Oh the expat life is sweet.
“You’re so lucky to be doing what you’re doing” many say.
But only those who have experienced it firsthand can really speak to this and they know “luck” has nothing to do with being an ex-pat.
When I first set off on my “ex-pat” experience (in all reality I could just say “immigrant”), I had beautiful memories of my honeymoon-like adventure in Spain from study abroad in college. I had painted this wonderful picture of the country in my head as a sort of promised-land that I longed to return to.
I dreamed of traveling throughout the hidden gems of the country and returning to my favorite cities. I imagined just how delicious my next tortilla de patatas would be and I could almost taste the acidic sweetness of vino tinto riojano. I silently planned adventures with my friends-both Spanish and American-to new lands outside of the Iberian Peninsula. I pictured myself sitting on a Mediterranean beach with a hot male friend, living the “life of my dreams.” I suppose you could say I had a wild imagination!
Although my university pushed it and my work experience on my CV said otherwise, I really did not have much interest in working a 9-5 office job. Yes, I understood that stability would be nice, but I also yearned to do something different and live abroad. Since I had some experience and interest in teaching English as a second language and I had been working on completing a TESOL Certificate as part of my degree, I looked into programs that would allow me to teach abroad in Spain. I applied to every single one that I knew of and was ecstatic when I found out I had been selected to be a Fulbright ETA (English Teaching Assistant). (An interesting acronym for those going to Spain considering Spain’s leading terrorist group is called “ETA.”)
I was thrilled to go back to the country that I had once called home for a few short months and I dreamed of all the adventures that awaited me. I researched the bilingual high school where I would be working, got in touch with them and planned all sort of fun activities we could do. I suppose I had a lot of high expectations.
This leads me to what I would called “Rule #1 for Ex-pats:” Do not go into the experience with any expectations. Research the country and city thoroughly and be flexible. You need to be willing to go with the flow and you must be realistic.
A lot of people who come to Spain as English teachers or students have already been there before. They had a wonderful experience either as a study abroad student or perhaps on holiday, and they long to go back and extend this experience. No matter what, going back is always different. Things change. People change. You change.
Although I don’t like to admit it, I went into my first year as an ex-pat/immigrant in Spain with very high expectations. When things turned out to be different from what I had expected in terms of my job, travel and friends, I was upset. Don’t get me wrong. I had a great year as a Fulbright ETA. It was one of the most challenging and rewarding years of my life. However, I had a different idea of how the year would go. Little did I know, I had a lot of lessons to learn that year.
And this brings me to what I would call, “Rule #2 for ex-pats:” don’t just expect to make local friends.
I went into my first year imagining myself surrounded by a group of Spanish friends. In my free time, I would only spend time with them and we would only speak in Spanish. Outside of school, I wouldn’t speak a word of English. I learned firsthand that this is not only unrealistic but also not a very good idea.
During my study abroad semester, I didn’t make too many local friends in Madrid. Most of the people I had met had since moved back to their cities because they had been studying in Madrid. One girl I knew was a little bit older and was extremely busy with her job. So, I had to go out and make new friends. With the help of the internet, I made a few friends using the language assistant Facebook page as well as conversationexchange.com, a website which facilitates in-person and online language exchanges. With these friends, I started going to free salsa classes and we eventually had a small group that met up a few times a week. None of my new friends were from Madrid and this helped because it allowed us to form our own group.
I shared a lot of fun memories with my group of Spanish friends, but I eventually realized that I needed to make some international friends who understood what I was going through. Sure, my Spanish friends were living in another city and were experiencing similar feelings. However, they could go home to their families for a weekend and I couldn’t. They had traveled Europe before, but didn’t understand my urgency to leave Madrid and see other places. A few of them had even lived abroad for a little while, but they had gone with Spanish friends or made Spanish friends when they got there. When the culture shock really hit me, I didn’t know how to explain it to them and I feel bad now when I think back to a few times when I was upset and lashed out at them for not understanding.
My first year was a rollercoaster of emotions that I couldn’t explain or understand. Part of that may or may not have had something to do with my job, friends and/or a boy or two, but come January/February of that year, I knew I needed to reach out to other foreign people to see if they could relate. I had expected it to be an easy adjustment for me, but when you are in a new job where you’re not really sure what your role is and you feel overwhelmed, and you are struggling to find friends who you have a lot in common with, things get difficult.
At this point, I started hanging out with a few of the other Fulbright ETA’s and the other language assistants from my school a bit more. We were going through a lot of the same things and it was great that we could relate to each other on a different level. Eventually, I started mixing my groups of friends and I was glad that most of them got along.
During my second year, I found a group of local friends and I went out with them a lot and even traveled with them a few times. Since I was more comfortable with who I was as an ex-pat and I had adapted better to the local culture, I was more open to meeting new people and I noticed that people were more receptive to me as well. Once I had saved enough money, I started dedicating more time to my interest in studying languages and enrolled in a French class. I even regularly attended a language exchange-something I swore I’d never do because I wanted to focus on my Spanish. I met people I had more in common with and I finally felt like I had a group of friends that I could click with.
