Why Life as an Expat can be Challenging

Expats are people who live outside their native country – whether they are teaching English in Thailand, working as translators in France, or retired in Costa Rica. Expats make up 3.1% of global population, which totals to 230 million people – the equivalent to Indonesia. If all the expats around the world were to form an imaginary country, it would be the 5th most populous in the world.

I recently wrote a post about living as an expat in Taiwan for a year and how it improved my lifestyle. Many of the benefits I noted were not only true of expat life in Taiwan but also of Asia as a whole, and a few of them are universal. I discussed improvements that were relevant to both my immediate lifestyle and my lifestyle after leaving Taiwan (i.e. I discovered a love of hiking, therefore I explored some awesome places in Taiwan, after leaving I still hike and have trekked to places I might not have otherwise, like Kościelec).

Though my lifestyle – during and after living in Taiwan – has improved as a result of my relocation, I want to make it clear that being an expat isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. While being an expat can improve one’s quality of life overall, reaping those benefits doesn’t come without other sacrifices. There seems to be a common misconception that expats have got it easy, and that they are just having an eternal ‘gap yah.’ In reality, life as an expat can be very challenging.

What are the challenges commonly faced by expats?

1. Language Barriers

With the exception of all the polyglots out there, language barriers can be a real challenge. Simple tasks can take an incredibly long time to get done. A conversational exchange like, “How do I turn the washing machine on?” becomes a nightmare when you realise you don’t know the word for how, washing, machine, or on. In fact, mine and Luke’s inability to read Chinese meant we had been washing our clothes without washing powder for two months because we thought there was already some in the machine. Actually, we never saw anyone with their own washing powder the whole time, so I’m still not sure we were using the laundrette properly!

Language barriers are a particular problem for expats in Chinese and Vietnamese speaking countries, as those languages are notoriously hard to learn. Many people, me included, feel nervous when speaking a foreign language for fear of sounding silly and having a local stare at you like you’re a crazy person. Of course I sounded silly when I asked for táng (sugar) instead of tāng (soup), but that’s all part of learning a new language.

Praying to get soup rather than sugar...

2. Socio-Cultural Differences

Why are scooters allowed to drive on the pavement in Taiwan!? And why is no one concerned that there is a toddler precariously balanced on that fast moving scooter!? These are two socio-cultural differences between Taiwan and England that I will never understand, but that’s okay. I remember seeing an East Meets West infographic illustrating some of the main cultural differences experienced by expats. The expat problems I repeatedly heard frustration or confusion over were queuing (or lack of), talking about the weather (or not), and respect (or lack of) for the boss (even if he was a nitwit).

West and East - Charlie on Travel expat problems
Different ideas on how to queue

3. Missing Family & Friends

I love my mum, it’s obvious, homesickness is always a problem for expats. Moving to Taiwan was my first time living abroad and the first time I didn’t live within a reasonable distance of my family and friends. What also doesn’t help is a 7-hour time difference. My mum certainly didn’t want me ringing her on Skype when I finished work, because 2am is not an appropriate time for a chat.

Me & Mum in London
Here’s my mum, she’s lovely.

4. You Can’t Always Choose your Native Speaking Friends

Here’s one you don’t see too often but is definitely a problem. Naturally expats want to integrate and make friends in their local community, but language barriers can be difficult and tiring, so many expats also look to have a group of native speaking friends too. Unfortunately, unlike in your home country where anyone in your surrounding area is a potential friend, your friend options are massively reduced in these circumstances. As a result, you usually become friends with other expats because they are the few who happen to also be living in your local area (unless you live in a big city, but even then…) I can’t say I ever met anyone I didn’t like, but I met a lot of people who I just had nothing in common with. In the end, I was very fortunate to have made some excellent friends who I learned a lot from, but it definitely didn’t happen immediately.

awesome friends play Catan
Awesome friends play Catan.

5. Isolation

The top cited problem experienced by expats is feeling isolated. This is usually the result of a combination of the above factors, which can really get you down on a bad day. Even though I relocated to Taiwan with my partner, I still had days where I felt isolated from the community as a whole. This was usually because of being away from my family, my rubbish Chinese (not for want of trying), and inability to comprehend why people drive scooters on the pavement. On a grey rainy day it was enough to make me want to just stand under the shower for hours.

