Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sometimes Being an Expat Sucks Series Part 1: When You're Lonely

I've gone through my share of challenges in my 5 years abroad, but no move was as tough as my relocation to Bavaria, when I came as a trailing spouse. As I struggled to make a home for myself over the past year and a half, I found that most expats I met were going through the same things I was. Just last week I met some girlfriends for lunch to catch up and one of them commented, "I'm so glad I met all of you. This place got SO much better once I had some friends." We all agreed wholeheartedly, and it got me thinking I should reach out to all of you who might be in that place right now.

I'm calling this series "Sometimes Being an Expat Sucks". It might sound harsh, but when you're in the middle of these issues, it really can suck. So first up, I'm going to talk about a common problem with recently relocated expats-dealing with being lonely.

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I love being an expat. I realize how blessed I am to have the experiences and opportunities that I have had in the last few years. But sometimes, it can be really hard. You're far away from family and friends, you have to contend with a foreign culture (and sometimes a foreign language!) and if you're a trailing spouse, you can spend a lot of time alone while your significant other is at work, wondering what on earth you're doing with your life besides sitting in your apartment with no one but your house plant for company. It's rough.

Look, living abroad is not an easy choice. From the outside it looks exotic and glamorous, traveling all the time and living in a foreign locale, but the reality is, it can get lonely. It can be frustrating. It takes a while to build up a new life in a new place-to find new friends and a sense of purpose. 


Though I've learned to love my expat life in Bavaria, that wasn't always the case. This time last year I was seriously unhappy and really wondering if moving to Bavaria had been the right choice for me. It's hard to admit that, because at the time I didn't want anyone from home to know the truth. I didn't want them to worry, I didn't want people saying "I told you so", and I didn't want to admit that I felt like I'd failed.

Part of the problem was that I had unrealistic expectations. I figured it would take 3 months to get settled in and make a home here (HAH!). But when I arrived in Bavaria, it was the dead of winter, I had no car, and lived in the middle of nowhere. Meeting another woman my age without kids was like finding a unicorn. Fionn worked long hours and searching for a job was frustrating and fruitless in our rural community.

Some days were VERY frustrating

Fast forward 5 months and I was pretty miserable. We went back to America for our second wedding and I spent an amazing 6 weeks with my friends and family. I felt like I could breathe again. Then all too soon, we were back on a plane to Bavaria.

A week after we returned we had to go to one of Fionn's work functions. One of his coworkers joked to Fionn that he should talk to me more because I was sitting by myself looking absolutely miserable. When Fionn relayed the joke to me later that night, I felt like crying. I WAS miserable. I was desperately homesick and felt so lonely and forgotten here in our new home. No job, no friends, no creative outlet for my music or my writing...what was I doing here??

It took getting to that breaking point 8 months into my expat life to realize I had to change something instead of waiting for my situation to change. Fionn was frustrated, I was frustrated, and I was just tired of being unhappy. So I gave myself a challenge: every day for a month I would try to do something new.

For a month I said yes to anything. Polymer clay class? Sure. Protestant women's group? Ok. Meet up with non military expats 45 minutes away? I'll be there. Introduce myself to the other 20-something girl sitting alone at the cafe on post? Hi, my name is Shannon.


Then something amazing happened. I started hearing the same story over and over again. All the women I met also felt lost and lonely in a foreign land. They craved the same connection I did, and they were just as happy as me to finally have a friend to meet for coffee or a chat. And suddenly, I had friends. I got invited to play music in a local band. When the guys were in the field for weeks at a time, I invited the other childless girls to my house for dinner and Friends marathon.

Basically, it got better. Though I still get homesick or frustrated with Germany some times, I am so much happier here. I feel like I have a life here, and it made such an amazing difference in my expat experience.


Of course, everyone's expat situation is different. Maybe you're geographically isolated or don't speak the language, but don't let that keep you down. In the age of the internet, don't miss out on connecting with other expat women online who can identify with what you're going through. The expat blogging community is full of amazingly friendly and helpful women that I wish I had known this time last year. Heck, send me an email! I have been there and I know that sometimes a sympathetic ear can make the worst culture shock meltdown day better. I've been in your shoes and I'm happy to help!

With that said, here are the things I wish I could go back in time and tell myself plus anyone else who is struggling in their new expat life!

