The Perils of Being an Expat How Living Abroad Impacts Your Mental Health

Article by XIANEASE

For many expats, the first time that we left home for the long term was one of the most exciting moments of our lives. An entirely new place, with people, cultures, and experiences that we had never sampled before. Whether it was a long, drawn out decision or one that was made spur of the moment, that decision most likely has had a huge impact on your life, for better or for worse.

When people discuss the difficulties of living abroad, the challenges they often list are of the practical variety. How do you get your apartment? How do you order food? How do you meet new people? These are the basic questions that you need to solve when you are moving to a new place, and are most relevant for those who are heading abroad for a short time – 1 to 2 years. What these listicles fail to recognize is that for the long-term expat, these problems are often solved within the first few months of moving to a new place, and often are part of the fun of being an expat.

A new city in a new country can be a puzzle to solve, bringing with it the excitement of solving the day to day life. Sometimes, expats become addicted to that feeling of discovery, leading them to move once every few years in order to recapture that fleeting feeling. This leads to becoming a serial expat, those people who can never stay in one city too long, and often won’t remain in any one country much longer than that, as the difficulty decreases the longer you remain in a single country. In order to chase that high, these folks will attempt to never set down roots, until life forces them to, that is.

For others, life, circumstances, or choices will lead them to remain an expat in a city far from home. Whether due to money, love, or health, these people become tied to the place that they inhabit for long stretches of time, whether for 5 years, 10 years, or even longer. These expats will face a different variety of mental challenges that can leave lasting issues if not addressed.

To top all of this off, we are currently going through one of the most impactful few years in nearly a century, with a global pandemic and massive geopolitical and economic changes that tend to affect those of us living abroad in a way that is both similar and different to those back home. Add in the restriction of movement brought about by these changes and the life of an expat is more stressful than anyone might have initially thought.

While we won’t be able to cover all of the issues that an expat faces, we thought it might be good to look at the some of them, and hopefully offer up some possible solutions to help alleviate some of the pressures that come along with a life lived abroad.

Long-term friendships are difficult in a life that full of a constantly rotating cast of characters in the life of an expat. Many people that you meet will only be in your life for a short time; sometimes a year or two, sometimes a bit longer, but in the end, either the people that you have gotten to know will leave, or you will leave them. For the serial expat, constantly moving, this often leads to relationships that often feel superficial, and lack the depth and understanding that comes from years of knowing someone. While there is still plenty of happiness to be had in these relationships, they are unlikely to support your mental health and well-being over the years.

For the long-term single-city expat, it becomes more and more difficult to form new relationships, as the effort that you put into to getting to know someone seems futile, as that person will soon be leaving for new jobs and opportunities. While you may be happy for their successes, the feeling of abandonment will still be there, and may cause reluctance when trying to form new relationships. What this often results in is a person becoming reclusive, not wanting to put forth the effort of meeting new people; not wanting to face the disappointment of a another friend leaving yet again.

While a tight community of other long-term expats may emerge, people that have known each other for many years, even these people may eventually tire of their lives abroad, and may want to take their families back home, especially as their parents and other relatives begin to age.

Relationships with local friends can also be difficult, especially in a culture that is as monolithic as Chinese culture, where full integration into the culture is nearly impossible. It is hard to develop close relationships when you are always the Laowai friend, and not just a friend. In the event that you marry into a local family, you can get a modicum of a local support system, but it pales in comparison to a sense of truly belonging.

For expats living in countries where they don’t match the local physical norms, they tend to garner much more attention than they would in their home country. The more uniform the average is, the more attention you tend to get. This is especially true in places like China, where non-East Asian foreigners tend to be very easy to spot. This can result in an excess of attention which can lead to a variety of problems.

You know how celebrities tend to get very angry and aggressive with paparazzi? The same kind of feelings can arise when people are trying to snap photos of you on a daily basis. However, unlike celebrities, you don’t get checks worth millions of dollars or have security teams to go along with you. This constant attention can be very stressful, and tends to lead to feelings of invaded privacy, paranoia, and anger at not being allowed to go about your daily business in peace. Even though there is practically no significant impact that can arise from these interactions, it can still cause you more mental distress than you are prepared to handle.

