Expat life and crushing loneliness

I stumbled on an interesting blog post, from “All men are liars” (the top Aus/NZ blog in the 2006 Weblog Awards), on the subject of loneliness. Sam de Brito says:

  • “As a society, do we have unreasonable expectations about loneliness? Are we now at the point where we’re so hyper-stimulated, that anything short of round-the-clock euphoria is deemed ‘something missing’; that to be happy and content, we need to be erect and gleeful, like some excited puppy peeing on the lounge room carpet? …”

I think he makes a great point on this and a few other things in the article, abeit in his typically irreverent manner.  There is no doubt that the expat life can come with crushing loneliness, especially in the early days. Getting used to a new country, culture, potentially language, food, and life in general is difficult enough. Doing it solo, with no spouse or family to rely on for guaranteed support, this life can be really, really hard.

I understand now why I’m so much more likely to befriend other expats.  The sense of “we’re in this together” is practically palpable.  I’m lucky–nearly nine months here in England and I’m starting to have actual friends, not just acquaintances.  Of course, none of them are English.

Today I take Sam‘s point (above) to heart. Part of the richness of the total experience is in the variation of emotion. It does not have to be 100% euphoria all the time to be an overall positive experience. What matters is what you learn about yourself on the days when the loneliness threatens to crush you, and how you manage to grow by deciphering mechanisms to extract yourself from the depths of despair. In the end, alone does not have to mean lonely and lonely does not have to mean miserable.

But as philosophical as I am, it doesn’t make it any less hard.  I had a rough day today (there’s a story, likely to appear in another post when the pain is not so raw) and tears were shed.  It would be so easy for someone here to make me feel welcome and less alone, but it seems that culturally it would be very difficult for an English person to do.   That makes me sad, and makes me wonder how long I can keep up my veneer of cheer and live with the reality of my life here.  I appreciate more every day the welcoming spirit of Americans, the friendly overtures, the selfless acts of kindness that are so common as to be unnoticed.  When faced with the opposite baseline attitude, the contrast becomes quite stark.


13 responses to “Expat life and crushing loneliness

  1. Oddly, the reverse can be jarring, too. I remember arriving in far-too-consistently sunny California after having spent a year and a half in London, and getting annoyed when the person filling my shopping back at the check-out (unheard of in the UK at the time, if memory serves) invited me to “have a nice day”. I felt offended by the notion that a near-total stranger would make it his business how good a day I was having, and pressured by the social expectation that a nice day was the norm. After a year and a half of this, I moved to Heidelberg, where the townspeople were flamboyantly hostile to “gown” expats (not that gowns are worn there), no one raised as much as a finger to help one at the check-out, and any attempt to be friendly elicits angry glares. _Then_ I began to appreciate and miss California. All these adjustments to the cultural baselines take a lot of time and can be surprisingly wrenching.

  2. You capture well the difficulties of being an expat! I quoted you at: livingdominica.blogspot.com

  3. Right now I’m sitting out on the patio of a Starbucks. Being alone in the hotel room was making me feel crazy, and I was beginning to feel not so tough. This helped =) thanks!

  4. I sympathise so much. I am English, and when living there, even as a native, the coldness and reservation was a palpable thing. I now live in France – I am single; a single parent (my grown up children are living and studying back In England.) Like you, I am finding the loneliness in some ways a positive experience – like you, a bad day can be very long. Unlike you, I have to make friends among zee locals despite my crappy French, because I find it impossible to socialise with British Expats. When I first came here, a few months ago, it seemed natural to contact an Anglo expat group, but within a couple of weeks it had ended in tears, (mine) because I was at once reminded of exactly why I left England (apart from the bloody rain!) If I want to be patronised, criticised, sneered at, bullied, regarded as unhinged for expressing any emotion, and frozen out of a variety of cliques, I only have to head back across the channel. I certainly didn’t come all this way to re-live the horrors of attempting to make friends among the British. I am sorry but not surprised that you are finding it an uphill struggle. All I can suggest is that you stop trying – because the end result really isn’t worth the knots you will have to tie yourself in. A big hug, all the best – and try not to let them get you down!

