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7 Reasons Expat Life Sucks

By alison - June 20, 2011 (Updated: February 24, 2015)

Expat life can be lonely

Expat life can be lonely (Photo via istock)

I often get emails from people considering becoming expats. I try to present both the good and bad sides of expat life, for a balanced view of what they can expect. Here on CheeseWeb, you will usually find a positive view of expatriation, because for me, the benefits of living life abroad far outweigh the negatives.

But life has its challenges, whether in your home country or abroad. Sometimes being far from home can make those challenges even more difficult. Expat life certainly isn’t all about glamorous international travel and fitting in with the locals. There are still bills to pay, laundry that piles up, rude people to deal with, and a million other stressful situations you would deal with, wherever you live.

But expat life has its own unique difficulties too. That’s why I’ve compiled this list of 7 reasons why expat life sucks.

Missing out on Celebrations

Missing out on Celebrations (Photo via istock)

1. Missing out on the Celebrations

Family and friends are very important to Andrew and me. We try our best to schedule our annual visits home around weddings, births and other milestones. But the fact is we can’t always be there in person to celebrate these happy occasions.

Holidays like Christmas and Easter are celebrated via Skype. Birthdays, anniversaries and other special days are lumped together in one big celebration when we are able to visit.

When children are involved it gets even tougher. Although we don’t have kids ourselves, we do miss out on watching our nephew grow up and celebrating his special milestones with our family. We see our friends kids grow up in photos and Facebook status updates and know the world back home is marching on without us.

2. Not being there through the bad times

Sometimes not being with family and friends is even harder during the bad times. Funerals are always tough but not being there to support your loved-ones through them is even tougher. Waiting by the phone or computer while someone you love is under-going surgery is gut-wrenching. Simply not being able to give a dear friend a big hug, when I know she needs it, is something I often struggle with.

Luckily Andrew and I have each other, and we have a network of wonderful friends here in Belgium, but when we go through our own bad times here, sometimes we just wish we could be with our friends and family who have known us forever.

Thriving Abroad

3. Not having all the convenience of home

Sometimes you just want what you want, when you want it. Especially when you first move to a new country, this can be next to impossible. Finding a shop that stocks a particular food, medicine or even clothes that fit you just right, may take months or even years to discover. Certain things you love simply may not exist in your new country, requiring you to order them on-line or carry them from home, in your luggage.

Maybe items are available in your country, but not when you need them. One of the biggest frustrations for expats in Belgium is shop opening hours. I have to admit; sometimes I just miss the convenience of the huge 24/7 supermarkets in Canada.

4. Cultural differences can get on your nerves

One of the main reasons for living abroad is to be immersed in a new culture and to expose yourself to new ways of thinking and doing things. Sometimes though, things you find funny or quirky as you travel through a country as a tourist can just get plain frustrating when you have to live with them every day. Rude shop clerks, bad drivers, people cutting in line, outspokenness (or lack of outspokenness depending on your background), attitudes towards gender, sexuality or religion can all become big issues when you’re adjusting to life in a new country and they can wear you down over time.

5. Communication Problems

Moving to a country where you don’t speak the language is hard. Even the simplest of daily interactions can seem next to impossible. But even if you’re fluent in your new country’s language, you may still have communication problems. Local slang can often be very different from what you are used to and accents or dialects can make understanding difficult. It’s also very difficult to be funny or angry in your non-native language and some multi-lingual expats say they have a slightly different personality for each language they speak.

Expat Red Tape

Expat Red Tape (Photo via istock)

6. Red-Tape and Paperwork

Sometimes the paperwork involved with expatriation can be red-tape hell. There is always one more form to fill out, one more stamp to get, or one more photo to submit. You can feel like you’re wasting your life standing in line or jumping through more hoops than a dolphin at Sea World. In some parts of the world, getting the documents you need may involve greasing a few palms. But even when the spending is legit, getting your expat paperwork in order can be expensive, frustrating and extremely time consuming.

