Being yourself somewhere else, being home elsewhere: tips from expatriation to help you cope with change
I am one of the 1.8 million French people living outside France. It all began in 2012, when I was in my second year at Sciences Po Paris. We were told that you had to go abroad in the third year, the final step to take before getting your bachelor's degree. At that point, anywhere in the world was potentially an option. I was given the opportunity to go far away, so I chose Shanghai, which I found at the time to be both a reassuring and exciting combination of Western countries and an Eastern world that I simply couldn't imagine. I remembered (very recently, in fact) what I had promised myself, when I was little: to travel a lot. I used to travel through time and space, mesmerized by the thousand-year-old civilizations illustrated in my books. This apparently nourished my ambitions of discovering the world growing up.
So there I am, six years after my third year, and I have visited China, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, India. I have also lived in Shanghai, Beijing and then Stockholm, until I landed in Hong Kong with my husband, where we decided to settle for his post-doctorate. We were looking forward to an adventure together in Asia.
With my modest experience in travelling abroad, I realized I gained a lot by being an expatriate: I now have a better understanding of who I am, what I am ready to accept, how I behave in one situation or another, my strengths and weaknesses. Apart from the romanticism associated with expatriation, I also found myself in difficult situations, including the stress that comes with it. I went through periods of temporary depression. This is not surprising: a study published in 2011 in the IJHP (International Journal of Health and Productivity) showed that expatriates are 2.5 times more likely to show signs of depression than those who choose to stay in the United States. This is due to several reasons (developed in this report by Aetna International, an international mutual health insurance company); mainly due to the lack of availability of support from relatives, the inability to participate in activities practiced in the country of origin, or the language barrier and cultural differences.
The aim of this article is therefore to demystify expatriation, explore the difficulties I faced, what I gained from it, and above all to share the tips that helped me when I was not okay -- because expatriation is above all a drastic change in a life. Some of the lessons I learned from my time as an expatriate have helped me in other difficult situations. I hope that they can also help you if you are going through a rough patch linked to a considerable change in your life, at home or elsewhere.
Be ready to get lost, and head out anyway
First of all, I think it is important to highlight the not-so-obvious distinction between expatriation and academic exchange because many people have a very positive view of expatriation based on what they have experienced during an exchange programme or what they have heard from people who have done so. In my opinion, this gives an idealized and false image of this experience. While going on an exchange gives you a framework, an administrative support, some sort of freedom (or a lot of freedom, depending on whether you decide to attend classes or not), a given social circle (your classmates or students from your school who go abroad with you, the international students in your hostel), and a return date. Leaving and trying to find a job abroad means being alone (or with only one other person in the case of a couple) and facing yourself and your partner, as well as the inevitable issues that will arise.
So, as expected, my experience so far in Hong Kong has been quite different from my experiences in Shanghai and Beijing, since I have no clear goal other than “living in Hong Kong”. So all the questions have come up about what I want to do, especially having graduated from an elite univeristy like Sciences Po Paris (it's a story for another day, but it certainly didn't help). I had a sort of “writer’s block” or rather a “fear of the blank page”. I was fortunate to be on the other side of the world, but I didn't know which path to take. Above all, I became “the wife who followed her husband” in the eyes of other people. I must say, I used to dread those moments when new acquaintances would turn to me after my husband explained he was doing a post-doctorate in Applied Mathematics, even though the decision to go to Hong Kong was made by the both of us.
Despite everything, I knew forging ahead was the most important thing. Regardless of the direction. While exploring an eco-friendly market for sustainable products, I met two women who had launched their own start-up. I approached them at the end of their conversation and that's how I ended up finding some work (albeit unpaid). At the same time, Lucie, the founder of Insane, was looking for testimonies and translators. I had always wanted to try my hand at translation, and I thought I could contribute to her articles. So, I sent her a short email, and you know the rest!
Despite everything, I knew forging ahead was the most important thing. Regardless of the direction.
I realized what had made my years abroad as an undergraduate amazing, is the people I had met. When I arrived in Hong Kong, the first thing I wanted to do was meet people, I needed to get out of bed and fight the feelings of inertia and apathy that come with the "fear of the blank page". It may seem trivial, but I needed a rhythm and/or a purpose. Something like learning a language, trying something new (I started singing), going to a specialty store to buy something special, learning to cook local dishes, walking instead of taking the subway so I could discover the city... In short, creating moments where I could be proud of myself and say "I achieved something today!" or "I did something fulfilling today and I'm happy!", even something as "ordinary" as talking to my sister on the phone. Every evening I wrote down the "3 things that stood out for me", that had marked my day, in a diary. It helped me focus more on the positive whenever a little voice inside me told me that I wasn't going to accomplish anything in life.
