Wednesday, August 10, 2016

On The Days When You Hate Being an Expat

It's totally unavoidable, and hopefully it's rare, but long after the culture shock has faded and you're totally used to your expat existence, there will be moments, probably days, when you absolutely hate your adopted country.

In the last couple weeks I've had conversations with a Japanese couple who lived in the United States for three years, and an American who lived in London for four years, and I was really struck by how universal our experiences were even though our situations were all quite different. No matter how much you like the place you are and how happy you are on a regular basis there will be moments when expat life gets the best of you.

Days when instead of looking out the window and seeing this:

All you can see is this:

It's usually tipped off by something trivial, maybe so small you're embarrassed to even text your best friend about it. Perhaps you're crying because you tried so hard, but still didn't get to watch your own country's gymnastics team compete in the Olympics. It might make your blood boil or it might just leave you feeling devastating. If you're really lucky, you might alternate between the two. You start to really worry when the frustration overflows and you find yourself hating the entire country and even worse the locals. Is being an expat making you a borderline racist?

The good news is, probably not - your emotions are just going a little haywire. So what do you do when the hatred strikes?

1. Allow yourself to really feel your feelings
It's easy to feel guilty for being upset over silly things. The fact that your Netflix isn't working really isn't a crisis is it? It is not really fair to want to kick everyone you see because someone made spaghetti sauce out of ketchup. With that guilt, it's easy to push your frustration down and dismiss it, but that's just a recipe for bottling up anger until you explode. If you're upset about something stupid, own it. Allow yourself to really feel that feeling, that's the only way to come out the other side. But don't wallow for too long. And DON'T become that foreigner that loves to complain about how "this country" is so terrible. Remember, the goal is to push through the anger.

2. Cheer yourself up
Give yourself something small to lift your spirits. Maybe you get that donut you never let yourself have. Maybe stopping at your favorite local shrine or park on the way home brings back your peace. Maybe it's fifteen minutes of cat videos. Maybe it's reminding yourself that your local ramen shop is so delicious that you would be devastated if you no longer lived within walking distance. Whatever it takes, put the breaks on the wallowing and do something that makes you feel better. Bonus points if it's something you can't do/get back home but you can where you live now.

3. Get to the root of the problem
Are you really in tears because you can't buy strawberries in the summer? That's a legit problem, and it's ok if that's all there is to it. I cry about amazingly stupid things all the time. But is there something more going on? Is the stress at work getting out of hand? Are you missing important things back home? If you can figure out what's setting you off, you can work on addressing that problem. For me summer is always the hardest. Tokyo summers are hot and uncomfortable and at the same time everyone in the US is posting gorgeous summer vacation photos. Other than Christmas, it's when I miss my friends and family most.

4. Remember your own flaws
Sometimes you're upset because things work differently where you live now. It can be hard to figure out new customs. They might be less efficient. They might annoy you for any number of reasons. Maybe you find yourself paying cash at the gym for yet another month because your signature still isn't a carbon copy match of the signature that bank has on file. Maybe you're irrationally annoyed that the person beside you just ordered a bowl of rice as side to their ramen.

This is a big one. Take a deep breath and think about the culture you grew up in. What nonsensical things do you do? What might totally irritate or baffle someone who hadn't grown up there? The rice with ramen used to boggle my mind, until I realized that I think spaghetti is best accompanied by garlic bread. (The real takeaway here? Everyone loves carbs.) I still can't remember who said this, but I love the quote that when living in another culture you will never truly understand it, but you may come to understand your own.

Recognizing things about my own culture really helps diffuse my own frustration. It also helps me snap my perspective back into place - where the people around me are humanized, and I am reminded that no matter how different we are, at the core we're all the same.

5. Do something productive
If you've got a lot of anger to burn off go for a run or clean your whole apartment. If you're obsessing over the same thoughts write about it (perhaps a useful blog post). If you're not succeeding at cheering yourself up, do something nice to cheer someone else up.

6. Know when to pull the plug
This is obviously a drastic step, and I don't recommend it to most people. But there are times when an expat has reached their limit. They aren't happy, all they do is complain about their adopted country or rant about how their home country does it better. People around them might wonder why they haven't already left. It can be complicated and intimidating to make such a big life change, but if you're truly so unhappy, it's time to consider making a move to improve your life.


  1. Hi Wendy! While I can't relate to your life as an expat, I have always wondered and admired foreigners or expats. In my country, classified as third world and not as advanced as Japan, I knew the struggles and inconveniences. Public transportation is not good. Traffic is worst. I always admired foreigners finding their way and making all means to live like a local.

    We always have our "off" or sad days. It really helps if you have a friend willing to listen. But sometimes, there are instances when we have to deal it on our own. Despite the challenges, I wish you more friends and the happiest memories to wherever country you will land. You are lucky to have the chance to see the world and spend it with the person you love the most.

    Smile :) things will feel better sooner than you think

    1. Thank you for your kind words Diane! You're absolutely right, it's so important to appreciate how lucky I am and not take these experiences for granted.

      I'm already feeling much better. Honestly, just writing about it, and hopefully creating something that someone else might be able to relate to, helped me to move on. I hope you are having a wonderful week!