Lessons learned by living an expat life

DSC_0760When an employee is starting a new job in a new country, the accompanying spouse is often facing a job free life. In theory this is paradise! But in reality, the ones who loved their job with all the responsibilities, hardships and engagement, find themselves frustrated by not having something purposeful to do. Yes, it’s quite nice going to lunches with new friends, enjoying a manicure or shopping new decorations for the home. But after a while many accompanying expatriates whom I’ve met say that they have a desperate need to “use their brain”. Along with this comes the fear that their career is finished and that these years abroad will be nothing but a drawback to their future chances.

But don’t we learn a lot of things that we could not have learned if we had stayed at home? Have we required any skills that we maybe even could put in our CV? Some weeks ago I asked my expat friends on Facebook about this and I got answers, e-mails and messages from men and women all over the world! Thank you all for your contributions!

Yes. We have learnt a lot!

If I summarize the experiences I would say that living in a new country, a new culture, puts us out of our comfort zone. Suddenly we can’t communicate with the locals in our own language and we have to use body language and smiles to help us do the most ordinary things during the day. We have to be humble and ask for help all the time, because things in this new country are done in other ways and found at other places. Soon we find friends in our new country, mostly expatriates coming from all over the world, and in our discussions we realize that what is bad or good, right or wrong for us most probably look very different for them. They have completely different values and perspectives on things like children’s education, religion, equality, treatment of animals, family life or law and order. “How can she be such a nice person, but have these strange values?”, can be a normal question to ask oneself.

We pretty soon come to understand what people from our own country have in common, cultural things and values that we wouldn’t have noticed until we meet other cultures. Suddenly we can see that not everything in our home country is that logical and perfect. In the beginning we are most probably irritated or even disgusted by how people do things in this new country, but after a while we start to see things their way, we get more patient. We know that things can be done in different ways, that these people also have their truths, ethics and moral – it’s just that they aren’t the same as ours. So how can I be so sure that mine are the correct ones?

After a while we might have learnt some more words in this new language and we have understood more of the “codes”, the unwritten social rules. (I can tell you the Istanbul traffic is full of them!) Interacting with locals and friends from other countries is now a wonderful adventure! Thanks to our new friends it’s much easier to solve all these new problems that arrive every day in a new country. Once again you have to accept that you have to ask for help. Also thanks to our new friends, we start to see ourselves, our home country and even life in a new perspectives. Maybe there are other things in life that are more important than I thought before? Maybe the truths I’ve never questioned are not that good?

The hardest lesson though might be the one concerning loss and grief. Living an expatriate life usually means that we have to leave the rest of our family, friends and colleges for months, sometimes even years. When we meet we know that we will soon part again. And the new friends we get suddenly move or we leave them behind. For our children this might be the biggest problem, so we have to deal with their loss and sadness as well. The good part of this lesson is that we slowly learn to live in the moment and enjoy the friends we have right now.

Honestly I think we can put some of these lessons, specially the more traditional ones, in our CVs:
A new language; basics or advanced, taught by the people in the country.
Intercultural communication; how to interact and communicate with people from other cultures, how to detect the “codes” in a new culture
Critical thinking; how to interpret information based on new observations and experiences
Problem solving; how to constantly find creative solutions, how to ask for help in every moment, often in languages you don’t know
Body language; how ask for help, food, solutions, directions, appointments etc. without any words (and understand the answers!)

Other skills are softer, but not entirely uninteresting to the HR department:
Patience; how not to be upset because things aren’t done the way I am used to, but in a much more complicated and time consuming way
Humbleness; how to realize that my way might not be the only way – and maybe not even the best way!
Thankfulness; how to be grateful for life, laws, environment etc. in our own country
– Self-awareness; how to discover yourself when you are out of your comfort zone, and your country based values when confronted with other peoples’ values
Mindfulness; how to better enjoy the moment and not fear the unpredictable future

Do you recognize yourself in this? Please let me know if you have learnt some other lessons!

Of course also people not living in another culture can learn some of these lessons, but I think the combination is somewhat special to expatriates.

5 thoughts on “Lessons learned by living an expat life

  1. Jörgen Thelin 17 May, 2016 / 17:57

    Great reflections. For sure facing and experience a new culture, country and language should be in everyone’s resume. This is “on the job training” and valuable competences in a job market which require us to be adaptable to new situations. What’s also mantioned as Change Management …

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Michele Nettesheim 17 May, 2016 / 20:43

    Therese, great insight into the life we are leading as expat partners and well said! I do believe we acquire valuable skills that can be used in the workplace!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nina 18 May, 2016 / 08:16

    Väldigt bra skrivet Therese, att leva som Expat har sina för och nackdelar, sina med och motgångar, utmaningar, upplevelser, man ger och man tar och allt detta är i mina ögon något att ta upp i sitt CV vare sig det är av vikt för HR eller inte. Det är ett privilegium att få möjligheten till det vi får göra, många önskar men i verkligheten är vi rätt få. Jag njuter till fullo av min tid som expat, oroar mig inte för framtiden eller vad jag måste få in på min CV. Min egen CV är viktigare att fylla för min egen del inte för någon annan. Det jag lärt mig av mina tre expatuppdrag som medföljande är att 1. Ta inget för givet 2. Ha inte för höga förväntningar på det nya landet/livet/sociala nätet mm du blir bara besviken om det inte blir som du tänkt dig….skapa istället det liv du vill ha i på den nya platsen 🌸

    Liked by 1 person

  4. rosekirbyarnold 25 May, 2016 / 06:01

    Thank you for posting this. Luckily I have found work as an expat who followed her partner but it’s great to think of the skills I have learnt 🙂


  5. landedabroad 14 September, 2016 / 01:05

    Great article! I totally find myself in there 🙂 After almost 10 years of living as an expat I totally agree 🙂


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