What I Didn’t Expect About Being an Expat

I’m out of milk, but that’s no big deal, right? I pause before climbing into my car, realizing that I’m standing in front of the passenger door yet again. I drive as slowly as I possibly can without enraging the other drivers, scanning the streets for the nearest grocery store. I attempt to read the passing signs, but each one fades behind me before I can even translate the first word. I finally see the grocery store on the right and try to flick my turn signal, but I end up turning on the windshield wipers instead.

It’s easy to idealize expat life, particularly because a lot of the hype is actually true: The staggeringly delicious new foods, the eclectic international groups of friends, and the infinite opportunities for local travel. But beyond the surface level glamour, what is it really like to leave everything familiar behind and start a life in a new country?

I Crave the Weirdest Foods from Home

I have an incurable infatuation with food, and digging into a country’s food culture is always one of the highlights of my expat experience. Yet after about a month or two in a new country, the obscure food cravings hit. Yes, I can watch a chef hand roll and cook udon noodles at that restaurant around the corner, but what I really want is some Kraft Dinner. Before my Kraft Dinner cravings, it was thoughts of Taco Bell that kept me awake at night. They’re arguably crappy foods, and not even ones that I ate very often when I lived in Canada; yet something about their complete unavailability makes me want them with disproportionate intensity. When I visit home once a year, I’m sure my friends and family expect me to seek out the best of Toronto’s food scene, but instead I’m usually on my way out the door to pick up some Pop Tarts.

I Feel Guilty About My Expat Friends

I typically end up with mixture of local and expat friends; however, when I occasionally find myself hanging out with a group of exclusively other expats, I can’t help but feel a little guilty about it. It feels wrong to, even for a moment, separate myself from the culture around me by cocooning in an English-speaking bubble. In some ways, it’s completely natural. Like me, most of my fellow expats spend their days struggling to communicate, gesturing wildly, and managing misunderstandings. Learning the local language is an enjoyable part of being an expat, but there are also times when it’s totally exhausting. That’s why there’s something wickedly indulgent about gathering with other English-speakers and being able to express myself freely and easily.

The guilt intensifies because these expat friends are often not the kind of people I would have spent time with back at home. In many cases, our personalities don’t quite mesh, but we all quietly overlook this fact because, with so few English-speakers around, it’s in our collective best interest to get along. For the same reason, these friendships tend to fade the quickest after one or both of us moves on, because the only thing we ever really had in common was our language.

I Can’t Just Translate

Brent and I were sitting with some Thai friends one day and I sneezed. Brent automatically said “Bless you”, and then had the idea to ask our friends what to say in Thai when someone sneezes. Our friends looked at us blankly: “You don’t say anything”.

I’ve arrived in pretty much all of my expat homes with very little knowledge of the local language. In the beginning, my attention was always so focused on learning basic phrases that I overlooked the cultural aspect of communicating with people. It took me months to clue in to the fact that sarcasm is completely lost on pretty much all Japanese people. In Spain, our host family answered the phone by saying “diga”, which they told me basically means “speak”, and I was shocked by how rude it seemed to begin a conversation like that. It was even more surprising to discover that, in most countries, it’s not standard to politely ask “how are you?” when you first see someone.

I began to realize that expressing yourself in another language is not just about taking your native language and translating it into a different one; it’s about discovering how people interact with one another in a different culture, and it’s all part of the clumsy beauty of making a life for yourself as an expat.

25 thoughts on “What I Didn’t Expect About Being an Expat”

  1. I used to live in Spain, and still on occasion, use “diga” or simply “si” to answer the phone. and my favourite thing about Spanish is you say “Soy Sammi”, not it’s Sammi, instead I am Sammi. Totally get the cravings. Mine was fish and chips or KFC, neither of which I’ve eaten very much. And milk, real milk! My stomach couldn’t even tolerate the stuff when I first moved back here.

    Oh, I wish to be an expatriate again…..

  2. The linguistic and cultural oddities are why I love traveling. So many little cultural details are mere coincidence, yet people view them as objectively correct, rather than merely a localized custom.

    When you stop to think about it, requesting that an all-powerful deity bestow a special blessing upon someone because of nasal challenges is just bizarre. Why don’t we ask the all-powerful deity to bestow a special blessing upon someone after a cough? Or a hiccup? Or just tripping over an uneven road and skinning a knee?

    The same is true for all sorts of customs. Everything from marriage rituals to more mundane quirks like handshakes are just purely cultural coincidences, and sometimes it takes a little global exploration to realize how many “normal” things are in fact a cultural imposition.

    1. So true! Traveling really gives you a chance to see your own culture reflected back at you – it gives you perspective on how inexplicably strange pretty much all of our own customs are.

  3. Languages are interesting, they give you so much insight into the corresponding cultures. So many words just can’t be translated, and this is not even taking into account physical gestures.

    1. Very true about gestures! And even reaction sounds – I feel like North Americans make a particular set of murmurs when they’re interested or surprised, and those sounds are totally different in other cultures.