Never assume expatriation is a solution
When I started reading articles on mental disorders and the stress associated with expatriation, I realized that going through all these emotions was normal. The adaptation process begins with a phase of disillusionment, which is precisely what I want to highlight in this article. NO, it is not easy to pack your bags and leave home for another country. In many ways, living in another country is a major cause of stress due to all the upheavals, responsibilities, administrative procedures, and all the difficulties one faces. What is also made clear in psychologists' articles on expatriation is that it is never a solution to a problem; one should not leave with the idea that it is possible to simply forget to put the problem in the suitcase. For instance, it is not advisable to move abroad after a proven episode of depression.
NO, it is not easy to pack your bags and leave home for another country. In many ways, living in another country is a major cause of stress…
As for me, it was already hard enough to find my way before I left. Leaving for Hong Kong clearly didn't help. I found myself talking a lot with my sister, who was also at a turning point in her life, because she was re-training for a new job. We found a lot of similarities between what I was feeling and the period of reflection she had gone through before she embarked on a new career as an interior designer. She then recommended a podcast that helped me a lot, which I highly recommend, too: "Change my life, useful tips for the mind". These are small 20-minute episodes (in French) giving real keys to get better or think differently. The episodes that impressed me the most (but I didn't listen to everything) are episodes 113 on intuition, 104 on the impostor syndrome, but especially episodes 103, on how to believe something else, and 102, on the confirmation bias.
Expatriation also means suddenly finding yourself alone, even if you leave with someone, since we are dealing with situations we have never experienced before (when was the last time you had to order a taxi in Mandarin in the middle of the night because your drunk roommate had a 1cm-deep gash in his leg, which he was responsible for, and had to be taken to a Chinese public hospital with questionable hygienic conditions, in a consulting room where everyone could come and go, and see what was going on? And realise you have to pay the full cost of the operation on the spot, in cash, at 4am...). What I gained from all these experiences was being able to accept finding myself temporarily in an unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable situation. I now worry less about things I can't control, I tell myself that no matter where I get lost, somehow, I am going to get somewhere.
Nevertheless, for a successful expatriation, it is important to psychologically prepare the necessary groundwork beforehand (as this wonderful guide by Marina Díaz, in French, recommends). I also believe that this requires at least some degree of self-confidence and confidence in the future, as well as the ability to put your trust in others, to be ready to accept the fact that things don't always go as planned, that you don’t necessarily react the way you would have liked to, and that you don’t always have the wit to handle this or that situation. Expatriation reflects who you are, it exposes all those weaknesses that you have managed to hide so well, and/or that are hidden beneath the familiar routines of daily life. In a nutshell, being an expatriate reminds you every day, and at every moment possible, that you are only human, and that you must deal with it. This is precisely what leads you to live an extraordinary experience.
I now worry less about things I can't control, I tell myself that no matter where I get lost, somehow, I was going to get somewhere.
Be patient with yourself
There are many things that simply have to be learned again, your way of living (talking, reading, writing, eating, shopping, having a coffee, finding shampoo...), with all the frustrations and challenges that come with it. ("HOW COME A 50G SLICE OF CAMEMBERT COSTS 7€ HERE?"). After a while, you find substitutes, then you discover that these substitutes are better than the real deal, then you create a new daily routine. You just take baby steps, try it in different ways, don't get too excited nor discouraged. In the end, you get there, you adapt. You have to accept the new things, the new failures, having to "start from scratch" even with the most basic things, then you realize that perseverance pays off in the end.
I think the fact that you have to learn these basic habits again is precisely why expatriation is perceived as being easy. You just have to live, but abroad, right? Life at home seems easy: you wake up, you take your car or the subway, you work, you eat, you go out for a drink with friends, you have dinner, you watch something on TV or Netflix, then you go to bed. When you are in another country, you realize that many of the steps I have just listed are far from easy, they require a considerable effort to be able to accomplish it the way you want, if at all. That's why one of Marina Díaz's best pieces of advice is not to have very high expectations of the experience: It' s not suddenly going to be easy and awesome, but in the end, you'll adapt, without a doubt.
