What I Learned from Failing as an Expat

Whilst I was excited to go on holiday recently, I’ll admit that I was a bit apprehensive about going back to Australia. After having lived there for around 18 months a few years back, I suppose I was a bit worried about the memories it would stir up. You see, I really wasn’t a very happy person when we lived in Australia. I hadn’t expected to feel that way, I had been very excited to make the move, but things worked out very differently to how we’d imagined, for both myself and my husband. It was due to a number of things really, things were far more expensive than we’d anticipated, work opportunities weren’t very good for me and quite frankly, despite my husband having grown up in the country, many people just weren’t very welcoming to what we’d become from living overseas for so many years – ‘outsiders’.

I’d been excited for my parents to visit the first Christmas we were out there, though I remember clearly my Dad saying at the end of the trip that it had been great to see me, but it was quite probably the last time they’d be able to make such a long trip from the UK. It was quite honestly the last thing I needed to hear at the time when I hated the job I was in and was struggling to find a place for myself in my new surrounds.

I knew my Dad hadn’t meant to be unkind or deal me a blow with those words, he was just being honest. He’d been quite unwell on the first leg of the trip you see, with an illness that had resulted in several hospital visits in Bangkok. Instances in fact that my mum still questions – had this perhaps been the start of his ultimate demise, had something somehow been missed?

And I’ve never really felt homesick before, but I’ve probably never felt quite so isolated before as I did when we lived in Australia. Having previously kept in close contact with my family, Australia was suddenly a step too far, with the time difference making communication with friends and loved ones difficult. I felt as though I’d fallen off the face of the earth. Who was I? I started to question everything, as everything I knew had literally turned upside down (no geographical pun intended!).

We had planned to settle permanently in Australia, with a view to having a family there, but it became clear quite quickly that this wasn’t going to be a good long term solution for either of us. Aside from anything else, the expense of the country was astounding, and of course being such a large country and being so far away from almost anywhere it also meant that travel was very expensive. As someone who loves to travel, this was not easy to swallow, but more than this, I became worried that if we were to settle and have a family of our own that we would literally become stuck in the country, not being able to afford to travel overseas to visit family. And of course, the words of my dad still rang in my ears that it was unlikely my parents would be able to manage the long trip to visit me in Australia again.

From things I’ve read since, I now know this is a common problem people face, either when moving overseas to an environment very different to their own, or often even when returning from an overseas stint to their home country but only to find that whilst life has moved on back home, they themselves have changed far more than they’d realised – this was something that resonated with my husband and became one of his greatest challenges. But either way, it doesn’t make it any easier. Often things change with time, and you just get used to it. Otherwise I suppose you have to decide, and ultimately make a new plan for the future.

So that’s what we did. We made a plan to leave, to get out while we still could. I had failed as an expat in Australia.

better-to-try-and-fail

I’m sure there are many people who won’t relate to my experience. Certainly in the UK, Australia and the Australian way of life as portrayed in TV shows like Neighbours and Home and Away is almost revered, and seen as a place that many can only dream of being.

And I can’t help but feel that things might have been different if I’d gone there on a years working visa when I was younger – on what is essentially an extended working holiday with a finite end – that I may have felt very differently about the country, and had a very different experience. But the everyday grind, everyday ‘real life’, in any country is very different to how you imagine it to be.

So, what did I learn from all of this..?

 

  • Moving Overseas isn’t always easy

I already knew from previous experience that moving overseas isn’t always easy, and different people can have very different experiences in the same places. But once you’ve done it once, a whole world suddenly opens up to you and everything just feels much easier – anything really is possible.

And just because you’ve done it once and it hasn’t worked out, doesn’t mean the same will be true of living elsewhere.

  • There’s only so much research you can do

We did plenty of research before we moved about jobs, the cost of living, potential challenges, planned for unexpected costs and more, but quite honestly, there’s only so much planning you can do. At the end of the day, things never go perfectly to plan or are quite as you expected when you hit the ground. Do your planning beforehand but to an extent you still have to roll with it, and learning to be flexible is a big part of expat life!

  • You have to give it time

It’s not always easy to settle in to a new place, but you do have to give it time. At the very least six months will give you time to settle in and get to know a bit more about the place, but really, around 12 months or more offers a much better chance to really determine if your new home is for you in the long term or not.

  • Ultimately, there’s no such thing as failure, only learning

I read recently that the rate of ‘expatriate failure’ is a whopping 30-50%. Those are pretty big numbers that tell me I’m not the only one who’s struggled to settle somewhere outside their home country.

But, if I could turn back the clock would I do it all again? In what may seem as a strange answer to some is that, YES, I absolutely would. Why? Well, because I learned a lot about my own limits and that some things I had previously taken for granted were actually more important to me than I had first realised.

Also, if I didn’t go I’d never have known now, would I? And I don’t think there can be much else worse than living a life where you always wonder ‘what if..?’.

  • Even a bad experience isn’t all bad

Of course it wasn’t ALL bad, there were some great experiences I’ll always remember!

And as for now, I’m very happily settled here in Abu Dhabi – living proof that with one expat experience having not gone to plan it doesn’t have to mean the expat dream is over!

3 Comments

  • I feel the same when going back to my birth country every time. I miss it but then I feel lost at times and cannot think I’ll be able to live there again, long term/permanently.

    We expats – we are neither here or there, always changing, always seeking. I still wish though to find that place where I feel I truly belong and live there forever. 19 years in the Philippines, 10 years in Japan and 10 years in Dubai, I still don’t know where I’ll settle. For now.

    • Yeah it’s interesting isn’t it. We enjoy being overseas and feel at home here but at the same time are never quite at home anywhere… I still get the feeling that even though I’m pretty settled here that it’s all kind of temporary. It’s a funny old thing, but then maybe keeping us on our toes is a good thing in life?! I certainly always feel glad when I see the amount of ‘things’ some of my friends back ‘home’ have collected over the years – one of the positives of living overseas is you can’t always hold onto everything so we are constantly clearing out. I suppose it’s that sense of lacking permanence again that makes us feel we need to do it.

Let me know your thoughts and comments here!