Overcoming the challenges of expat life: tips, personal stories, and real solutions

Are you an expat trying to navigate the challenges of cultural differences at work or in building relationships, of language barriers and homesickness? As a fellow expat who has lived and worked in different countries, I know how challenging - and rewarding - it can be to adjust to a new environment. From dealing with the culture shock to adapting to a new way of life and different work practices, the expat life can be an adventure filled with highs and lows.

Are you an expat trying to navigate the challenges of cultural differences at work or in building relationships, of language barriers and homesickness?

As a fellow expat who has lived and worked in different countries, I know how challenging - and rewarding - it can be to adjust to a new environment. From dealing with the culture shock to adapting to a new way of life and different work practices, the expat life can be an adventure filled with highs and lows.

When I first moved to London, my first direct-line manager was Iranian. The next one was Pakistani based in Dubai. My team was a mixed bag of people coming from 15+ countries.

I reckon one of my first meetings with one of the team’s heads. He was wearing a Paul Smith-like suit, Italian shoes and a turban on his head. He was a Sikh in fashion. My world had just opened up.

However, living as an expat can be a rollercoaster ride.

The real struggle of expat life: balancing caregiving roles while abroad

The mainstream topic about expats is homesickness. Interestingly, my clients rarely feel homesick because they moved away long ago. I myself experienced an adjustment period of about a year each time, even when I returned to France.

The real struggle comes for the "sandwich generation" when you are "sandwiched" between the needs of your schooled children and your ageing parents, struggling to balance the demands of both caregiving roles. Feeling responsible for holding your family together while feeling guilty for not being there for your loved ones when they need you the most is a great source of stress. It is incredibly challenging for expats who also have to deal with multiple administrative and healthcare systems across borders.

Breaking the barriers: overcoming the challenges of feeling included in the workplace

When you may think that’s it, you still have to face the difficulties of being an expat at work.

Like many expats, I felt the challenge of feeling included in the workplace. One seasoned banker client talked about the "British boys' club", aka her exclusive teammates, which she found challenging to lean in. Not only is she a woman in a still male-setting environment, but she is Asian and 20 years older than her boss. Another client calls herself the "invisible minority" as she looks like any of her coworkers from the outside until she speaks with a non-Oxbridge accent.

While we all agree that companies discuss diversity and inclusion, very few walk the talk. What makes the difference? Company leaders who lead by example. Effective internal policies of reporting and sanctioning abuse may help, but often these policies are merely smoke and mirror, hiding the actual lack of inclusion when not supported by managers.

What does diversity & inclusion have to do with expats?

The truth is: everything. Diversity and inclusion have everything to do with expats. Because expats have different ways of thinking and interacting with the world, and they’re still a minority.

Most expats agree that there is a thrill in being different, and the benefits of this experience are impressive.

Professional development and personal growth: How expat life can enhance your career

Here is a short list of all the fantastic benefits and opportunities of being an expat:

  • Learning about new cultures and ways of life,
  • Developing language skills,
  • Increased cognitive flexibility, such as an increased capacity to adapt, enhanced problem-solving skills, improved communication skills, increased creativity, and improved memory,
  • Building a diverse and supportive network,
  • Discovering new hobbies and interests that may have yet to be available to you in your home country,
  • Gaining new professional experiences and opportunities, which can enhance your career prospects and personal development.

The 2021 Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI) report by INSEAD does not directly compare expats to non-expats. Still, it does examine the factors that drive talent migration and the experiences of people who move to a different country for work or study. Overall, the report emphasises the importance of talent mobility for economic growth and competitiveness and suggests that countries that can attract and retain highly skilled workers worldwide are more likely to succeed in the global marketplace.

However, building a solid, meaningful network is essential to enjoy the expat status fully.

When you feel excluded at work or from the school mum’s circle, having support from people who understand your struggles can make all the difference.

Being an expat is a journey full of challenges and rewards. From personal struggles to professional obstacles, we all have our own stories to tell. But what sets you apart is your ability to overcome these challenges and create a life that is uniquely your own.

Finding your place in a new community: tips for enjoying the ride

There are ways to overcome these challenges and build a fulfilling expat life. Here are some tips that I have gathered from my personal experience and my clients:

  • Get involved in the local community: join clubs, attend events, and volunteer for local charities to meet new people and build a support network.
  • Learning the language will help you communicate better and feel more integrated into the culture.
  • Staying in touch with family and friends back home has been easy, thanks to the pandemic changing our communication methods. Maintaining a sense of connection and belonging to your home country and culture goes hand in hand with nurturing a sense of identity and staying grounded despite the surrounding diversity and change.
  • Taking care of your mental health is also crucial when living in a new country. Lack of physical fitness means more physical stress as you make an effort. Similarly, a lack of mental fitness means more mental stress (anxiety, frustration, or unhappiness) as you handle work and relationship challenges. So make sure to take time for self-care, whether it's through exercise, meditation, or other activities that help you relax and recharge.
  • Embrace the new culture: try new foods, attend local festivals and events, and learn about the country's history and traditions to enrich your experience.
  • But the most important thing is to build a supportive network of expat friends who understand what you're going through: join expat groups, online or in the flesh, attend social events, and connect with people who share similar experiences and challenges as you.

I hope these tips will help you navigate the expat life with gusto. By following these tips and staying open-minded, you can turn the challenges of an expat life into opportunities for growth and enrichment. Remember, you're not alone, and resources are available to help you every step of the way.

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