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Should you write off the first 6 months of your expat life?

Adam Vagley @goodmigrations
 
There’s an interesting discussion thread on a LinkedIn forum for expats. It asks who is under more pressure when moving abroad: the working expat or the trailing spouse. Various commenters have argued for one or the other, but I think there’s a larger lesson here applicable to all new expats: prepare to be unhappy when you first arrive.

I read somewhere that it takes roughly six months to adjust to a new country and that sounds about right based on my experience. In our first few months of living in Australia my wife voiced her discontent several times — she missed family, she missed her old job, she couldn’t just pick up the phone and call friends to chat like before. I hoped that eventually she’d feel differently, but I had my own doubts as well and often wondered if we’d made a mistake. We left a city we loved, jobs we were good at, and a network of friends and family and moved about as far away, geographically speaking, as possible. That doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for success.

But as expected we got settled in, found amazing new friends, became established at our new companies, and came to love our new city. Now my wife throws around Aussie slang like she grew up here. And while it’s still difficult to be so far away from people back home, we love living abroad and talk about how hard it will be to leave Sydney when we return to the U.S. someday.

This is a perfectly natural response and I don’t think it’s limited to moving countries. Change isn’t always welcome at first. When I first moved to New York City because of work I didn’t like it — I only knew a few people and the city was overwhelming. But within a few months, after I discovered its charms, I was in love with the place. When I’ve changed jobs I’ve often thought “I should have stayed where I was” during those first few shaky days where you don’t know anyone or anything. But if you don’t occasionally feel out of your comfort zone then you’re not growing, and if you’re not growing I think life gets stale very quickly.

With that said, I do think the impact of change can be particularly felt when you move to a new country simply because so many aspects of your life have been fundamentally altered — you’re changing jobs, cultures, relationships, and more, all at once. Scheduling Skype calls to catch up with family wasn’t something I had to contend with before. It takes time to adjust to and embrace this amount of change. Another expat blogger expressed a similar sentiment when he said you don’t hit your stride until your second year in a foreign country.

So while I wouldn’t “write off” the first six months of expat life — after all, this is when you get to explore your new home and develop the friendships that will sustain you during your time abroad — I do think that along with all the other preparations you make, you also need to prepare for moments of unhappiness and self-doubt. If you expect it and tell yourself it’s a normal part of the process you won’t be surprised by it. And before you know it you’ll be a local and having a great time.

Do you agree? Disagree?