What They Don’t Tell You About Becoming An Expat

I made a mistake. After moving 10 thousand miles from home by myself, I thought it would be a good idea to take a quick trip to a new city*. I thought it would be easy, exciting, enchanting. Instead, I felt farther from home than ever. Lonely and bored at times, I reached out to friends trying to explain what was happening when I realized that what I was feeling couldn’t be verbalized – it was too complicated and nuanced. I’m not sad. I don’t regret my move for a minute. But moments like these get introspective FAST!

Before moving, I knew that it would feel like vacation for a while and then the shine would wear off. I knew that it would take some time to make real friends. I knew that it would be an entirely fresh start, for better or worse. As happy I as really am, there are things I couldn’t have known before making the international move that I wish I had known:

  1. There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely. 
    1. I love being alone. I love having it my way, when I want, how I want. I cherish my time curling up with a book or wandering around the city with my own thoughts. But what many people don’t understand that solitude is a different beast from loneliness. Loneliness hurts. Loneliness is longing for connection, for wanting to share thoughts, bites, laughs with someone else. On the trip I just went on, my companion was loneliness and its sidekick boredom. Of course, I had activities lined up and places I wanted to see; I did everything on my check-list. But because I had already made a solitary leap by moving in the first place, this trip was like a shoot down the tunnel of loneliness. While the imbalance of solitude-to-social is very top heavy at the beginning of a move, I know that it isn’t permanent. If you move, please remind yourself of that.

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      Alone on the jetty toward St. Kilda Pier in Melbourne, VIC.
  2. The blissful honeymoon state doesn’t last long. 
    1. Sure, adrenaline is greatest drug of all time. So it’s not unexpected when the come down hits. It’s not painful or sad or anything else. It’s just that it was surprising how quickly it happens. I thought the honeymoon state would last longer.
  3. You’re not interesting just because you’re new. 
    1. Am I the only one who fantasizes about conversations I’ll have before they happen? Before I moved, I pictured striking up a simple conversation with someone who overheard my speaking and asked if I was American and proceeded to tell me how amazing that is and welcome to this country and here’s where you have to eat and you should live here… Needless to say, this did not happen. When I do say that I moved from NYC, my conversation mate inevitably has some kind of connection, whether it’s a crush on the city or a friend who moved there or a love for SATC. In any case, once that has been established, the conversation ends; if you want to continue talking, you gotta have something more interesting about yourself to contribute than the simple fact that you just moved here from a cool city.
  4. FOMO doesn’t happen often. 
    1. Honestly, I don’t miss home much. Don’t let your friends or family make you feel like you should. Of course it’s disappointing that I can’t be there to share the laughs, joys, celebrations, or the opposite tears of sorrow, hurt, or hugs of support the way I would have if I still lived in America. But on a day-to-day basis, my life is rolling along just like everyone else’s.

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      Busy being a tourist on Hosier Lane in Melbourne’s CBD.
  5. A delicious cure for boredom is eating… a lot. 
    1. Especially in a city that prides itself on its foodie culture, down time becomes chowing down time. Have an open afternoon? Eat. Need to get out of the house? Eat. Want to sit down because you’ve been walking all day? Eat. No matter how you slice it, the easiest way to spend your time before you commit to a job is by eating your way through the city. I like to think that I balance it with a healthy mix of gym-trials and city walking… it all works out in the end, right?!unnamed-1
  6. Americans are the most coddled people on the planet.
    1. Oh man oh man oh man. There are too many examples of this to name. But let’s take this one: if I see a baby wobbling, fall, and begin to cry because he scraped his baby knees, his parents walk – not rushing – over and tell him that he’s fine. There’s no “oh my precious angel baby, are you OK?!?!” And when it comes to adults, not every culture has the same amount of feelings-sharing and openness as we do in America. So I certainly can’t expect anyone here to coddle me the way I could have with my friends at work, friends from childhood, or family.
  7. Shit happens. 
    1. Obviously. This is one of the cardinal rules of life. Before I moved, I anticipated a certain amount of things going wrong. When I took the trip I was discussing earlier, I had already dealt with shit things happening. But when I got in trouble with transit authority because of an innocent misunderstanding, I was beside myself. I cried in public. I ended up calling my Dad who reminded me that shit happens for a few reasons: because you get cocky and stop paying attention, because you ignore the rules and warnings, or because you try to do the right thing but it just doesn’t go right. Even when you know that shit happens (and you know the other cardinal rule: when it rains, it pours), you have to remind yourself that there are very few situations that are actually inescapable. At least I moved to a country where I speak the language and feel safe!
  8. No one has been on your exact journey. 
    1. You might know people who have moved. You might know people who have moved to your chosen country. But you will not know anyone who moved for the reasons you did, on the visa you did, or at the time you did. Everyone’s case is different. Your experiences – positive or negative – might not be comparable to most of your friends or family’s bad days. But the minute you start saying “you don’t understand,” you isolate yourself. If you have friends or family who are trying to help you, listen to you, give advice to you, and be a source of support for you, TAKE IT. They might not get it entirely. They might not get it even a little bit. But when you have people in your life who want to stay on the journey with you, embrace it… and make sure you do the same for them. (To my friends and family who have been there for me to offer their suggestions and love, I cannot thank you enough.)
  9. Don’t get frustrated when your friends and family ask you the types of questions they would have back home.
    1. When I moved, one of my biggest goals was to make work part of my life but not my identity. So I get frustrated when my people back home ask me over and over about work. It takes time to realize that just because I am actively changing who I am in my new country, my friends or family back home are living their same beautiful lives in America. Their brains aren’t preoccupied with my approach to life and work. It’s such a NYC way of thinking to assume that you already have a million plans lined up. But here in Sydney, you’ll get there when you get there. “She’ll be right,” as they say here. So I have to let go of my frustrations, listen to my #8 advice, and keep it moving.
  10. “Home” is a feeling, not a place. 
    1. I love my family and friends more than anything. I love their hugs the most. (Love languages, can you dig it?) But after moving from my parents’ house to college to my own apartment to across the world, I’ve realized that when I “miss home,” I don’t miss a street address. I miss my people and feeling the thick air of their love around me. I have been so lucky in my move already because I moved into my first AirBNB with someone who treated me like family right away and introduced me to a friend who does the same; so when I have a bad day, I want to go “home,” to be with my new friends. It’s not the bed that I crave or the comfort of the living room. It’s the feeling. Find a new home or a few on your journey… and be sure to help make homes for others.

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      Helen, my host/roommate/friend/home.

* Melbourne was my destination, my city of awakening. There are merits of the city that deserve to be noted, like how the people couldn’t have been friendlier, the architecture was stunning, and the food was too good. TOO GOOD. And I absolutely have to note that the highlight of my trip was meeting cousins for the first time. I am so lucky to have these people in my life – such warm, thoughtful, funny, smart, and intensely interesting <3.

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