But I had a clear idea in mind: I would immerse myself in the local culture, I would embrace the local language, I would cook the local food.
I was thirsty to discover the local people from the inside, understand their points of view, share their experiences… To the point that I was not interested at all in meeting any other foreigner, even less French people!
I was wrong.
This is why.
1. You have a special bond with people who have been through the same experiences
I remember the first time in 1993 when I was laid off for economical reasons. With 2 years anciennity in the company, I was the last in and the first out. Nobody in my family or friends had ever experienced such a situation: they could not relate to it. Their reason would let them guess my state of mind but they could not feel it.
On the other hand when I would meet other job seekers at the outplacement agency, we could just understand each other with a look, a cramped smile, a hand gesture. No need for lengthy explanation.
In spite of our different stories, we shared the commonalities of our emotions.
And this is the same for expats: whether you’re an adult or a child.
Look at this short movie Carla shared on our Facebook page. It’s about our children: the Third Culture Kids. It beautifully summarizes this point: the uniqueness of each story, the commonalities of their feelings.
2. You can be true to yourself and tell the truth
No need to hide or repress your feelings for fear of being blamed, despised, ridiculed. You can honestly and openly look inside yourself and acknowledge how you feel without denial. You won’t be hearing those hurting phrases:
“Why are you complaining? After all, you chose to live abroad!”
“What? You were so paralysed you could not even articulate a hello to your next door neighbor? Come on. I don’t think you would be so shy.”
“How come you can’t even find the courage to go outside of your flat and explore the street below or buy some bread at the nearby grocery shop?”
As expats, we all have (had) our moments of doubt, our moments of fear. Coming into a new environment, without knowing anyone and struggling with the language, we’re relying a lot on non-verbal cues. We try desperately to decipher the state of mind of the local people, hoping for a welcoming sign which would give us this feeling of acknowledgment and acceptance “Yes, I realize you’re new here. Can I help you?”
Our inner chatter does not stop: “This guy did not smile at me, people here are not very friendly. This lady did not even bother to hold the door for me, people here are quite insensitive.”
All these little elements add to the puzzle we try to solve in our mind. But without anyone to talk to, you lose your self-confidence very quickly. By sharing your experience with other expatriates, you become aware that you are not alone in your struggle. In fact, it’s a very common problem. You start to realize that you’re not as “bad” as you imagined. And this is the foundation for getting your life back.
3. You start to heal
Moving far away means leaving your house, your neighbors, your familiar surroundings, your support network. Sometimes moving abroad means losing your job, your colleagues, your ability to communicate if you don’t speak the local language. We don’t always pause to think about those small and big losses: how they define our identity, how they affect ourselves, our sense of safety, self-confidence and self-esteem.
But when we experience a loss, we have to grieve it. And mourning all the losses linked to moving abroad, I call it “expatriate grief”.
Part of the healing process in grieving is to talk: finding the appropriate words, speaking them aloud and knowing that these words have been heard. You can’t do it alone.
4. Strength in numbers
Whenever you suffer emotionally from a stressful event, believe it or not, that is a trauma. (See the definition of the Oxford dictionary). You don’t need to be kidnapped by terrorists nor to go through a devastating hurricane.
Moving abroad (hopefully) for most of us, does not mean that we have to put our lives in danger. Nevertheless, it remains a stressful experience. (We’ve covered this topic here as one of the 3 pillars involved in culture shock).
From that perspective, I found it very interesting to see what we can learn from the experience and the extensive work done on trauma survivors. And what did I find?
“You’re more likely to avoid Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder and other mental disorders, if you’re surrounded by supporting people and if you’re willing and able to receive people’s help” says psychologist Aphrodite Matsakis to trauma survivors in her book “Trust after trauma: a guide to relationships for trauma survivors and those who love them”
Research has proved that the “single most important factor in recovering from a trauma” without developing further mental health problem is your “ability to derive comfort from another human being”. This is true regardless of the duration and the intensity of the trauma as well as your previous psychological state. (Johnson 1996).
Amazing, this power of relationships, isn’t it?
5. You are supported, accountable and valued
We often mention isolation and loneliness as acute problems when living abroad. The language barrier, the lack of regular social connections linked to a professional occupation are just some of the practical reasons. But in reality, isolation and loneliness have deeper consequences. Enclosed with yourself 24h a day, you question your worthiness and your likeability. You forget that establishing contact when nobody reaches out, when nobody cares, needs an effort, sometimes an incredible effort. You start to doubt. As time passes, you lose your self-confidence and your self-esteem. You’re locked with a person, yourself, a person you don’t recognize and you don’t love any more.
Don’t get trapped in this vicious circle: seek help.
Finding a supporting group of like-minded people will provide you with this little push to nudge you in the right direction and guide you towards the light at the end of the tunnel.
Finding a supporting group of like-minded people will make you accountable because just telling your progress to someone who cares will give you the courage to take the extra step and connect with your local community.
And once you feel accepted and welcome, what about sharing your experience with others? They’ll value your input.
During World War II, there was a famous radio program, broadcasted on the BBC.
“Ici Londres, les français parlent aux français.” (London here, French people talk to French people)
French expatriates (gathered in the UK) created this radio show which played an essential role to inform the French population, to coordinate actions from the French resistance and most of all to raise the French morale.
In fact, this program was so successful that it’s now part of our collective memory in France.
Imagine what would have happened if they didn’t have this radio show…
Today, we’re in 2013. “Expatriate Connection here, expats talk to expats.”
How does it sound?
Do you see any other reasons to talk to other expats?