7. Not fitting in anywhere

Thriving AbroadOne of the biggest complaints I hear from expats, is that they’ve lost their sense of identity. They no longer feel they fit in back in their home country, because of the experiences they’ve had abroad. However, they will also never be fully accepted or integrated into their new country. There can be a sense of being caught between two worlds. I’ve talked about the benefit of having multiple places I feel at home. But this can also be challenging when you feel your old friends back home moving on without you, or when you feel you can no longer fully relate to family because your life experiences have been so different.

Expat life isn’t easy and it isn’t for everyone. But even with all of these challenges, I wouldn’t change my expat experience for anything. For me, the benefits far outweigh the challenges and even on days when expat life sucks, I know it’s making me a stronger, more flexible person.

Is there something about your expat life that sucks? Feel free to vent in the comments below… you know you want to.

Looking for more resources for living in Belgium? Check out our Resources for Expats Living in Belgium and our Resources for Expats and Trailing Spouses.

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Alison

Alison

Big Cheese at CheeseWeb
Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of Cheeseweb.eu. She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She is currently slow travelling through Europe in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
Alison
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36 comments

  1. Comment by paris (im)perfect

    paris (im)perfect June 20, 2011 at 13:59

    Great post, Alison! I think you’ve hit all of the major points. I, too, am overwhelmingly grateful that I have the opportunity to live in another country and wouldn’t trade it for anything. That said, it’s great to see someone being realistic about it and presenting the challenges, as well. Living in Paris, I get my fair share of people wanting to move to Paris – but a sort of dream Paris. The City of Light makes people see stars in their eyes. It *is* an amazing place, but having those sorts of high expectations without balancing it with the harder stuff that comes along with such a big change can set people up for a fall. That’s one of the reasons I called my blog “paris (im)perfect.” Because it’s not a perfect place…but then again, nothing would be interesting if it were.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison June 20, 2011 at 14:35

      You’re absolutely right Sion and you blog so well and honestly about both the ups and down of expat life. I think for so many North Americans, Europe is this fantasy land of castles, great food, fashion art and culture. It certainly is all of those things and visiting here can be a bit of a fantasy. But real life is real life no matter where you live with all of the ups and downs that entails. I think those life challenges are multiplied when you put them in the context of living in a foreign country.

  2. Comment by Lindsey

    Lindsey June 20, 2011 at 14:05

    Thanks to Sion for Retweeting this post! Great points. Even if you speak the language fluently, there’s always a certain level of isolation you feel, at least initially. But the hardest part for me has been missing out on family milestones back in the States and having family miss out on major successes for me here in Paris. Expat life is a sacrifice but the experience is so enriching, I can’t imagine my life any other way.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison June 20, 2011 at 14:36

      Welcome to CheeseWeb Lindsey! You’re absolutely right. Expat life has given me so many wonderful things and I don’t have any regrets. But, as you said, it IS hard to not be able to share your milestones with love-ones back home.

  3. Comment by Amy

    Amy June 20, 2011 at 14:06

    Great post Alison! You really hit the nail on the head – 7 times. These all resonate strongly with me, but I especially struggle with a feeling of not fitting in as well as missing out on everyone’s lives back home. The feeling of not fitting in is especially difficult sometimes when I’m with my French in-laws. They’ve been so kind and welcoming to me, and I consider myself lucky to be marrying into their family, BUT I still feel like an outsider. And there really is no substitute for one’s own family, is there?

    For the rest, sometimes it’s just plain exhausting. Luckily, we have sympathetic expat girlfriends to lean on when it gets tough. 🙂

    I thought of another one too. Expat guilt – guilt for choosing to live far, guilt for sometimes complaining about it, guilt for missing everything back home….etc.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison June 20, 2011 at 14:31

      You definitely have the added pressure of an expat relationship, which is a whole other kettle of fish. (You should do a guest post on it for me!) Fitting in with your partners family can always be difficult when you start out but that’s certainly even more complicated when there are such huge cultural differences.

