Living abroad is a wonderful thing to do. It’s one of the most exciting and fulfilling experiences you will ever get. But it also comes with a lot of challenges and changes. Some are easy to anticipate and to live with, others not that much.
I have been living abroad since 2015 and although this is something I love and would not give up, there are a few things I would have liked to be aware of!
In this article, you will discover the 9 biggest challenges of living abroad. All these things that are different and might be hard to get used to.
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The language barrier literally is a barrier
Being able to speak and communicate with others is something we all take for granted. Up until you move abroad, you don’t actually realise how much of a gift, being able to speak a language, is.
When you move to a foreign country, you usually have to learn a new language (or get used to a new accent and slang at the very least). Even though you may have learnt that language at school, no amount of learning can prepare you for the slap in the face that the language barrier is!
When you find yourself not being capable of understanding or making yourself being understood, you feel helpless and lost.
No better expression could have been given to that feeling. Language barrier is the perfect one. Not being able to speak a language or understand it is the biggest barrier of them all.
Of course, that gets better with time and it even turns into the best thing ever. There is nothing more satisfying than finally being able to speak a language, joke around with people and understand. When you finally reach this stage, it’s like if you were breaking free! Free to finally be your true self, in a foreign country.
You may have to pronounce your name differently
Choosing to live abroad also means being around people who speak a different language or have a different accent. Learning a language is part of the process of expatriation but if there is one thing you will never quite get used to, it’s the way people will say your name.
Whether it’s your first name or your surname, there will always be something different about it. If you are lucky enough to have a fairly international name like Alex or Ben, you will get away with it in most countries. But let’s be honest, we are not all that “lucky”.
We don’t realise it but we say our own name every day. There is always someone to ask what your name is, an appointment to take, a phone call to make… and if you never realised it so far, you will when you live abroad. The reason for that is: people won’t understand it and will repeat it the wrong way.
The first weeks or months are always a bit awkward because you’ve got to explain all the time how to pronounce or write your name. You have to repeat it a lot.
Then it starts to generate stress (yes I am serious). You know this question is going to come and you know it won’t go well because you will have to say it several times, with as many accents as you can. And even after all of that, the person in front will still probably get it wrong. We can’t blame them though, they are not doing it on purpose. They genuinely just can’t pronounce it.
Eventually, you start picking up on a pattern and understand what is an easy way for people to say your name. And by the time you know it, you start saying it like that as well. Your name doesn’t sound anywhere near what it should be anymore but people understand and that alone is worth anything.
“Normal” doesn’t mean the same thing anymore
When we grow up, we learn how the world works and we naturally assume this is the normal way. When you start living abroad, you realise that what was normal so far is actually not always normal everywhere. For example, it’s normal for shops to be opened on Sunday in Australia. In France or Spain, it’s normal for shops to be closed on Sundays.
All these tiny changes will actually have a huge impact on your life. Because we build our routine and life around what we think is normal. But when “normal” becomes abnormal, we have to figure out a way to change our habits to accommodate that newly discovered normality. You may think that we all kind of live the same way or that we don’t have any assumption of what normal is, but we do.
Here are another few examples of “normal vs normal” that will show you how much it will impact your life.
- In the USA, medical costs are very expensive and you will be given a bill every time you see a doctor. In the UK, most cares are free. In France, medical cares are free but you have to pay them upfront and will be reimbursed in the next few days.
- A train ticket in the UK is the same price whether it’s single way or return. In Italy, you pay each way individually. A return ticket will simply be twice the price of a return ticket.
- In France, petrol is way more expensive than diesel. In the UK, diesel is way more expensive than petrol.
Dealing with paperwork can be a nightmare
Moving abroad generally comes with a massive heap of paperwork to sort out. A visa will obviously be the first thing but is far from being the last one. Once you get to your new country, you will have a lot to sort out and most of the time you won’t even know you need to do it until someone tells you to. And when it comes to actually do it, you won’t have a clue how. But that’s ok! You will always figure it out!
Social security number, taxes, bank, accommodation, work… it’s a lifetime of paperwork to sort out!
We don’t realise how much paperwork we need to do just to be able to live a normal life. This fact can be explained by several factors. First of all, we generally don’t do everything ourselves. We might think we are independent big boys and girls but in reality, our parents sorted out a hell of a lot before we got a chance to even know about it. Second, we generally don’t have to do everything at once. Things come naturally, one at a time.
When you move abroad, you start everything back from scratch and all these things have to be done at the same time. The good news though, you become a paperwork ninja!
You will struggle to speak your own native language
Yes, you read correctly! Learning a new language might be a hard task but keeping a high level in your native language is not easy either. We all assume that because it’s our native language it comes naturally and it’s impossible to ever forget it.
This is actually not quite right. Of course, we will always understand it and it will always make sense. However, it won’t come as naturally anymore. When you speak a foreign language every day, you get used to new ways of structuring your sentences and words. Without even noticing it, you will start to translate these new structures into your native language.