Chongde Beach - Charlie on Travel expat problems
Luke alone on Chongde Beach

What!? Now being an expat doesn’t sound good at all!

When you’ve been living in a new country for a while, you start to get used to your surroundings to the extent that you don’t appreciate them in the same way you first did. It’s natural that everyone has down days, but it’s really important to focus on the positives of your new home, and not to dwell on the negatives. Choosing to live as an expat means making compromises. For some, the benefits of living abroad far outweigh the negatives and they become long-term expats. Others, like myself, are somewhere in between and prefer short-term stints as an expat. The rest aren’t even reading this blog post.

Want a tip? Thailand has been rated as the top destination for expats looking for both a good quality life and an improved financial status.

Charlie Marchant

Charlie is a long-term traveller from the UK who writes about simple ways to travel sustainably, including how to become a house sitter and slow traveller, eating local and vegetarian, and making responsible travel choices.

27 thoughts to “Why Life as an Expat can be Challenging”

  1. I totally get your point, I was an expat in Finland for 6 months, and that wasn’t easy…
    Nonetheless, I would do it again and again and again, cause it taught me a lot of things, about life, about having your mind open and understand and respects the ones different from you, and most important, I understood the value of my home town, of my family and friends.
    So, as you, I think being an expat (for a while) is a good thing at the end! :)

    1. What was being an expat in Finland like? I can imagine it is quite an experience!

      I would also be an expat again for sure – well, I will be soon. It’s great to hear you had such a positive experience, I definitely experienced similar feelings =)

      1. As you, I experienced pros and cons.. The landscapes and the country were gorgeous, and the people were great too, although they were a little bit shy and introvert. The hardest thing to endure was probably the dark, as I lived there from november to april. In december, I was leaving in the morning for work as it was the middle of the night, witnessed a glimpse of sun at around noon, and came back home again as it was midnight..

        1. Oh gosh, the dark would never have even occured to me! I’m sure I wouldn’t like that either – I don’t even like too many gloomy, overcast days.

          Wow, that’s an incredible experience… even if it’s not a good one!

  2. Dear Charlie, I can definitely relate to most f what you said here. I have been an expat myself, in London for 5 years. I remember the challenges of the early days, the language barrier, the homesickness and the difficulties in relating to fellow expats from my country. Like you though, I believe being an expat made me who I am. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Hi Charlie, Being an expat definitely has its advantages and disadvantages with the main one being a sense of isolation and missing family. It takes a lot of courage to do what you are doing and in the long run you should be, and will be, very proud of this accomplishment.

  4. Very valid points here Charlie! I lived as an expat too and I understand you fully and agree with you, As you said compromising is the key and the way to go, if it doesn’t work that way perhaps being an expat isn’t the right thing after all. I’m so glad I managed even if it wasn’t always so easy especially at the beginning.

    1. I’m glad I managed as well, though I remember it being really difficult sometimes and just really wanting to go home. Mostly I had a good time though, and I gained a lot from it. Thanks for commenting, Franca :)

  5. I’ve been in Taiwan since 2000 and am now fluent in Chinese. Being able to speak the language knocks down most of those other barriers. And I enjoy being able to drive my scooter on the sidewalk and taking my toddler son for a drive without having to worry about rules rules rules.

  6. I absolutely love this post. You nailed it. I felt like I was writing it! So true! I never had a problem with language barrier, even in China. Somehow I can communicate with locals without speaking their language – gestures and smile often do the work, but I started missing family and friends really badly after 2 years and I felt like having a break :).

    1. Thanks, Agness! You’re very sweet :)
      I’m pleased that you can relate to it so well. Also glad you never had problems with language barriers – I know what you mean about non-verbal communication but that can feel like an effort sometimes. How long do you think you will stay as an expat in China?

  7. I’ve never been an expat, but I do want to come and play Catan with you :) I’ve only played it once with a Couchsurfing host in Nantes, France; but I loved it.

    Franca has often told me of the types of things that happened to her whilst she was living as an expat in the UK and just how difficult it was at times, but after time, things managed to work out.

    1. I’d love to play Catan with you anytime, Dale! :) That’s alright, you pick it up quite easy after the first game I think.

      I’m glad things worked out for Franca – she mentioned them actually. I think we both experienced similar things but were glad we made the move in the end.