While on the topic of making friends as an ex-pat, I would also suggest another rule, let’s call it “Rule #3:” Beware of the “friends” who are just using you to practice your native language. While this usually only applies to native English speakers, it could also happen to speakers of other languages.
I understand that many people who move abroad are not looking to learn the country’s language. Some people might move abroad to teach their own language, or maybe they work in an office where they don’t have to use the country’s language. Even though I disagree with this and think it is a waste of an opportunity to learn another language, I understand the difficulties involved in learning a foreign language, especially from scratch. That being said, I still do believe people should make an effort to at least learn the basics (Hello, how are you?, etc.).
Whether you are trying to learn the language or not, beware of people who are using you to practice your language. I’ve seen it and experienced it firsthand here in Spain quite a few times. You meet someone who is really outgoing and goes out of their way to show you around his or her city or meet up, all the while doing so in English. You meet up with other friends that speak English and this person doesn’t make any effort to teach you their language or speak to you in their language. They don’t introduce you to their local friends and they only make an effort to see you when they know you’ll speak in English. In other words, they are looking for free English classes.
Don’t let this happen to you! We’re all looking for friends at the beginning and, sometimes, we may seem a bit desperate. Don’t let people walk all over you.
If you think someone is using you for your language, try switching to the other language one day and see what happens. Explain that it’s important for you to practice their native language as much as possible while you’re living in their country. If they can’t understand why this is important to you or they can’t even make a compromise to speak in their language 50% of the time, then Sayonara sucker! This person is not a good friend and they aren’t worth your time.
It is very important for you to make local friends during your first few months to help you feel that you are part of your community. However, what I would call “Rule #4” is that it is also necessary to keep in touch with your friends and family back home. Life abroad is a whirlwind of new experiences and adventures and sometimes you get so caught up in it that you forget about your home.
Make a point of reaching out to close friends a few times a month via Facebook, e-mail, WhatsApp, Skype or any other form of social media that you use. It is important to maintain these relationships and remember where you come from.
Living abroad helps you recognize who your true friends are back home. The ones who reach out and send you e-mails or Facebook messages from time to time are worth keeping in your life. Those who like your photos and don’t make an effort to contact you directly may not be worth your time.
There will be days when you miss home and your local friends may not understand what you’re going through. Your friends from home who have known you your whole life may be able to help you feel better. Whether you sit with them on Skype for two hours and reminisce over old Facebook pictures or you just sit down and have an intense Skype conversation over dinner together, you will notice a change in your mood. Cherish and take care of both new and old relationships. As I learned in Girl Scouts: “Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver and the other’s gold.”
Another thing that happens a lot to ex-pats, especially those who live in big cities or popular tourist attractions, is that people from home (and other countries) want to visit. I had a lot more people come visit me my first year than my second year, and I learned just how important it is to discuss the details of each visit with both roommates and guests in detail.
My first year, I lived with two Colombian women who had been in Madrid for a while, and one student from Murcia who was only going to live in Madrid for the year. We discussed the topic of visitors and, at the time, I only expected a few people to come, among those my father and maybe one or two friends. I invited a lot of people and they said they’d come, but I assumed it was just them being polite. After all, I lived thousands of miles away and airfare is expensive!
I was genuinely surprised when every single person who said they would come visit (minus one person who still needs to come ::cough cough:: you know who are you are ::cough cough:: ), actually made plans to come. They bought plane tickets and planned to stay for a few weeks. While this was all fine and dandy, it was a problem for both me and my roommates to have to host people for such a long period of time. Most of my roommates’ visitors were coming from nearby cities and only stayed for a weekend or a week at the most. My friends were coming from another continent.
My “Rule # 5 for expats,” is to talk to both visitors and roommates well in advance and come up with some sort of visitor policy. This would have saved my roommates, guests and I from a huge amount of headaches and arguing. Luckily, I learned this the hard way my first year and dealt with it successfully with my new roommates during my second year.
You may want this visitor agreement with your roommates to include a maximum number of days. You should also consider whether or not your guests can share things that you and your roommates share (e.g. food, paper products, etc.). Decide on where your guests should sleep. Is the living room okay? Or is it better for guests stay in your room?
In addition to talking to your roommates, make sure you establish boundaries with your guests. Be open about your schedule and budget as well. Your guests are visiting you during their vacation time and it may be their first time in your country. They will obviously have different expectations than you and they may be more willing to go out and spend money on things you ordinarily wouldn’t spend money on. They also might be interested in visiting places that you have been to multiple times.
Don’t feel like you have to be a stellar tour guide for your friends. You have to live your life as well. Many big cities have free tours or tourist information centers that could help your friend explore your new home. Talk with your friend in advance and decide on places you’d be willing to go back to with them. There might even be places you’ve been longing to visit but haven’t seen yet. Suggest going to one of these places.
For the next rule, I’m going to change gears a little bit and talk about the topic that’s on everyone’s mind: love. “Rule #6” is to learn the rules and etiquette of dating in your host country and, as I stated at the beginning of this post, don’t have very high expectations.