Life seems at home easy: you wake up, you take the car or the subway, you work, you eat, you go out for a drink with friends, you have dinner, you watch something on TV or Netflix, then you go to bed. When you are in another country, you realize that many of the steps I have just listed are far from easy, they require a considerable effort to be able to accomplish, if at all, the way you want.
All of this is not simple. It's actually physically and mentally exhausting, you often find yourself thinking "I don't feel like taking the subway today for an hour to go to the city centre, especially considering the level of pollution. I'm just going to order food by Wechat [an instant messaging service used in China] and stay in bed”, and that's okay. It's okay to have a hard time, to be sad for no apparent reason, to be fed up with eating rice at every meal, to be ready to pay 25€ for a piece of frangipane-filled "king cake", or to make close friends who share your culture, because of course, it's more convenient.
At first, focusing on learning a foreign language is also particularly exhausting. It is therefore important to listen to yourself, and to find a balance between your thirst for discovery and your comfort zone, because it is precisely in contrast to your comfort zone that you'll want to explore more. Being an expatriate does not mean constantly seeking cultural experiences or meeting people from other cultures. For me, going abroad means increasing your chances of living a different kind of life and being exposed to another culture in order to achieve personal development, but you always have a choice. The goal is not to replace a certain way of life or who you are as a person.
Don't blame everything on "homesickness"
When you're an expatriate and you're not okay, you've got an explanation at the ready: homesickness. Personally, I think you have to be careful with the word "homesickness" for several reasons.
First of all, it is the easiest explanation to give people around you, whether family and friends back home, locals or expatriates themselves. It is an easy, understandable, and above all legitimate explanation. For example, it is easier to say, "I'm homesick" than "I don't like it here / I don't feel good here / I don't like being an expatriate". The difference is subtle, but it is there. Like I said earlier, the expatriation myth is somewhat like the motherhood myth (in French), that such an experience is either a success or a failure. One inevitably has to enjoy being an expat, otherwise something is wrong with them. In our collective imagination, expatriation is so intrinsically linked to qualities such as strength of character, flexibility, open-mindedness, curiosity, self-discovery, so much so that the inability to appreciate the experience automatically means that you are lacking one or more, if not all, of these qualities.
Homesickness is also the expatriate's favourite excuse. When you don't feel well, and you are tormented by the prejudices you have about expatriation, you tell yourself that you miss home, your family, or your friends. Sometimes it's the case, of course, but sometimes other reasons are at work when things are not going well, you simply can't figure out why, you quickly blame it on homesickness without looking any further. It is therefore important to remember that having a moment of weakness is normal, but that you should not downplay or simplify things for your family and friends or even for yourself by saying that "it's just homesickness, it will pass".
Regarding what I mentioned earlier, the reason why you felt bad in your country isn’t going to disappear just because you no longer eat cheese or because you start using chopsticks. You have to talk about it, find the cause of the problem, and don't hesitate to ask for help from relatives, or a professional before leaving or during the trip. There is also a network of therapists (in French) who provide expatriates with the help they need to cope in any country they find themselves.
The two proverbs that keep me going
The most valuable lesson I have learned from my expatriation experiences is that it is far from easy, you find yourself confronted with unfamiliar and frightening situations, which can be stressful and emotionally draining. Sometimes you get stuck, even lost, yet the most important thing is to never forget that it is only temporary. For example, when I found myself in Stockholm, and didn't know for sure if we could go back to Hong Kong considering the current events at the time, this helped me every day. It helped me when my dad was ill, and when we found ourselves dealing with the legal issues after his death. Indeed, it was only temporary.
To deal with these unfamiliar situations and changes, I have found two mantras that I repeat to myself when I feel lost: "Not all those who wander are lost…" a phrase from a poem by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings, and a Chinese proverb, "骑驴找" (qi lü zhao ma) which could be translated as "ride a donkey to find a horse", and which reminds me that I need to be confident and patient with myself. These two proverbs help me deal with uncertainty when travelling abroad, or when I can no longer handle the fact that I'm still finding myself.
Not all those who wander are lost
Yet, I don't see myself going back to live in Paris or France for many reasons. The main one being that, in spite of everything, I learn as much about the host country as I do about myself when abroad. I have learned to live with the ups and downs. Ultimately, I can still be the little girl who dreamed of distant lands and thousand-year-old civilizations.
- On risks to the mental health of exchange students
- Some additional advice before you leave your country
- Find a psychiatrist online here (one of many examples)