      As for expat guilt, that was also mentioned by someone on Twitter, so it’s certainly an issue for a lot of folks. I’m very lucky that my family has been supportive of our lifestyle but that doesn’t stop me from heaping guilt on myself. So you’re absolutely right!

      And you know I love my expat gals and couldn’t survive without you!

      • Comment by Amy

        Amy June 20, 2011 at 14:52

        I should mention, my guilt is all self-inflicted. I’m lucky that my family and friends have been pretty supportive over the years.

  4. Comment by Kamran

    Kamran June 20, 2011 at 17:44

    Excellent Post. I have moved to Brussls almost a month back and can already feel all the 7 reasons. Though it sounds great to work in different place but i believe initially its very hard to settle in. Language,Cultural differences, Lack of friends all does have an impact.

    Regardless of all this i am still excited and hoping for some great experience and great memories.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison June 20, 2011 at 18:02

      Hi Kamran, Welcome to CheeseWeb and Brussels. Living here can be great but it’s also challenging too. Be sure to give yourself lots of time to settle in and don’t be too hard on yourself if the going is rough, especially for the first few months. Going into it with a positive attitude like you are certainly helps. Reaching out to other expats in forums such as this is a great way to feel like you aren’t alone. Best of luck!

  5. Comment by Jeff

    Jeff June 20, 2011 at 18:54

    Smart post, Alison!

    #’s 1 & 2 are mainly what brought us (to Maylia’s) home. As our young ones grew, the holidays became lonelier for both us and the missing grandparents. We tried a few Christmas’ away (Egypt and Italy) to help be more adventurous, but our last year’s Christmas here in Nova Scotia was our best yet.

    I agree, faraway family can make expat life suck. Still, ….it rocks most other days! 🙂

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison June 20, 2011 at 19:23

      I agree Jeff; Most days it does rock. I’m glad to hear your NS Christmas was a success!

  6. Comment by Niovi

    Niovi June 21, 2011 at 12:33

    I would add one more reason: we rarely get to go on real holidays. Every chance we get we visit our respective families (we come from different countries) and once we are there we are literally drowned in red-tape and all the errands that have been piling up since our last visit. So for many of our friends it is often a case of “hello” and “goodbye” at the same time!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison June 21, 2011 at 12:52

      Great point Niovi! We love visiting home but it certainly is never a relaxing vacation. We always feel like we’ve not spent enough time with people and missed some altogether. We always racing to get banking, shopping and other appointments in… it’s a whirlwind.

  7. Comment by Shweta

    Shweta June 21, 2011 at 16:16

    Alison! Great points! Though our motivation to move to Belgium has been to move close to family, I truly empathize with the above list! Living in the U.S. with a British accent and trying to find Indian grocery stores for just some cumin seeds or asafoetida felt like such a hassle! Now doing the same once I move to Belgium is going to be twice as much fun!
    I recently wrote a post, “10 Reasons Why Moving Overseas Doesn’t Scare Me!” to get me to focus on the positives of our move!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison June 21, 2011 at 16:31

      Well I can help out with the India grocery stores in Brussels at least 🙂 Glad you’re being so positive about your move!

    • Comment by Jeff

      Jeff June 21, 2011 at 16:48

      Shweta – I loved your 10 Reasons post. Yes, your husband is #1 (reason)! 🙂

    • Comment by Shweta

      Shweta June 21, 2011 at 20:28

      Thank you guys for all the love! I am loving the blogging community!

  8. Comment by Dave and Deb

    Dave and Deb June 27, 2011 at 13:01

    It’s nice to see a different perspective every once in a while. Everyone is always talking about how rosy things are in travel blogs. Like everything in life, there are always ups and downs and people seem to think that being an Expat is glamorous every single day of the year. While travel and living the life of an expat is awesome, there are still things to consider before decided to make it your life. It’s not for everyone.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison June 27, 2011 at 14:17

      Absolutely! I love my expat life and I wouldn’t change it, BUT that doesn’t mean I’m happy every day. There are things I wish I could change and sacrifices I’ve had to make. As you guys well know, expat life or full-time travel isn’t for everyone and it isn’t always easy 🙂