1. Be kind to yourself. Stop beating yourself up because you don't feel completely at home and comfortable in a foreign place. Give yourself lots of time, allow yourself to have days where you cry in the shower cause you're just so TIRED of everything being different, and cut yourself some slack if things don't change right away. You can't replace a lifetime of friends, memories, and cultural understanding in a few months.

2. Reach out to others in your situation. This can be online or in the real life. These women are going through the same thing you are and are probably feeling the same way. They want friends, familiarity, and a sense of belonging. On the flip side, if you're an established expat, pay it forward and reach out to the newbie in your group. You might be the helping hand who pulls her up. I still remember the person who did this for me and am SO grateful!

3. Be brave. You've already moved to a foreign country! You ARE brave! The adventure has only just begun. Muster up a little more courage and look for ways to plug in to your new community. Invite a new acquaintance to coffee. Join a club. Take a class in your host nation's language. Just try! Just don't stay in the house!

4. It's OK to be homesick. Home is still home. You're not a failure if you miss your mom, your circle of friends, or being able to walk into Target and get exactly what you want. It's ok to still love and miss where you come from, as long as you don't spend all your time dwelling on it.

5. Nothing will change without ACTION. This is the big mistake I made. Sitting in my house being unhappy didn't change anything about my situation. You have to try to make a change. If you start actively trying to change your situation, things will start happening!

I know I have a lot of expat ladies who read the blog. Do y'all have any tips? Did you go through the lonely/frustrated phase? I'd love to hear your comments!

Next up in the series-Part 2: When You Have No Creative Outlet

21 comments :

  1. New follower here and I just wanted to say "amen"! Great post, and I couldn't agree more. It's okay to not have an amazing day every day, but it's equally as important to not sit and wallow in it when you're down. Make the changes that need to be made and see what happens. Well put. :)

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    1. Hi and welcome! I'm glad you liked it. Sometimes making the first step is the hardest part, but it's really worth it!

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  2. I'm in this right now! I think it's interesting to read your side as I find it hard because I do have a child. It seems that I'm more isolated because I can't come and go as I please and I meet so many people without children. It's funny how things work out. I am trying to be brave and go to a Playgroup even though that's not really my thing. But I thought, hey why not...maybe I'll meet some nice people! Great series!

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    1. Whoo! I'm so glad you're trying to get out there. I know that is the hardest part, when you're trying and it's like argh I hate being the new guy. But I'm sure those friends will come along. That is the good thing about expat circles-everyone is new and wants to make friends, so I feel like it happens faster. Hang in there, girl! :)

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  3. What a great post, and I have gone to the bathroom at events and totally cried alone because I felt so out of place and alone. Now two years in those moments for the most part have gone but like you said it was because I made changes. One of the best things I did was find some hobbies and put faith in them and the confidence I was good at them and therefore with my time. One other thing that helped was my husband started school and instead of being at work with people who were older, due to his field he was one of the only male workers and below 50, he met men and women in his program that we both get along with so now we can make plans for the weekend instead of just staring at eachother all the time!

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    1. Oh man, I have totally been there too! That is such a hard place to be in. I'm glad you were able to find things that kept you busy and find a good friend group. Blogging has definitely been a big help for me (and I'm sure you too!). Thanks for commenting! :)

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    2. I have been there and it does suck. I just can't find my place in the already established groups!

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  4. Ugh, I'm wallowing right now. Thanks for reminding me that it's okay to feel like crap every now and then. We have ups and downs, happy days (yesterday for me) and sad days (I've been crying on the couch for three hours). We'll all get to a point where we become more comfortable. It'll just take some time and effort. This post is fantastic.

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    1. I still have those days. Sometimes being so far from home and not having a firm identity in a new place can really take its toll. When I was really unhappy here, just making it through the day without crying was a victory for me. It sucks, but it just takes time to adjust. Don't worry about the setbacks, tomorrow could be a totally different day :)

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  5. Yes, yes, yes. I agree wholeheartedly. There are some days I say screw it and sit in the house, the thought of going out and trying to interact in either Dutch or English just making me sick to my stomach. I've made some great friends nearby and online, but some days it's still very draining just being some place different from "home". I think your first point is one of the most important - it's so easy to blame yourself for feeling down or incompetent or lost, but really you need to realize it's hard for anybody in a new place/culture/language. Thanks for showing it's ok to talk about it! Thank goodness for the internet - I don't know how people did it years ago!