  4. I know what you mean about food cravings! I’m back home to New Zealand in a few months and I can’t wait to get down to my local vietnamese restaurant for some greasy noodles! (its not even NZ food i crave!)

  5. I had one of those cultural norm moments today! A friend mentioned she was having a small surgery and I asked what the proper thing to say in Russian would be. “Uhh… we wouldn’t really say anything? Maybe call afterwards to say…”

    I’m with you on the weird cravings as well. There are Popeye’s Chicken restaurants in Istanbul and Kong Kong airports, and despite the amazing local food scenes in both I’m inevitably drawn straight to ‘That Chicken’ every time I pass through.

  6. All very true! I also used to feel guilty about my expat friends, but I’ve began to embrace it. I need them to survive! At least here in Spain it is pretty easy to make Spanish friends so I don’t feel like such an outsider!

  7. Ha! I say bless you at the Chinese school I work at and it cracks them up. I relate to the cravings. Since I got to china all I want is this pub burger from an irish bar back in Maine, as well as a solid lobster roll. Things that taste like home, no matter the fact I really didn’t eat it that often. Being an expat is glamorous and not. The only thing that sort of stinks is that both locals and folks back home think you live a fairy tale… and so often its a pain in the ass, but lord I wouldn’t trade it.

    1. Very true. A lot of days living as an expat are pretty routine. The routine is definitely different than the one I had at home, but not particularly more exciting.

  8. The not translating problem was a huge one for me– especially with Japanese. There are just so many things that don’t translate to anything in English or what it translates to is not how we would use that word at all.

    Great observations Jessica!

  9. This all so true Jessica, and I agree with Sammi, it definitely took a while to get used to how people answered the phone when I lived in Spain. Some of my Spanish friend’s said ‘dime’ which I found very direct in comparison to ‘hello’
    And I totally get you on the food craving thing! I’m now living in France and sometimes really want a specific UK brand or crave something like English mustard – which I didn’t even eat that much at home!

    1. I’ve also found there are so many words in other languages that I wish we had in English. For example, (you probably know), omoshiroi in Japanese means both “funny” and “interesting” – I love it. There’s really no single word in English that captures those two feelings.

  10. I had to giggle when I was reading your intro about walking to the wrong side of the car—every so often when I’m in a car, I have a moment of panic because I think we’re driving on the wrong side of the road (since it changes from country to country here in Asia)! I haven’t been behind the wheel of a car in about 2 years, so I only hope that my reintroduction to driving goes smoothly!

    1. Same here! When we started driving in Japan, it had been at least years since I had driven (since I didn’t drive when we lived in Toronto either). So it was like ok, I’m going to drive for the first time in 2 years….on the opposite side of the road…in a country where I can’t understand a lot of the road signs….and the roads are half the width of the ones in Canada. Terrifying. I’m not quite sure how I did it, haha.

    1. Thailand was kind of hit and miss for me. Sometimes the food was awesome, and sometimes it was a bland soup served on a scorching hot day – not my favourite.

  11. Thank goodness I didn’t have to drive while I lived in China! I think the stress would have taken years off my life. It was pretty easy to shop for groceries in Shanghai, and a surprising amount of western stuff was available. I actually ate a lot of things there that I never do back home, like Goldfish crackers, Pepperidge Farm cookies and Lays potato chips. These were my substitutes for cheese and cupcakes 🙂

    1. True! It totally depends where you are. We’ve lived in a lot of small towns, so Western foods have been hard to find. But I found both Kraft Dinner and Pop Tarts in a grocery store in Chiang Mai today, so I guess I’ll have to find some new strange cravings.

  12. up till now I have only ever been an expat in English speaking countries, this is soon to change and Im sure I will experience the same difficulties and guilt and so on that you did. However, I do agree with the fact that it is one very awesome experience!

  13. My biggest problem when visiting Australia for almost a month was biscuits. Australia has biscuits but they’re hard cookies, not the fluffy biscuits I wanted. I only eat biscuits about twice a month while home but because I couldn’t have them, I craved them constantly!

  14. Food cravings are the worst, especially if they are snacky foods…more than likely you won’t be able to find them! But yes, once living as an expat – that is when you learn appreciate the small things back home!

  15. Ah super loved this post! I found exactly the same things when I was abroad – like a strange addiction to red bean soup. I also wrote about English-speaking expat friends maybe not being your ideal friends in a recent blog post of mine.

    I wasn’t surprised about the “bless you” thing though, I’m pretty sure that itn was a result the black death in the 1300s (which mostly only affected parts of Europe) and people said it to those who sneezed because they thought they were going to die from the plague. I’m sure I read that a few other countries say something similar out of superstition or a particular disease they had in the past.

  16. That’s what so good about learning a new language. It’s not only about speaking, you start to understand the culture more. So you can see a country with a totally different point of view. And it’s so nice to understand the humour!!

    That’s why I am always sad to see people living for 15 years in a country… and still not speaking the language.

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