5 Important Things I've learned from Living as an Expat for 5 years

Me, 5 years ago right before I moved away

Me, 5 years ago right before I moved away

You take the leap, you move away, and sooner than you know it you start to feel at home in a new country. You have a place to live, a job, friends, you can make your way around in the local language, you’re happy. The years pass, and where you’re from is still a part of your soul, but you can feel it further away. Home is where your heart is, and that can be in many places. This week marks my 5 year anniversary of being an expat, and these are the top five most important things I’ve learned:

Your friends are out there, you just have to find them.

It took me more than a year to find friends which I actually felt a good connection with. First I concentrated on my career, and once that was secure, I made it a priority to make friends. I’ve learned that in order to find people you can ‘click’ with you really have to put yourself out there, whether that’s attending local expat events, joining expat Facebook groups or Meetups, messaging people on Facebook who are looking for someone to go for coffee with or making an effort to hang out with your colleagues from work, it’s important that you do your best to meet new people. Eventually, you will find ones you like, and they will like you too. The next part is actually putting the time and effort into these friendships. Some will last and some will not and even worse is when the ones you really connected with move back home. Expat friends are great, as you tend to have more in common than the locals, however not all of them are planning to stay forever.  It will take awhile to make ‘best friends’ and you most definitely cannot replace the ones you have at home.

Your friends make or break your life abroad

Legally living in another country is complicated (duh)

Ok, I was a bit naive when I first moved abroad, I basically packed my bags, got a travel & work visa and moved in with my German boyfriend. I had no idea of the hardships to come.

Luckily I already had a job when I moved here, but a year later I realised that staying in Germany won’t be easy, and I made some mistakes before leaving Canada.

First, you need to have a plan after your visa expires, will your job sponsor you? Do you have enough income for a work permit? My previous company was happy to sponsor me, but I didn’t have a high enough income for a work permit. This led to major problems, and I actually was kicked out of Germany for a brief time until I got a different type of visa. A year later and (many) trips to the immigration office, I finally had a full residence permit. That was a good day.

Another thing to keep in mind that even if you have another citizenship, you have to do taxes just like everyone else in the country you live, and if you haven't legally cut ties with your home country - you’re gonna have to do them there too. I didn’t cut ties with my home country, and this led to me having to pay DOUBLE tax on an already heavily taxed income in Germany. After many lovely forms, and calls to my accountant in Canada - I finally was able to cut ties with Canada, and get my tax money back. If only I knew about this before I left, I would have saved myself the trouble.

Happy to have my passport back, after sending it across the country for a visa

Investing time into learning the local language is needed

This one kind of says everything for itself, if you’re planning to move to a new country, and it's not English speaking, you better have some savings to enroll in language courses and invest a lot of your time learning the language yourself. 5 years later and I am still not fluent in German, and this is my own fault. I should have concentrated more on learning the language and immersed myself in it, as this opens even more opportunities when it comes to socializing, careers and improves your overall feeling of fitting in. Of course, I have found companies which have English as their official language, friends who speak English, practitioners (doctors, dentists, etc.), but it would have been a whole lot easier if I just was fluent and confident in the language.  

The activities you loved to do at home, take a while to pick up again abroad

This is one thing I still struggle with, and to this day have not even done everything abroad that I wish to do.  Back home I had many hobbies like singing, dancing, theatre & hula-hooping. These were easy to be involved in because I knew the community, communicating was easy (English) and I knew where to go and knew the people there. I still find this super intimidating abroad because unless it is an English course, it is easy to feel like an outsider as you haven't been part of the community since you were young. Slowly, but surely I am starting to enroll in these hobbies again but it’s taken me a long time to get the confidence to start. I feel a bit lost without these hobbies in my life, as it was a huge part and plays into my happiness abroad.

Your friends and family back home will move on too

Unless you moved abroad to run away and never look back, home will always have a huge place in your heart, and even sometimes it feels like that huge place in your heart is actually a hole, deep with emotion, homesickness & pain. When you move abroad, you kind of expect home to stay how it was, and things not to change. It’s like they should freeze in time, while you live your life abroad and gain countless new experiences. However, things will change and they will keep on living their life too, and you have to learn how to let it go and expect your heartbreaking departure to affects others too. When you come home, some friends may not treat you the same as they have now found other friends, and you won’t feel as close. That’s when you can really tell your friends and best friends apart. Family and best friends will always be happy for you to come visit, and if they love you, they’ll support you, but you can’t expect them to be the same as before. They will live their lives without you, as you chose to do that too. The best you can do is to stay in touch through the wide technology available to you, find the time, or else you will really lose a part of your soul.

A lovely photo from my home

There are definitely more than five things I’ve learned over the years abroad, however, these are things I wish someone told me before I arrived. I don’t believe they would have changed my decision about moving abroad, but my expectations would have been different and I would have had less stress and anxiety.  After 5 years, I still have a lot to learn about being an expat and I know there are hardships yet to come. However, more and more each day I grow to love my life abroad, and wouldn’t change a thing.

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