We’ve all heard the beautiful story of the American girl/guy who goes abroad and falls in love, gets married and lives happily ever after in their host country. While this does happen in real life and I have met a few people who have experienced this, it is not very likely. Why? Because you are an ex-pat and you’re most likely going to go back to your home country. It’s as if you have an expiration date written on your forehead. I don’t want to say it’s impossible to find love abroad, but it is muy difícil!
That being said, don’t give up altogether! Go on dates and have fun! You’re young, single, attractive, and foreign! You have a lot working in your favor.
Still don’t have any potential dates? Well, you can meet people the old-fashioned way: through friends or at bars and clubs. But, we live in the 21st century and many people depend on technology to find new “friends.”
Although I’m no huge fan of dating apps and websites, I understand that they are the future of dating and if I want to stay in the game, I need to play by the rules. I learned this the hard way last year when my friends in Madrid more or less told me that, “unless I didn’t want to go on another date until I was 40, I had to download Tinder, Meetic, Happenin, etc. and start searching.”
I still haven’t found my media naranja (literally: “half of an orange,” best translated as: “other half”), but let’s just say my “love life” is not too shabby! Maybe I will write more on this later. Maybe not. We’ll see.
Depending on which country you live in, you may not be able to use dating apps to find potential dates. In certain countries, dating may even be taboo or forbidden. Make sure you research what people do in your host country and ask locals.
This leads me to what I would probably call, “Rule # 7 for ex-pats,” which is to enjoy the nightlife and social scene in your new country, but understand your limits!
I’ve seen it too many times before: a new ex-pat in Spain who is astonished at how cheap alcohol is and how intense the nightlife is. He or she goes out with friends and leaves early because they don’t know yet that Spanish people don’t even start the night until at least 1:30-2:00 AM. They get really wasted, make a fool of themselves and their home country, and embarrass those around them.
I’m not saying I’m perfect or anything, but I’ve learned my limits and I know what I can or cannot drink and how much of said drink I can have before I reach an undesirable state-of-mind. In other words, I do not get out-of-control drunk and make a scene. I make sure I’m still coherent and that I go out with people I know and trust. If I go out with new people, I limit myself even more. There’s nothing worse than being that “annoying drunk friend that no one can stand.”
Learn the rules for going out in your host country and try to go out with locals or experienced ex-pats as much as you can. Also, make sure you are aware of laws regarding alcohol use and consumption. Can you drink in the street or do you need to stay in the bar where you bought your drink? In Madrid, for example, they have passed laws that prohibit people from drinking in the streets. Although many people still do it anyway because of Spain’s botellón culture, they have started to implement fines of up to 600 EUR-yes, 600 EUR!- for people caught drinking in the streets. That’s crazy! In Ourense, on the other hand, it is still allowed and you won’t get fined. Go figure.
Maybe drinking is not your thing. Or maybe, like me, you loathe nightclubs. Well, there is always an alternative. In Spain, for example, you can just go to bars and drink. There are all sorts of bars-karaoke bars, Irish pubs, bars with live music, bars with trivia games, etc. Find your scene and frequent it. You will find people with similar interests in no time!
If you don’t like going out at all, maybe look into joining a sports team, taking a class, or joining a faith-based group. There is something for everyone.
My last and final rule for today, “Rule #8,” is that you don’t have to love and accept everything about your host country’s culture.
A lot of people who move abroad for any period of time try to “go local.” This means, they try their best to do everything that the locals do. They eat meals at the same times, try to talk like locals, make sure they dress like locals, they watch the same TV as locals, and so on. While it is great to have an open mind and embrace a new culture, you have to remember that you come from another country and will never be 100% like the Spanish, Japanese, Mexican, Egyptian or whatever country you move to.
Accept this at the beginning. Make an effort to learn as much as you can about your host country, but make sure you stick to your roots as well.
It is perfectly okay to dislike something about your host culture. It would be strange if you liked everything. Feel free to vent to your fellow ex-pat friends about things that you have trouble accepting in the host culture. If you identify these things up front, it will help you adjust to the new culture at a faster rate. However, don’t be too negative and be sure to always be polite to your local friends.
Culture differences may be difficult to adjust to, but they are what make people who they are. Being around people from different cultures broadens your horizons and causes you to see the world in a different way. You will become more open-minded, rational, and polite. Learning from each other makes the world a beautiful place.
Life as an ex-pat certainly has its challenges. We face them every day when we go to work, eat meals, go out with local and ex-pat friends, and go about our daily routines. Learning to deal with these challenges up front will help you go through a smoother transition and will make your daily life a lot less stressful. Although ex-pat life will always be an adventure, we must always try to find some normalcy and companionship to help us feel more connected to the local culture. Making both ex-pat and local friends, having an active social life/love life, going out, finding hobbies and routines, and exploring your new home will help make your experience wonderful.
If you are uncertain about whether or not to make a move abroad, I would say, “just go for it!” You have nothing to lose! Only new friends and experiences to gain! And on that note, “peace out, girl scout!” =]