  8. Yep, I’ve been there with all the pros and cons. I remember it being so frustrating for the first few months in Montreal when simple tasks were suddenly so complicated. I couldn’t get the hang of pronouncing café régulière, it kept coming out sounding like café au lait so for three months I kept getting given coffees that were more milk than caffeine. Sure, small problem but annoying, and I’m pretty fussy on my coffee. But the hardest for me is more than homesickness, it’s the expat guilt. Every year that passes I felt guilty for not being there for family and friends back home, and not being able to share my life properly with them. But regardless I’m addicted to being an expat, life as an expat is just more interesting!

    1. Yes, those first few months can be really tough. Haha, that’s a great story about the coffee!! :) I’m also pretty fussy on my coffee, so I feel your pain.

      Oh man – yes! You put your finger on it exactly – that’s the right phrase for it. I constantly feel guilty about being away from home, especially when I chat to my mum and at Christmas as well.

  9. I love the queue graphic, it brings back memories from Shanghai :-)

    Sure, expat life has its challenges, but I think they are far outweighed by the advantages. You get to fully immerse yourself in another culture, travel, learn and meet all sorts of new people you never would otherwise. As you say, that’s not always a good thing. I’ve definitely met some dolts. But i enjoy my own company and have no problem doing things by myself. The biggest thing for me is missing out on things back home, like weddings and birthdays. But fortunately I can be there in spirit thanks to Facebook and Skype :-)

    1. Hi Heather,

      I completely agree with you :) I also enjoy my own company, though am fortunate to have my partner around for those times when you feel a bit lonely.

      Yes, that was definitely a big thing for me too. Even more so, I found that missing out on being there to support family in tough times and hardships was even worse.

  10. Hi there, such a good read thank you. I am really hoping to become an expat in the next 6 months with my family. I have a husband 2 teens and 2 juniors. We are really keen on a different approach to raising our children through experience and other cultures. We are bilingual as a family and hope to become multilingual over our next 2 years.
    Learning a new language as a group, and returning to NZ with Mandarin and the ability to teach it, is open doors for more travel, and further experiences.

    I have been teaching going on 6 years now, and the prospect of earning and working whilst providing a cultural exchange for my children seems kind of bucket list – ish! We were considering buying a house and settling down here in New Zealand, but have decided we have an open window to an opportunity of a lifetime.

  11. Hi Charlie. I’ve been reading through your blog after coming across it when searching for “expat recipes Taiwan”. I was surprised to see you lived in Luodong because that’s where I live now! My story is somewhat similar to yours, my boyfriend and I moved here about two months ago (he’s South African, I’m American). We’re working at schools in Luodong, I’m just working part time. This post resonated with me especially because of the feelings of isolation and loneliness… I’m a very outgoing person but I’ve found it impossible to make friends so far. There are some nice people at the school I work at but I don’t click with them. Do you have any tips for making friends? Thanks :) If you wanna email me I’m becjfranks@gmail.com

    1. Hi Becca, that’s awesome! What school are you working at? What do you like most about LuoDong? Have you eaten at the organic restaurant there? It;s the most delicious place in the whole of Taiwan.

      I’m sorry to hear about the friends situ, I had exactly the same problem and mostly was glad to have my partner because of it. We used to write a travel blog when we were living in LuoDong, just a small one and I wrote a post there about the best ways to make friends in Taiwan – http://strangersintaiwan.wordpress.com/2013/11/24/where-to-begin-how-to-make-friends-in-taiwan/

      Also, we know a couple who are still living there and they’re masters at having friends and knowing people. They actually moved in with us while we were living there for our last 2 months and are still living in our old apartment in LuoDong.

  12. Very nice post. By and large I enjoy my life as an expat but it is true there are issues. One thing is the extent to which culture interferes with communication especially when added on top of language issues. The language issues are straight forward and pretty obvious – you just don’t understand and have to rephrase or give up. But the times when the words convey you understand each other but really you don’t at all is much more common than I would expect. It is frustrating sometimes but not that huge a price to pay for the benefits.
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    1. Thanks, John! Where are you living as an expat currently? Yes, you’re right about those cultural differences and how they affect communication. Certainly frustrating, though I think it’s also interesting to learn about those subtle differences and expectations too. Thanks for commenting :)

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