Being Real About Being An Expat
When I started graduate school in the U.S., I had a list of things that I promised I was going to do. After spending most of my life on a small, tropical island, I wanted to drive through the big landscapes of the Great Plains, and hike parts of the Rocky Mountains. I wanted to finally go to New York, walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, see the tyrannosaurus rex fossil at the Museum of Natural History. Maybe even go to Canada or Mexico, learn French and Spanish. And then school started. Most of the items on that list remains uncrossed, as I found myself trying to keep my head above water with assignments, work, and practicum experiences. Don't get me wrong, I still loved every second of the time that I got to live and experience a different culture, just not in the way I had envisioned at first.
Balancing work and life
This is a common problem that expatriates, or expats, face when they start a new foreign assignment. They become so excited about starting a new life in a new country, focusing mostly on endless possibilities, that they forget to take into consideration some practical constraints, for instance, workload and physical/ emotional health. It's not wrong to dream. But it's also important to be realistic about them. If you already struggle somewhat with depression and/or anxiety, those problems won't magically disappear when you arrive at your destination. One of the most important step an expat (or any regular person) could take is to assemble a list of resources available to them in the new placement, so that they can find a way to balance work and daily life in order to maintain sustainable growth.
Navigating cultural differences
Expats also have to navigate cultural differences. These differences may show up in different realms. Sometimes it's as straightforward (but nonetheless complicated) as differences in language or the color of your skin. Sometimes it can be less apparent, such as work. Where I grew up, it's important for people, especially juniors who just started out, to listen and observe. In schools as well, this isn't to say Taiwanese students are discouraged from speaking up. It's just that there are certain social expectations for various roles in a particular situation. So when I went to the States, I quickly realized that not speaking up would not be viewed as paying respect to authority, but rather being timid or even hostile in a passive-aggressive manner. I could not tell you how many times I forced myself to speak up in class, no matter how nervous that got me.
For expats who move to Taiwan, they face another problem: working in an environment where relationship is prioritized over almost everything else. Collectivist cultures value harmony, so a lot of communication is indirect in order to maintain that harmony, even if it's only at face value. This creates quite a bit of misunderstanding and frustration where one party believes that they were being pretty clear about something, while the other party didn't even realize that there was a request made in the first place. For those who also come from collectivist cultures, they often find it difficult to break in local circles that are already bound by membership, such as by similarities in cultural background or language.
Building community from the ground up
Another problem expats face is having to build community from the ground up. We all have connections that help us get through tough times, such as friends, family, romantic partners. Being an expat often means that you have reduced access to such vital relationships. Even with technology helping people stay connected, trying to juggle time zones or just having to connect at different times of the day can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and disconnection. At the same time, many expats feel like they should only share good news with family back home, less their families worry too much about their well-being. Expats supposedly are living this exciting life abroad, what more could they possibly want, right? In reality though, missing home and those you care about is an incredibly common sentiment amongst expats, and with no real avenue to speak about these things, often times it makes them feel even more isolated than they already are. Not to mention unforeseeable challenges that come up, for instance, a global pandemic, that create even more stress for those living and working in another part of the world.
Living as an expat is hard. Yes, it comes with its share of new and exciting experiences, but it's definitely not all fun and adventure. It's also sifting through mountains of rules and regulations about work, visa status, and healthcare. It's trying to communicate complicated matters in a foreign language. It's all the times you try to remind yourself that you belong here, at the same time never really feeling like you're at home. There are times when you feel like it's just you against the world, but also feeling guilty for even thinking how anxious, sad, or overwhelmed you feel. But these feelings are real. Strong emotions are important signals that tell us things may be out of balance. Even though I thought I had a pretty good grasp on my English capabilities, and I met some really cool people who would help me out in a heartbeat, I still felt alone when I caught a cold and had to order medication through a delivery service. I still felt helpless waiting to hear back from immigration regarding the status of my visa.
If you're an expat and all you see online about what it's like to live in another country are the insta-filtered versions of events, well, I'm here to tell you: I see you. It's okay to be not okay. Instead of trying to avoid these negative feelings, lean into them, hear what they're trying to tell you. Whether the message is that it's time to set some boundaries, or maybe manage your expectations. Give yourself some time to process where you're at, and where you would like to be. And if you need, reach out for help. Even if it feels like you're alone, there are resources that can help you navigate through the challenges that you're facing. But you have to make the first move and ask. If you don't end up doing all that you wanted to do, that's perfectly fine, too. Remember that there's plenty of joy and awe to be had all around you, hidden in the way you wake up and fold the blankets each day; in the assignments that you turn in on-time. Just waiting for you to discover them.
In the end, I didn't get to see bison running against the endless horizon. I didn't even visit friends who live in Dallas, which was only 2 hours away. But I did help a friend move apartments, and their mom made sancocho as a thank you. I cooked hotpot and watched TV for Lunar New Year with other Taiwanese students. And when I couldn't spend another second looking at unfinished papers, I went to see bats under a bridge. And watching a million dots of black against the burning sky simply took my breath away.
Sterle, M. F., Vervoort, T., & Verhofstadt, L. L. (2018). Social support, adjustment, and psychological distress of help-seeking expatriates. Psychologica Belgica, 58(1), 297.
Truman, S. D., Sharar, D. A., & Pompe, J. C. (2011). The mental health status of expatriate versus US domestic workers: A comparative study. International Journal of Mental Health, 40(4), 3-18.
Photo by：che YU: https://www.pexels.com/zh-tw/photo/streetphotography-13412722/