But the thing you will notice the most is the loss of idioms. All these little expressions, that made the way you speak so fluent, don’t come to mind as they used to. Your sentences are still correct but less complex and pleasant to listen to.
You will miss the food!
Food is such an important part of our culture. We are used to eating certain things and cook in a certain way. When we move abroad, we discover a completely different food culture. Depending on the country it can be better or worse. Regardless, it means that all these things you were used to eating won’t always be available. The solution to that is generally to make it from scratch but even then you won’t always be able to find the ingredients.
This will be hard at times because food is one of those things that make us feel at home. There is good news though. You will get access to a whole new food culture and discover plenty of amazing dishes. You will incorporate these new recipes into your way of cooking and this will shape your food habits in a very unique way.
All these things will change your life in a way you never thought it would but this is an adventure. An adventure for a new life. Sometimes challenging but always fulfilling!
You will get homesick from time to time
Even though you will create your own life in your new home country, it is very likely that you will feel homesick from time to time. Being away from home, your family and friends can get to you in a way that you don’t expect.
This one may be obvious for some people but it’s not for everyone.
I left home quite young as I went to boarding school when I was 14. I’ve always been very independent and never felt homesick. Yet, since I moved to a foreign country, that’s a feeling I became more familiar with. Of course, this is not a permanent thing. You don’t feel homesick every day. If you do then you may want to reconsider this living abroad business as it may not be for you.
Homesickness is cheeky. You don’t think you miss home until it hits you. It’s usually triggered by something small actually. For example, a friend might send you a photo of a typical food or you see a photo on Facebook of your nephew walking for the first time… this kind of things.
At that point, you realise that you are missing out on a lot of things. Everyone keeps living their life and so they should but you are not part of it as much as you were.
Thankfully, this doesn’t last. It comes and goes. Also, it takes an equal detail to turn it over. Sometimes you will feel homesick but then you will get a phone call from one of your friend here in your new country, asking you if you fancy grabbing a beer and at that point, the magic happens. You completely forget about your homesickness and you realise how lucky and happy you are here!
Dealing with the culture shock
This one is quite interesting. That’s one of the most commonly mentioned difficulties of living abroad however, most people only take it into consideration when they go far away and to a country with a culture fundamentally different.
This is a mistake!
You will have to deal with the culture shock everywhere! The culture shock might not be as sudden if you move from France to Spain as if you were to move from France to Vietnam but it will be there!
More importantly, it’s not always a brutal shock! What I mean by that is that you will probably not be struck by the differences, you will learn them slowly slowly and it will never stop. Even after 10 years in a new country, you will still be surprised by some cultural habits.
The issue with that is that you start making a lot of faux pas without noticing it. This means that you may find yourself in some awkward situation. And the longer you are in a country, the more awkward it gets. After a few years, people just assume you know everything about your new country and stop telling you things. So when you do make mistakes, people are less patient with you and get confused.
For example, punctuality is important in the UK. In France, not so much. As a matter of fact, showing up on time at a party would be considered rude. In the UK, showing up late will be considered rude.
This is a habit that is hard to change so at the beginning, I would always show up late. So much so that my friends got used to it and never told me how rude I was. It took years for someone to break the news to me. At this point, it was like falling off a tree. In the space of 2 minutes, I realised that I had offended loads of people over the years! What was I supposed to do? Apologise for being late at a party 3 years ago? You see… awkward!
Making friends can be hard
This is one of the most common difficulties of living abroad: how can I make friends? This is not the easiest thing, that’s true but it’s not as hard as you may think.
Moving to a new place is challenging and it can be hard for people to make friends. If you don’t speak the language, are shy and have never moved before, it will be quite difficult for you.
People who always lived in the same place and never really had to make friends as they met everyone at school or work won’t know where to start. This means it will take more time but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
Making friends abroad also feels quite hard because it takes time. When you arrive in a new country, you have a lot of things to deal with. Everything requires a lot of concentration which can be draining. Between that and the loneliness, you feel the need to have friends even more and the more time it takes, the harder it feels. On top of that, meeting new people is not enough. It takes time to build a true friendship and you can’t expect to be friends with everyone you meet straight away.
Here are some tips to make friends quickly:
- Rent a room in a shared-house. This is the best way to make friends abroad quickly. As much as having housemates can be difficult, it’s also good fun and that means you always have people around. Flatmates are usually more than happy to help you and give you advice. That also means you have people to talk to, eat with and go out with. This will tremendously reduce the feeling of loneliness.
- Go to some meetups. Meet Up is an app and website where you can find groups and events. You can join some groups (depending on your interests) and then go to their meetups. For expats, I particularly recommend the language meetups and walking groups. But you will find all sorts of themes so you should be able to find something that suits you very quickly.
- Sign up with a club or classes. This can be anything such as sport, painting, drawing… Anything you may be interested in learning will do. If you sign up for classes or a club, you will meet new people who share the same interest. This is a great way to make friends.
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