Similarly, being visibly foreign tends to warp the interactions that you have with people on a daily basis, which can cause behavioral issues and a different kind of mental anxiety, whether you receive positive or negative attention. In the case of receiving positive attention, people start to feel that all interactions should be a certain way. In many cases, this can lead to a undeserved sense of entitlement that results in less than desirable behaviors and blow outs when things don’t go their way.

On the other end of the spectrum, negative interactions tend to also affect our feelings towards people. Sometimes, people may make blanket statements about your home country that you don’t agree with, causing you to want to defend your home, causing conflict. Sometimes you will also be seen as a representative of your country, and people will hold you accountable for things that your country may have done internationally, even though there is no way that you could have influenced those events. These negative interactions tend to have an even stronger effect on an expats attitudes towards people, and can lead to serious bitterness and resentment that can leak over into other aspects of life.

One thing that can be difficult to remember is that during your time abroad, things continue to change back home. It is often the case that the longer you stay abroad, the greater the gap in experience between you and those that you used to know. This is especially true during recent times, where the pace of change has affected things at a rate greater than in the past. The customs, practices that used to be commonplace in your life become an odd experience, and the changes that those things have experienced make them feel even stranger.

This problem is exacerbated by the tendency for expats, who are constantly asked about their home countries, to begin to idealize their previous lives and the practices of their hometowns. This means that even when you return to your home, the perfect nostalgic version of the home in your head will often clash with the reality of the situation. This often causes those who have returned home to regret their decision, and try at some point to return to their previous lives, though their new lives may not allow for the transition back. Then there is the issue of idealizing their previous lives abroad, continuing the cycle.

When the reality of home becomes strange, it can have a strong negative effect on your sense of identity and well-being. The separation of experience that you have from even close family members can cause you to feel dissociated from your thoughts about your own background, and it can be difficult to reestablish relationships. There is also the issue that we tend to imagine people that we haven’t seen for a long time as they were before, and not as the people that they have become now. Likewise, the people that we once knew think of us as the same people that left however many years ago, and are unaware or even willfully ignorant of the people that we have become. This can lead to conflict. Even though you may have known this person your whole life, you essential have to get to know them all over again.

Thankfully, the issues listed above aren’t going to affect everyone, though there is a good chance that every expat will experience at least one of these issues throughout the course of their time abroad. While there is no hard and fast solution for these issues, as everyone is experiencing life differently, there are a few mental tools that might help you survive your time abroad with just a bit more of your mind intact.

Technology allows us to stay connected in ways that were previously impossible, and one of the benefits of the recent pandemic is that people are more accustomed to connecting via video calls and other methods than previously. This means that you can keep up with those friend that you have made during the course of your journey better than ever before. Now, it may feel awkward to contact someone after a long time of not communicating with them, but they likely feel the same way. Rarely will anyone be upset that you decided to contact them because you were thinking about them.

This applies for staying in touch with family as well. It’s important to stay focused while calling home as well. It might even be a good idea to keep track of some local news in order to know what’s going on back home, and to be able to connect on a closer level, even though you don’t live there anymore. Following along with local sports teams or other similar types of local traditions can help you stay connected as well.

A way to make sure that the friends you currently have don’t fall by the wayside when they move away is to exchange multiple bits of contact information, so that you don’t lose touch. While WeChat is the predominant form of communication in China, many will stop using it once they leave, so you’ll want to have another way to stay in touch.

When it comes to the negative effects of the excess attention you receive here whether, positive or negative, it is important to remember that in most situations, the other person is not really thinking about you, but rather about themselves. While this may seem insensitive, trying to correct everyone that you have interactions with is going to exhaust your mental reserves long before you can stem the tide of people that simply don’t’ care how you feel about the matter. If things are getting to be too much, get some separation. Take cabs for a few days instead of public transport, get out of town on a weekend, or just find yourself a nice little private spot to recover.

Your brain will thank you.