Tough Love: 5 Tips to Enjoy Expat Life After the Honeymoon Period

By: Polly Barks

Every great adventure starts with the giddy honeymoon period. You know, that magical time when everything you say is punctuated by exclamation marks: oh my god! This is so exciting! It's all so new! I'm having the best time ever! How long this phase lasts is variable, depending on who you are, where you are, and what you're doing.

With views this nice, how could you ever get sick of living abroad?
With views this nice, how could you ever get sick of living abroad?

In Russia, where I live, the honeymoon can end quickly – Cyrillic everywhere, grey skies, and unfriendly faces are not conducive to a happy expat. The second phase is, of course, the darker side of expat living. There are some who experience it more sharply: what the hell did I get myself into? Why does no one ever smile in Russia? I can't understand anything they're saying! For others, it's a less pronounced anxiety that still manages to feel oppressive: am I doing this right? God, everyone must know I'm a foreigner. Will I ever not feel like an alien here?

No matter how you experience it, let's call it what it is: culture shock.

Thanks to some trial and error through the years, here is my list of dos and don'ts to combat culture shock:
  1. DO indulge your sad thoughts for a day or two when they first arrive. Do what you absolutely must do – go to work or classes. Then immediately come home, crawl into bed, and watch your choice of terrible television and foreign junk food. Immerse yourself in glorious, glorious English. Sure it's a nice fantasy to think you'll always be ready to boldly step onto the foreign streets of Moscow (or your foreign city of choice) but it's simply not realistic. Take some time for yourself, wallow, and then immediately move onto the following...
  2. DO find same-language friends. Obviously this really only counts if you're jetting off to a country where the language is different. As an American expat in Russia, I've found it's critical to have at least one solid same-passport friend to communicate with. Sometimes even a Brit or Canadian will do! Finding other expats and befriending them is a mini-jackpot: not only will they most likely speak your language, but they'll be able to show you the ropes of life abroad as well as commiserate when things get tough. However...
  3. DON'T limit yourself to expat friends. By now you've probably been in-country long enough to at least know a few of the usual expat hangouts. AVOID THEM. Go to a different bar, sit by yourself, order a beer (badly mangling the native tongue while you're at it,with a pivo pozhalusta), and watch the interested people come running. Sure, some of them might be losers, but after a few tries you'll find some interesting enough to meet again...
  4. DO start to learn some of the language. Nothing is more isolating than not speaking the dominant language of an area. I've found that in Russia, a well-placed attempt at Russian will melt the heart of even the sternest babushka. And not only will picking up some phrases endear you to the locals, but you'll also assimilate much faster. Plus, reading books, taking lessons, and having awkward conversations are all activities far more useful than you might be doing otherwise...
  5. DON'T waste your weekends on Skype or Facebook. Waiting earnestly by the computer for old friends to contact you is neither attractive nor healthy when creating a new life for yourself. Turn away from the internet connection (if you're savvy enough to have got it set up in the first place) and enjoy some good, old fashioned face-to-face contact. In the first throes of culture shock, this is the big one: you want to stay connected to your past, but it can totally stunt your social growth in the life you're currently living!

Let's revise, shall we? Make friends – lots of them. Use these friends mercilessly – for tips on living as an expat or for culture/language lessons. And of course, don't forget your past, but don't let it get in the way.

All in all, sounds like a great recipe for a happy, well-adjusted expat!

About the author

Expat Blog ListingPolly Barks is an American expat living in Russia. Blog description: A blog about a long-term American expat living in Moscow. A focus on teaching English, photography, and food!
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Contest Comments » There are 7 comments

Pecora Nera wrote 7 years ago:

Hi Polly, Russia sounds like Italy during the winter, but without the pasta and wonderful wine. No 6 Don't waste your weekends on facebook. 10 points for this advice. great blogging PN

Katelin Burke wrote 7 years ago:

All excellent advice. Still working on a lot of it. I think most of the (adult) Mongolians in Erdenet recognize the American as not Russian because we smile.

Julie wrote 7 years ago:

Love this! Brings back many good and bad memories of living abroad! Enjoy! And love those friends you make- you'll probably keep some of them forever!

Mark G wrote 7 years ago:

Polly, these are excellent tips! Like so many experiences, it can all be about how you approach it, and what you make of your experiences and opportunities. Mark

Fashionista wrote 7 years ago:

Excellent post for people to be in tune with one's self when living abroad.

Katherine wrote 7 years ago:

Very well said, Polly! It's even possible to get a head start on #3 if you hunt around on penpal and language exchange websites. Thanks for all the thought you put into this list : )

Tina Jovanovic wrote 7 years ago:

This is an excellent list!! Finding a friend who understands is so important! But moving on to acclimating is probably most important. Bravo for writing such a great list! It is a great reminder for some and a Superb start for others!

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