Why Is This So Hard? 10 Challenges of Expat Life & How to Deal with Them

In 2021, Anne Copeland hosted a workshop, “Why is this so hard?”, at the FIGT (Families in Global Transition) conference. Anne, a psychologist, has worked on researching families in international and intercultural transition with almost 500 intercultural trainers. Together they came up with 10 challenges and losses that tend to arise particularly during the first stages of expat life, and what to do about them. Expat Nest founder Vivian Chiona offers a summary of the lessons and insights that stood out for her. 


“Aren’t you lucky?”
“Oh wow, you get to live in Singapore?”
“Your kids must be thrilled.”

These may be some of the variations you heard when telling your loved ones that you were moving abroad. But the truth is, we experience challenges and losses when starting this wonderful (but sometimes scary) adventure of becoming an expat.


10 Common Challenges/Losses and What We Can Do About Them


1. Overwhelm

There are some practical tasks that every expat needs to figure out when arriving in their host country: from ordering a new phone service and finding a plumber to much simpler ones like… turning the geyser on! These are minor practicalities, but because there are so many, they can lead to overwhelm and expat fatigue and result in a sense of loss of mastery.

What you can do: Rebuilding your sense of mastery is usually a matter of time. In the short term, acknowledge the toll that this process takes. Give yourself credit for achieving small things. (And if you’ve just arrived in your host country, follow these practical tips for unpacking.)


2. Unfamiliar social norms

Moving to a new place entails learning a whole new set of social norms. What’s the proper relationship between employers and assistants? What are acceptable public displays of affection? How do you interpret someone’s friendliness? All of these can be confusing, and it is normal to experience some level of culture shock.

What you can do: Find a “cultural informant”, someone with whom you can discuss cultural norms with, and who can support you by addressing your doubts and questions. Understand the phases of culture shock and know that you will get through this.


3. Building a new social support network

Relocating often involves losing the network of friends, family and others we used to rely on to support us through difficult times. This can leave us feeling isolated and alone.

What you can do: With so many online technologies you can always reach out to those who are far away. These technologies can also be great tools to meet new people! (And as we often say at Expat Nest: remember that the love and the friendships are never gone; love knows no borders…)


4. Change of values

Consider yourself and others as a collection of influences: like puzzle pieces, we are shaped by our gender, religion, nationality, and many more elements. When we meet someone else, that person too is made of different influences. It is the space between them where cultural clashes – or productive and rewarding relationships – may occur. Therefore, it’s important to study and take the time to understand these spaces in between.

What you can do: With the help of a local friend (or your cultural informant), try a new perspective. Begin to understand how the world may look different from the host’s point of view. 


5. Difficulty communicating

This can be one of the key challenges of the expatriate experience, particularly if you don’t speak the local language. And this doesn’t only involve speaking, but also non-verbal communication. It’s crucial for expats to understand the communication style rules of the host country: Is it okay to show your emotions when you feel strongly about something? Is it good to be direct with people or should you find softer indirect ways, so you don’t offend them? These are some of the questions you might want to ask yourself.

What you can do: Try to join a course to learn the local language. Your cultural informant may be of help during this process as well. Learn to balance the local communication style, while also maintaining your sense of self. (You may also enjoy these Expat Nest tips on dealing with a language barrier and mastering language anxiety.)


6. The stress of being misperceived

Expatriates may also have the experience of others making assumptions about them based on their home cultures, their language, their dress, and so on.

What you can do: Remember, the person you are remains, no matter the stereotypes and assumptions that others carry. Work on developing a good-natured, non-defensive way to counter any misperceptions you experience.


7. Struggles with a sense of belonging

Most people who move to a different country experience being a minority for the first time, whether that’s related to your nationality, language or religion or even the fact of being “new”.

What you can do: There is a place where you belong – find your tribe. In the beginning, you may want to join an expat group to settle in and find support.


8. Change in family dynamics

All families experience common “entrances and exits”, from marriages and births to retirement and graduations. Relocating families have their own special entrances and exits, and these include family members who don’t accompany the expatriate family; a parent that is more/less present (either physically or emotionally); gaining or losing a nanny/housekeeper. All of these challenges require a new level of adjustment.

What you can do: Name the changes and acknowledge them with your family. Then, together work on finding solutions and new ways of being together. (Got teens? Try these Expat Nest tips to support them during the transition).


9. Loss of identity

This is a common challenge especially for accompanying spouses: “who” were you at home… and who are you now? Maybe you were part of a family that was known in your community, or a leader in a religious, education, sports or political group… and now you may feel lost or that you lack recognition or a purpose.

What you can do: Write it down and begin the journey back to yourself. What’s been most important for you? How many of these things have you lost and what could you recover in a new way by amplifying them in your new community? What different roles can you develop as your identity continues to grow and develop?


10. Pandemic concerns

Though we seem to be in a post-COVID recovery period, there is no doubt about it: the pandemic changed the expatriate experience. Think travel restrictions that prevented us from visiting our families; worrying about or coping with the virus; the extra tests (and costs) associated with travelling; job losses; the uncertainty… we’ve had to deal with a lot

What you can do: Continue to be safe! Follow internationally agreed protocols as well as the rules in your host country (e.g. wear a mask, stay home when necessary, stick to the vaccination schedule).


What have been your biggest challenges when relocating? And which of these tips is most helpful? We’d love to hear your story!


PHOTO: Carolina Grabowska/PEXELS