Life as an expat has a few stages that inevitably you will go through. You may go through each stage in order or find that you bounce from one back to the other. Expat life can be a roller coaster of emotions and experiences. One minute you are happy as a tourist arriving at a stylish hotel with a welcome drink in your hands, a warm tropical breeze caressing your neck and the scent of fragrant flowers tantalizing your senses. The next minute you feel the urge to act like a toddler having a full-on temper tantrum laying on the floor and kicking, screaming and crying. This doesn’t work in the local shops. Trust me. There’s security footage somewhere to back this up.
From my own expat experience, there is no hard and fast rule how long each stage lasts but getting to the final stage can take a few years. You can arm yourself with the best travel guides, pore over every expat website and forum, quote every review on Trip Advisor for your new host country but that it is only a small part of the groundwork. Nothing can quite fully prepare you for living as an expat as it can be the smallest things that will be problematic for you.
The first stage is the best one and the longer it lasts the better. This is the Honeymoon/Tourist Stage. You will occasionally return to this stage whilst in the other stages when you find something new or the smallest thing delights you. As you explore your new host country’s attractions, enjoy the beautiful scenery and sunsets you will have such a sense of fun and delight. Comparing small things and customs to your home country seems quaint and delightful. Sipping cocktails and exploring bars and restaurants gives you a sense of excitement that you are living in a country where others holiday. You seek out tourists so that you can utter those three little words: I live here. A wave of excitement and a slight sense of smugness may settle. Everything seems fabulous and you find delight in the expat life. You are excited about a new culture and the hope of a host of new friends. Unpacking becomes fun and the world of opportunity and adventure has never shone so bright for you.
The main problem with the second stage is that you realise that the first stage is over and didn’t last as long as you wanted it to be. There will be a brief moment of denial as you reach the Frustration Stage when you start to deal with the daily routine of living in another country and a few cracks start to appear. You immediately try to cover them with hope but those cracks will reappear down the line in stage three too. Living and holidaying in another country are not the same thing. Remember those small points of comparison to your home country that you thought were so charming? They will now start to irritate you. You need to keep a sense of positivity in this stage to stop every small frustration developing into something larger than it actually is. The cheap rum helps. Enjoy another sunset, take a large sip and breathe.
The turning point is the third stage when you are more comfortable with the culture and your surroundings. Welcome to the Acceptance Stage. Many of the cracks that you tried to cover in the second stage are back but this time you accept them full on as part of the living experience. You are more familiar with your surroundings, have met a few people and the local news does not seem so alien to you. You start to understand the culture more and the qualities that it has. Local phrases will start to enter your vocabulary and by now you will have a few favourite restaurants and bars. You know the short cuts around the country and have a favourite gecko in your kitchen.
The fourth stage is the Integrated Stage and will not be reached until you have lived in your host country for a couple of years at least. Maybe a year if you are lucky. It is the black belt of expat living. Although you may never be accepted as a native, you now feel as if this is your home and nothing seems too strange to you. Sometimes being an outsider makes you appreciate a place more.
There are different ways to help you through the more difficult stages. Personally, I take a deep breath. Walks on the beach and a large glass of rum helps too. You need to take enjoyment out of the smallest things to help you counteract the largest frustrations. Expat life teaches you about a new country and yourself. Sit back, let the frustrations fall off you and enjoy the opportunity you have.