Expat isolation and how to cope

In Expat Life, Friendships by Carole Hallett Mobbs10 Comments

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How to deal with isolation as an expat 

When you have to start your life from scratch in a foreign country where you potentially know no-one apart from your partner, where you are not familiar with the customs, where you don’t really know the location or even the neighbourhood, there is a very real danger that you will end up feeling extremely isolated.

This is especially true for accompanying partners because whilst your partner is out at work all day and has focus and motivation from the outset in your new life abroad, you’re the one at home dealing with the isolation and the newness of it all by yourself. And you know what? This can be scary, upsetting and of course, very lonely.

The unfamiliar

When you live somewhere familiar, ie home, there’s a lot you take for granted. Without even being aware of who they are or what role they play in your life the truth is there are so many familiar faces around you: whether it’s the person in the local petrol station or the shop attendants in the supermarket or the guy that walks his dog down your road – you may not know them but they’re familiar faces in a familiar place.

You’ve got experts in your life like your doctor, your personal trainer or your children’s teachers. If you’re at work you’ve got your colleagues. You’ve got your friends and your family but now, all in one magnificent swoop, they’ve all gone.

It might be in your previous life you treasured your alone time, but now, in your new life you may have far too much time alone. You might feel isolated and a long way away from people. This can be especially poignant if there’s a big time difference between you and home, or if you are somewhere where the culture is vastly different with a different language.

Being the accompanying partner it’s important you learn to deal with isolation. It’s just something you have to be able to cope with for a while. Accept it’s going to be there for a stage, don’t let it get you down and find ways to beat it!

So without further ado, here are some of my top isolation busting tips:

Shop locally

Go out and use the local stores, the local post office, the local dry cleaners, hair-dressers, beauty salons etc. You may decide that they’re the best ones for you in the long-term, but make an effort to visit them regularly in the beginning of your new life abroad and notice how these people become familiar faces; they’ll recognise you, and you’ll recognise them pretty quickly.

Likewise, join a local gym or a nearby yoga class. Again, it may not be the place you’ll stay but it will be somewhere other than the house that is familiar and the faces will become familiar too. By building up a familiar network of local faces, even in your shops, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll start to feel ‘at home’ in your new location.

Find your feet

Get to know your way around your new town or city. Knowing your way around is one of the fastest and easiest ways to create a sense of familiarity or belonging. When you know your way around then life starts to feel more normal. You don’t get that bewildered, confused feeling each time you step out the door. You may still feel isolated but it will help take away that lost feeling.

Cartoon about meeting the neighboursDo things differently

You won’t necessarily be able to do things exactly the way you did them back home and the trick is not to let this defeat you. For example, you may want to hire a cleaner. At home you would probably ask around the people you know to get a personal recommendation because you don’t really want a complete stranger in your house. But abroad, not knowing anyone to ask (another issue of isolation), you need to think outside of the box and come up with a different solution. For example, if you live in an apartment complex, put a little notice up by the mailboxes asking for recommendations. Or get ask work colleagues for recommendations. It may not be exactly what you would have done at home, but it’s just a different version of it.

Think laterally. When faced with a challenge where you don’t have people to ask for advice, ask yourself how you would do it at home. If you think, I can’t quite do that, what can you do that will work in the same way and get the same results?

Take the initiative

Moving overseas forces you to take the initiative to get the most out of your new life. If you sit inside your new home on your own, don’t reach out and don’t make things happen then I’m afraid isolation will stick around.

Accept that isolation might be a temporary phase but stay determined to beat it. Make an effort to explore your neighbourhood, know your town and join some groups. You don’t have to make huge commitments, just take baby steps, and very quickly the place will feel more familiar and those feelings of isolation will fade.

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. I live in a small city in china, im the only foreign tearcher in the university.There are almost no expats in the city and I feel very lonely and isolated. I have no face to face human contact.
    Due to my problems I started pychological therapy with a friend by skype before I enter depression.
    Any recommendations.Have no friends here, no family

  2. As a serial expat I’ve lived in 7 different countries, and the first thing I always do is find the International Women’s Club, or the American club, and/or Facebook groups (expats in xyz). Hash House Harriers running club is another one available (and you don’t have to be a “runner”). Before the Internet I’d check with both the American and Dutch Embassies to see what clubs were available. Now with the Internet it is easier to find places to connect. It’s crucial to find like minded people who speak your language and have information to help get started in a foreign country. After that it is so much easier to get to know the locals.

  3. Very very true. It’s a tricky part of living abroad, and it can creep up on us when we are having a bad day and have no one around to go for a coffee with. I’ve found that it helps to have regular skype calls with friends at home on weekends, as it makes me feel like I still am part of the group. And I also make an effort to join some local meetups, craft groups – of go do a class in something I like (printmaking, weaving, photography), it gets me out of the house, I learn something new and I meet people with similar interests.

  4. I 100% agree with you! Creating new routines and a sense of belonging are the best ways to start feeling more ‘at home’. As hard as it is, it’s worth trying 🙂

  5. I think your comment about getting out and using the local shops is very pertinent. I remember feeling quite isolated in Malaysia (for various reasons). One evening my husband and I were entertaining some work colleagues at a local restaurant and my hairdresser and her family came in for a meal. We chatted for a while and, at the end of our meal she sent over a pudding for me. It made me realise that I had made far more connections in the local area than I had previously understood. After that I started to really realise how many people I had to talk to and connect with beyond our normal day to day transactions.

    1. Author

      It does really help, doesn’t it? I used to go to a certain gift shop here purely because the staff were so friendly – we would chat for ages (and of course I would feel compelled to buy something!) It’s sadly closed now and I miss them. My wallet doesn’t though… 🙂

  6. I’ve only been an expat in 2 countries. Batam, Indonesia and Qingdao, China.
    The ladies expat social network and volunteer possibilities were great. I had no problem there.
    Here in China, it’s tough. There’s no Facebook allowed, so meet and greets are difficult. I find myself friends with the bartenders from our fave local pub. My working husbands coworkers do not have trailing spouses. I must say I’m not hesitant to leave China because of the loneliness.

    1. I had no problems in Shanghai, China, where my experience sounds like the one you had in Indonesia. When I was in China, the first place I was an expat what I struggled the most was the cultural shock – with multiple cultures btw – but now, being an expat in London, I actually miss Shanghai. I thought it was much friendlier, despite being such an enormous city.

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