The unseen pitfalls of expat life

Written by: FIDI GLOBAL ALLIANCE
The unseen pitfalls of expat life

Expat life can be tough. But it can also be amazing. While expat loneliness and depression are well-documented phenomena, there are other emotional downsides that may take travellers by surprise.

The unreachable goal

The unreachable goal

There is a fascinating anecdote posted on Ben Schlappig’s One Mile At A Time blog, which describes “the curse of the traveller”. It puts forward the idea that traveling the world does not really ever bring satisfaction – just a growing sense that “the perfect place” does not truly exist.

“The more places you see, the more things you see that appeal to you, but no one place has them all. In fact, each place has a smaller and smaller percentage of the things you love, the more things you see. It drives you, even subconsciously, to keep looking, for a place that’s ‘just right for you.’ But the curse is that the odds of finding ‘just right’ get smaller, not larger, the more you experience. So you keep looking even more, but it always gets worse the more you see.”

Nora Dunn, an expat blogger, is also familiar with this effect. In her post The Irony Of Expat Life, she notes “I’ve actually reached a worrying point in my life, where I’m searching for ‘my people’, and I’m not sure such creatures even exist. I’ve been so coloured by all the places I’ve lived in and visited, that I don’t feel that I can fit into any one societal ‘box’.”

It’s true that travel broadens the mind, but the first-time expat may not be aware that this broadening of the mind may lead to ever more unrealistic expectations.

Fleeting friendships

Fleeting friendships

So much for finding the perfect place. But what about building relationships? The same post explains the second part of the traveller’s curse – i.e. that the more you travel, the more estranged you become from other people.

The more you travel, the more numerous and profoundly varied the relationships you will have. But the more people you meet, the more diffused your time is with any of them. Since all these people can’t travel with you, it becomes more and more difficult to cultivate long term relationships. Yet you keep travelling, and keep meeting amazing people, so it feels fulfilling, but eventually, you miss them all, and many have all but forgotten who you are.

Inevitably, constantly moving around the world prohibits putting down roots. You will meet more people but there is simply not enough time to build the level of relationship that is normally nurtured among groups that stay in one place.

The relationship imbalance

Repatriation can also be a tricky time for expats, and this brings a new but equally unexpected dimension to relationships. On their return, often expats find it difficult to settle back in their country of origin, yet it is sometimes the imbalance of relationships that expats form – or try to maintain – that is the root of the problem.

The ‘curse’ of the traveller continues:

And then you make up for it by staying put somewhere long enough to develop roots and cultivate stronger relationships, but these people will never know what you know or see what you’ve seen, and you will always feel a tinge of loneliness, and you will want to tell your stories just a little bit more than they will want to hear them.

We’ve all heard stories of expat dinner party bores. “When I was in Kuala Lumpur...”, they begin. The truth is that people grow apart – in this case travellers and non-travellers – and that is a problem that expats need to deal with.

Can expats overcome the pitfalls?

Can expats overcome the pitfalls?

The truth is that these pitfalls are occupational hazards - and therefore something to be minimised rather than avoided altogether. It appears that a characteristic of the most successful expats is that they are as comfortable with the irregular or fleeting relationships they form on their travels as they are with permanent long-lasting ones. These are fluid, flexible people who take the ephemeral nature of expat relationships in their stride. It comes with the job – and these are true professionals.

Most expats, however, will appreciate a little support along the way. The emotional dimension of expat life is now better understood and global mobility teams work closely with experienced relocation partners, who provide an increasing portfolio of services to support them during their time overseas. Together, they help to ensure each assignment is a well-managed, problem-free and ultimately happy one.

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