaving.
If you are looking to emigrate, try to follow as many local Facebook groups that are set up by South Africans living in those countries. It is a brilliant resource when you’re trying to debunk the ‘language’ and understand the terms for things like schooling, housing, social security, etc. South African expats have been so generous with information and contacts, so I would highly recommend building that network BEFORE you leave. It helps give you the lay of the land so to speak and it can make it feel like home before you get here.
My big emotions came in the third and fourth months (we just celebrated our 6 month here on the weekend). I knew we would feel homesick and miss family and friends, but I didn’t realize the depth of those emotions. It’s having that shared history with the people we know and knowing that the 9-hour difference plays a massive role in keeping up with communicating
with them. Mentally it’s having to realize that we are ‘visitors’ in a new country and it will take time for them to know us as much as it will take for us to know them. But it’s up to you to make that decision to be open to making many brave new steps and thinking outside what was our ’normal’ back home. I love embracing new cultures and in Arizona, we have a wonderful diverse community. I have joined many local groups be it the Library or arts and crafts clubs or being part of the PTO.
Those have connected me to so many new friends.
The way I see it is that it’s an opportunity to learn, to grow, to discover, and to venture. And we are taking every hike, every walk, and every step to be part of this adventure.
Firstly, let me say it’s important to note that this is the second time I have left Africa, and this time we have been here for 5 years now. I think it’s important to have those two factors in your mindset when you read my answers to these questions. During that time we had a worldwide pandemic that impacted everyone mentally, never mind the impact of getting Covid if you did, or not.
The hardest moment in my immigration journey – Covid. We immigrated in 2018, and as we all know, the pandemic happened shortly after that. When you leave, you always tell yourself that “If the worst happens, I can hop on a plane and be back here within 24 hours”. Covid proved that that is not correct. You can’t. And it’s not just covid … My mom
turned 60 in 2020, and even though her big surprise birthday bash never went ahead due to covid, it was being planned, and the chances of us making it were growing slimmer and slimmer anyway. It’s really expensive to fly 5 people across the world to take kids out of school during school term. It’s also really difficult to logistically manage to leave your husband and young kids to go on your own, so you end up choosing not to go. Then the pain of missing out and the guilt and jealousy that will eat at you can make you incredibly sad. In those moments, you have to dig deep to remember why you made your choices, and reflect on all the positives of your new life and all the things you have to look forward to. Because the sad reality is that we can’t ever have it all. And that has to be okay.
The top advice
for a family looking to immigrate would be to keep an open mind about the lifestyle and culture of the country you are moving to. Moving to another country and expecting to still be able to carry on living the way you did in Africa is not sustainable. It’s important to have that mindset of ‘I’m going to make it work, and I’m going to do my best to integrate myself into the culture of my new home country’. Let’s face it, once you’ve witnessed an African sunset, you are forever changed. That never leaves you even if you go to bed at night on another continent. However, accepting life in your new country is crucial for your happiness and mental well-being. You can’t expect another country to bend to accommodate you, you have to be the one to bend. You can still have a braai on a hot summer day, and you can still have holidays by the sea, maybe not every day, or every holiday, but you can have it.
I’d say immigration has affected me positively in that I suffer far less from anxiety as a mother
now than I did when I was in South Africa. On the other end of the scale, I’d say that I’ve also had to become a bit harder as a person because immigration is not for the weak or fainthearted. It’s tough. You end up having to decide what you can and can’t manage because here, there is very little if any, family
to fall back on, pick up the pieces, or the slack, or the kids if you’re running late from work. I don’t have the spare mental capacity to put up with petty issues that negatively drain me, because I’m too busy focusing on the here, and now and making sure it’s all working. I guess in a nutshell, you could say that not having family around has been the thing that has negatively affected me, but at the end of the day, it was our choice to move here. Some family members will never understand that. Ever. And a part of you will forever feel guilty that your kids
are growing up away from their grandparents and cousins and that your parents are getting older without you there to help them and without their grandchildren. Obviously, this won’t apply to everyone, but from my perspective, that’s how it has been.
There are a few moments that stand out in our immigration journey. Some of those moments were even before we left. Saying goodbye is ridiculously hard. You will feel excited and sad all at the same time. This is normal but emotionally taxing.
It truly hit me that being across the world meant that when a friend or family member was going through something in their lives (good or bad), I couldn’t just jump in my car and comfort them in 5 minutes. When my aunty’s partner passed away suddenly, I had just arrived in Perth (COVID-19 was very much still a factor in everything that was happening around us) My cousin was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and it broke my heart that I was unable to be with her – it was then that I realized that time differences and things will happen and that I had made the choice to leave. I needed to accept that responsibility and deal with it.
Things that I feel would be helpful advice to anyone looking at immigration/ When looking at immigrating do your research and understand the medical system. When arriving in your country change your driver’s license to the country you are living in because the opportunity will expire, and you do not want to do more tests than you need to. When I arrived, I volunteered at the school canteen to start meeting people and if you ask for recommendations and suggestions people do want to help.
Be open-minded and be prepared for the emotional roller coaster that is immigration. Some days just getting through the day will take all your energy. Do exercise, walk or take a yoga class. YouTube has so many free classes available. Be kind to yourself and self-care is not just a word to be flung around.
I am in month 17 of the immigration journey and I had a big mental moment in month 11. It was Christmas, and I had started a new job that was shift based. My husband was away for work and I was feeling so alone and far away from everyone. It sounds silly. But it was one of the hardest moments of my life. Being an expat is emotionally, physically, and psychologically exhausting. Be sure to give yourself a moment when you need it.
As a South African we live in a country that allows us the freedom to be ourselves, to be expressive in whatever way we want, and to be able to communicate freely what is on our hearts and minds. That quickly changes when you become an expat. Probably the hardest part has been finding my tribe in my new home country.
Being an expat looks incredibly exciting from the outside. Everything is new, but it’s a tough road that requires you to do a lot of research. You also need to understand and commit to your WHY fully. People immigrate for different reasons and each country will present its pros and cons. You will need to make peace with the fact that there will be a lot of compromises along this journey. My last piece of advice is DON’T DON’T DON’T move without having secured a job unless you are financially secure.
I don’t think it’s possible to make a big move like this and not have your mental health affected, to be honest. Leaving everything you have ever known to start a new life (from scratch) certainly takes its toll while you navigate your new home country. Life in Dubai as an expat is incredible however with hundreds of nationalities in one country it’s incredibly easy to offend someone. Personally, I’ve had to dull my light a lot to fit in. As I enter into my 2nd year abroad, I’m now starting to find myself again but the lack of a support system can make this a lonely journey.
There you have it. An insight into what life is like as an expat. Living as an expat can be tough, and the journey can often feel incredibly isolating. In the coming week, I plan to share my personal reflections on how this experience has impacted my family during our latest move.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions. Please feel free to leave them in the comment section below.