Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Four Stages of Expat Life

Le Dernier Bar avant la Fin du Monde
Photo ruthlessly ganked from their site.
Used under Fair Use
Today I'm am very pleased to be heading to Le Dernier Bar avant la Fin du Monde, a geek bar here in Paris. As you may know, I've been helping people get jobs in Amsterdam and a gentleman from South America was offered one of the positions. By coincidence, he's visiting Paris, so my wife and I will be meeting him.

I believe (I could be mistaken) that this will be his first expat experience and that got me to thinking about how to be a successful expat. I define "successful" as "an expat who adjusts successfully to his or her new country." To succeed, it helps to know the four stages of being an expat.

Stage 1: The Honeymoon

The very first stage is the stage everyone anticipates when they dream of becoming an expat. You land in your new country and everything is magical. Accidentally brushing your teeth with hemorrhoid cream is something to laugh about. There is always something new to explore and even walking down the street is an adventure. It's like falling in love and nothing could possibly be wrong.

This stage usually lasts several weeks.

Stage 2: Homesickness

This is perhaps the hardest stage for an expat and it's the one that will cause them to pack it in and head home. There will come a point when you wake up and you would just love to share your adventures with your best friend or your sister and you can't. You want to meet them at a pub or restaurant, or just hang out at their place, but they're thousands of miles away.  Do not underestimate homesickness. People in witness protection programs have died because they gave in to their homesickness and wanted to see a bit of home. In this stage, accidentally brushing your teeth with hemorrhoid cream is something to cry about.

One key to surviving this stage is to establish a full routine and try to make it about the country. If the local language is different, take language classes. If you loved sports back home, follow local sports. Are you a political junkie? Learn the political leanings of the local newspapers and understand how the government works in your new home. Your new home won't really feel like home yet, but the more you understand it, the faster you can integrate.

Stage 3: Coping

You're finally becoming a true expat. In this stage, accidentally brushing your teeth with hemorrhoid cream is annoying.

When you get past the grief of homesickness, you're starting to adjust to your new life. You have a routine down, you probably follow the local news a bit and you're making real friends. Be careful, though: if all of your friends are expats, all of your friends will leave in the end. Make it a point to make friends with the people who have grown up in your new home. Not only will they help you to understand their culture better, you'll escape the rut of always looking at things through the eyes of a guest.

This is the second most dangerous stage of being an expat. While the immediately difficulties aren't as strong as the homesickness stage, this stage lasts a lot longer. As a result, we might even have more expats bailing out in Stage 3 than Stage 2. Continuing to work to integrate yourself into society will make this stage shorter and more pleasant.

Stage 4: Living

You're now completely an expatriate. Accidentally brushing your teeth with hemorrhoid cream just won't happen. You're fully integrated into your new life and while you will never really be a native, you're no longer the person you were. Nationality and nationalism might even become a bit of a fuzzy concept for you. Were you to return to your home country, you would likely feel out of place and struggle to cope.

These four stages last varying lengths of time and they're not exclusive. I've been permanently living abroad since 2006 and while I'm generally at Stage 4, I still experience the other stages — though not as much as I used to. Understanding these stages and how to cope with them is a great way to ensure your success as an expat.


  1. I think that the motivation behind the migration can also affect these stages. Someone who is motivated more by push factors (such as economic interest) will probably have a different experience than someone who desires to move abroad (pull factors). For instance someone who moves from push factors may skip stage 1.

  2. If I moved abroad (to Russia) last April, haven't returned home and I'm perfectly happy here... does that mean that I skipped straight to step 4?

  3. I've spend 4 years in the USA, and I guess I went straight from stage 1 to stage 4. I've been back for more than 12 years, but I'm still between stages 2 and 3.

  4. It's a long while ago that I left Australia at age 23 "to see the world", and have lived & worked in England, Canada, Bahamas, Vanuatu (as it is now) and Cayman. Maybe I've just been lucky, but I somehow skipped straight to Stage 4. I've felt at home in all of those places, and have kept in touch with many of the expat friends we made there.

    The original intention was to go back after three years or so, but it was actually seven years, and that was just passing through to somewhere else. Even Cayman was another way-station, after 15 years away, but circumstances (married with child) made it a good place to stay indefinitely.

    Maybe migration is in some people's blood. I have quite a few expats in my family tree, and wrote a blog about that last month (February); that topic might be familiar to someone reading this comment.

  5. I find that I can experience all 4 stages in a day, actually most days, depending on what's happening. I do agree it probably depends on why you move abroad.

  6. I have a theory of 6s - Stage one takes around 6 weeks, stage two around 6 months and stage three around 6 years! We've been "gone" for nearly 5 years now and I still make mistakes, I get on the wrong train, mix up the word for skating with the word for shooting and watch my kid's embarrassment as I murder the Dutch language with my bizarre mix of Brabantse come Cockney accent (surprisingly closer than you'd imagine!) But we have a fabulous mix of friends from the local and international community. The best part of being International for me is to be able to mix our two social worlds and watch our Dutch friends chatting happily to our non Dutch friends. A sort of international catalyst effect!