  9. Comment by Joya

    Joya June 28, 2011 at 07:10

    I lived and worked in London for six months and when I came back home I definitely felt like I didn’t fit in at home because I had experienced so much that no one else understood. I don’t feel like I can go back to London and have the same wonderful experience because not all the same people will be there but I’m adjusting back to life at home. It took me a while though.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison June 28, 2011 at 10:03

      I think that’s a common situation Joya. We had a similar experience when we lived in Amsterdam for the first time. It was only for 3 months but it definitely changed us. I think the longer you are expatriated the more difficult it becomes. Luckily there are so many great expat networks where you can find people who’ve experienced similar feelings.

  10. Comment by Amy @ Nomadtopia

    Amy @ Nomadtopia July 6, 2011 at 16:28

    Wow, great post! This is all so, so true. I’ve lived in Buenos Aires for four years, and most of the time I’m happy here, and feel so lucky to be able to live abroad (which was always a dream of mine). But yes, there are so many challenges and plenty of things that annoy me if I let them.

    Like one of the other commenters I also have the added challenge/benefit of Argentine in-laws-to-be, and while they have been so welcoming and sweet, it’s just not the same as my own family. I imagine it’s even more difficult to be away from one’s own family once kids are involved.

    Someone also made a good point about reduced travel/vacation opportunities. That’s been my experience too – most of my travel budget is spent going back to the States, and that’s usually anything but relaxing, with all the visiting and errands to run!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison July 6, 2011 at 16:37

      So very true Amy. I think in order to paint a realistic picture of expat life, we can’t gloss over the bad stuff. I still wouldn’t trade my life and experiences for anything but it’s not always easy. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  11. Comment by Ana

    Ana July 6, 2011 at 18:24

    Very insightful post. No. 1 and 2 did strike a chord with me as these are, in my experience,the most difficult situations to cope with. The rest are easier to deal with, maybe except red tape, but since I’m from Argentina, I’m used to it!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison July 7, 2011 at 09:52

      Hi Ana! Thanks for stopping by. There’s a lot of red tape in Belgium too – for everything. Although I think it’s pretty much a given as an expat anywhere. I know many people moving to my home country of Canada experienced the same thing so I guess nowhere is safe from paperwork 🙂

      • Comment by Ana

        Ana July 7, 2011 at 16:45

        Where in Canada are you from? We spent a year and a half (on and off) in Toronto and explored Southern Ontario, Montreal and Ottawa.

        • Comment by Alison

          Alison

          Alison July 7, 2011 at 16:55

          We’re from the East Coast. I’m from Saint John, New Brunswick and Andrew is from outside of Halifax, Nova Scotia, so we both miss the ocean! 🙂

  12. Comment by Ameena Falchetto (MummyinProvence)

    Ameena Falchetto (MummyinProvence) July 25, 2011 at 21:04

    What a great post – I was nodding the whole way through.

    I never had the choice as to whether or not I wanted to be an expat. I was born one. My parents were from 2 different continents (UK & Egypt) and I was born in Dubai so I was an expat from the day I was born. I never belonged in Dubai, the UK or in Egypt. Now, I live in France.

    Right now the hardest part of being an expat (aside from the language, I didn’t speak French when I moved to France 2 years ago) is having family flung at all corners of the globe, almost. My daughter was 10months old before she met her grandfather who now lives in the US. My sister, who is in Dubai, just gave birth to twins 3 weeks ago and I have NO idea when I will meet them. Skype is great but it really doesn’t make up for physical interaction.

    Cultural differences are a steep learning curve and when you have off days you just want to change the channel and for everyone to speak English and just understand that sometimes you just want some creature comforts and to cave into cravings from previous places you’ve lived!

    The hardest part for me is trying to say where I am from and where I call home. I have no idea.