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    1. I was a little nervous to post this but I'm so glad I've had such a positive response! The longer I'm abroad the more I find that everyone goes through rough times. I think it's good to break the silence and admit that this life isn't easy and that it's not our fault if things aren't sunshine and rainbows all the time.

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  6. Thanks for writing this, Shannon. I'm definitely there some days - just this morning I was reading a letter about my ID number or something and it's just SO frustrating, and it feels like I'm NEVER going to be able to function like a normal person here like I did back 'home'... but... I'm being patient. :)

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    1. I feel ya. I've been in Bavaria almost 2 years and I still have bad days. I just can't let myself get overwhelmed by the negative. It just takes time to adjust!

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  7. What a BRILLIANT post (thanks Ace for the recommendation). Seriously, we are often so afraid of being honest and you just hit the nail on the expat head. Whhhhhhhhoshga.
    I am not (yet) board, as I am only in the beginning of my expat journey and I have a 1 year old. BUT I need to make friends, and so does he and I scared about that idea. You've inspired me to be brave... just not yet. Thanks for sharing. xx

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    1. I hope your expat adventure goes smoothly! Just take your time in the beginning. The worst part of moving to a new place is that "dating" of new friends stage. But maybe your little guy can be a good icebreaker! :)

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  8. This is the second time I've read this, and I don't know why I didn't leave a comment. It's so true "5. Nothing will change without ACTION. This is the big mistake I made. Sitting in my house being unhappy didn't change anything about my situation. You have to try to make a change. If you start actively trying to change your situation, things will start happening!"
    It's so easy to sit on your behind not doing anything, wondering why nothing is happening. I did it for far too long... far, far too long!

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  9. Thanks for the post it's really helpful, I'm 6 months in and having a bad day! I have that I hate this place and just want to go home feeling! What I would like to know is how to actually get out there, I've been to groups and met people but don't seem to really be able to click with anyone and then haven't been back. Found it is more like I'm going to show my partner that I'm trying more so than actually trying for myself! Wow, sorry for the rant there! Any advice would be greatly appreciated x

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  10. I love your honesty and truth in what you say. I have felt the same way and sometimes still do. Looking forward to part 2.

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  11. I just randomly found your blog. I'm an expat based in Jakarta at the moment. I moved here about 8 months ago but still having the ups and downs. I'm actually homesick for our last country (which we were in for 5 years), south korea. I worked in south korea, but here in Indonesia I'm basically the same as you, a childless trailing spouse. Like you mentioned, finding another person in the same boat as me, as in around my age, expat, with no kids, is pretty much like finding a needle in a haystack. But you know what, I actually got right out there when I first arrived and found not one but three. The problem, they all promptly ended up leaving for new places...and boy does that suck!! I do have a small sideline of an etsy shop and my blog to keep me occupied but there's days where I just can't motivate myself to get off the couch and of course then is when the lonliness and sadness sets in. It's nice to read someone else knows and understands those feelings. Like you said, it's not something you can discuss with people back home, (after all what we post on Facebook (and blogs) always looks so great right!!) and that makes it all the harder sometimes.

    I'll be following your blog, feel free to stop by mine sometime :)

    Amelia http://www.ducklingtoswan.com

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  12. Thanks for the amazing post.. I have been for a year in Bavaria now and have spent lots of teary nights.. currently on vacation, your post did remind me of my misery and brought tears to my eyes again.. I haven't been able to tell my family that I feel lonely and miserable. I haven't been able to muster enough courage to join a dance school wondering if I would understand the instructions in German.. but I also decided to make a change.. will start interacting with other expats.. your post gives me the courage to believe that there are others out there who are going through a similar phase.. thank you for giving me hope :)

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    1. Hang in there! I know it's tough during those transitional times. It might even be hard going to a dance class and slogging through the awkward new kid phase. But who knows-you can try it out and end up meeting new friends and improving your German, which is worth a shot, right? :) I hope things improve for you. Just remember you are NOT alone in feeling like this. This post is my most popular one on the whole blog. I wish I had known back then that so many people were going through the same thing!

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