    So glad I found this site and other people who have commented. We may live in a global village but 8+ hr flights and totally different lives make the world seem like a gigantic place.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison July 26, 2011 at 09:49

      Thanks for the great comment Ameena. You’re right, I think being a TCK must be even tougher. For me defining ‘home’ is hard enough but at least I can say where I come from.

      I agree though that although Skype is a great tool it doesn’t make up for actual personal contact.

      I hope the good parts of expat life make up for the hard stuff and I wish you all the best in France!

  13. Comment by Rob

    Rob August 18, 2011 at 19:22

    I loved (love?) being an ex-pat. I lived in Sweden for 4 years, had an opportunity to become fluent in another language and culture, and when I came home to Canada (for what turned out to be a stupid reason) I didn’t fit in at all. I ultimately landed in the mountains of Colorado.

    Probably easier for me than some others as my parents are long dead and my only other relative is a brother living in Canada. It’s cool if we see each other every decade or two.

    Living where I am, of course, most of your communications/culture issues don’t apply, but after a year or so in Sweden they didn’t really apply either. You just buckle down, learn the language and use it. I didn’t speak english in Sweden for the last 2.5 years I was there. It’s hard, of course, but after a while it’s not.

    I often ponder returning to Sweden and the true ex-pat life just for the mental stimulation. To bad about the weather, though 🙂

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison August 23, 2011 at 14:26

      Although we haven’t done it ourselves yet, I’ve heard that re-patriating can be just as difficult, if not more so, than becoming an expat in the first place. I agree with you that as time goes on you do just buckle down and get used to things, be it language or culture issues or whatever. I do think it’s important for people to know that expat life isn’t a vacation though. Even though we love our expat life there are still challenges 🙂

      • Comment by Rob

        Rob August 23, 2011 at 18:40

        I think that’s the key. It’s not a vacation – it’s life. It’s not easier or harder being an ex-pat. It’s just more interesting 🙂

        I doubt I could ever return to Canada now, having lived places I have explicitly chosen for most of my adult life. I don’t feel at home when I visit Canada – I just see all the things that bugged me when I did live there.

        When I did, briefly, repatriate it wasn’t at all easy. All sorts of things that should have felt normal felt odd, and the people seemed very narrow in their view of life. That could have been due to where I lived (Ottawa) but nonetheless. It was a relief to start working in other countries again and then moving to Colorado. I came here on a two-week business trip and literally never left.

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  15. Comment by Nadine

    Nadine September 12, 2011 at 17:23

    Such a great post – but honestly I never would have guessed living in Brussels would have been the experience it has been this past year.
    I MISS CANADA – however I too will not fit back into the country-rural life and small town attitudes/way of life when I go back home in two months.
    The biggest feat to overcome here is the language – if you speak English once you are branded as an outsider in my eyes.. We have been fortunate to meet some people here who have become good friends – but its hard to rely on only 2/3 close friends and a handfull of aquaitences when everything is complicated, new, scary etc … Without the language you lose the ability to pick and choose your friends like you do in a country where customs and language are common. It all seems a ‘fake’ sort of friendship and a sort of dependancy all at the same time.
    Word to the wise – if your coming here alone – submerse yourself into learning french, join groups through the university etc – if your here as a couple make sure you are both PATIENT people because you’ll need to have all the patience you can get and then some here in Brussels when dealing with the people, the rudness,the complete lack of customer service etc … it will wear on you both & your relationship. But be tough – it does have its upsides.
    However not enough for me – I am off back home to Canada in just a few weeks and then onto the next adventure – the UK!
    Cannot wait to be around people who get my jokes because they aren’t just hearing the literal translation 😉
    Wish me luck and enjoy your time here in Brussels Alison!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison September 13, 2011 at 10:01

      Learning a second language is very hard and I agree you do sacrifice some of your personality and sense of humour until you are really very fluent. And lets face it, it ISN’T for everyone. And, as you discovered sometimes there are places that are better for you than others. Maybe Brussels didn’t work out for you guys but hopefully the UK will be what you’re looking for. There’s a big world out there just waiting to be discovered 🙂 Best of luck!

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