  5. Mandy, what about the other expats? I find that I have quite a friendly group here of expats from everywhere, not just America. You might find some fun in the other Americans in France as well as expats from elsewhere…

  6. I haven’t managed to connect with any English speakers other than Brits (which I think is strange, but true.) Maybe the Brits hijack the anglo-speaking groups. For that ‘in it together’ ex-pat feeling, I am friends with a handful of Germans and Dutch. But to be honest, having experienced the Little Englanders (who suffer Marmite deprivation and have palpitations if anyone speaks French in their presence,) I am a bit wary of becoming a professional outsider. I chose to come here, and I could choose to leave, but I live here, and I love it. The good bits are grand and the tough bits are an adventure. The French people here have been welcoming, – I now have some friends who are French and they have been very kind. For me personally, the loneliness (when it hits) comes from a tough day spent alone, the sudden cold realisation that the buck finally stops with me -after a lifetime surrounded by family and people I had known forever, and the knowledge that I would truly hate to live ‘back home’ again – which is a weird feeling.

  7. I agree completely, I chose to come here and I try to have both friends who are locals and who are expats. I think the secret to being an outsider is to both try and to have local friends and also to have expat friends. The balance probably shifts with time–the longer I’ve been here, the more English true friends I’ve had. And in some ways I think that it’s true of moving anywhere that it takes time to make proper friends.

  8. That’s what I am finding – it shakes down in the end. There is no such thing as an instant friend, only people I’d like to be friends with eventually. I just try to be receptive and put myself out there – and be nice to people! (Even if I have the language skills of a dying snail.) There’s a phrase I love “Kindness is a language which the dumb can speak and the deaf can understand.” I’ve found it’s true.

  9. aloha from Vermont

    Very small nation but known all over the planet for our electronics skills….mine desi blog..I also like

  10. I agree, ex pat living can be a tough go some days. All the “look on the bright side” and “how rich your life might be now” can’t always compensate on the days where you just feel like an idiot. Not knowing, not understanding, not fitting in can be tiring. Blogging helps. So does cheap wine.


  11. Thanks for your article, and for the replies. It feels good to find recognition. I’m an expat for 12 years, have lived in 3 different countries within the last few years (moved to 10 different houses in 5 years time!). My colleagues do not understand, except for one expat colleague. They say that the loneliness has nothing to do with being an expat, but just with being around 30 years old and still single. Yes, single life can be lonely, but single+expat is of course a lot tougher. It frustrates me that there is so few empathy, and above all that I have a hard time finding practical help. For instance who could join me when buying a car? Who can I ask… Most important question: how can I get rid of my frustrations.

  12. I ‘ve lived in China since 2010. I left America for two reasons. After working with two different employers, one for twenty years, the other for seven years, I lost both jobs due to the economy and being age fifty nine I realized that no one wants older people after months of looking. With that said, I sold everything I had and married the woman I conversed with for almost five years in Nanning. This is no reflection on anyone here in no way shape or form, but making friends with the expats here just can’t happen with me. I’ve seen many things in my life but never have I seen such a sorry group of westerners, mostly Americans, like myself. I met one guy making claims of flying a top secret jet over Vietnam in the late sixties, and one guy stating that he gets a Marine escort when leaving the American Embassy in Guangdong, China. Little does he know that American soldiers are not allowed on Chinese soil in any capacity. Another guy stated he was in Vietnam and is three years younger than I am which would have made him fourteen years old. And worst of all, these people believe what they say!!

  13. Been there, done that, over and over again and still living abroad (Manchester, UK from Edmonton, AB, Canada) and still doing it. Accepting the realities of being an expatriate (loneliness and missing…something or someone) is a part of the spiritual journey that inevitably is part of the physical journey. Thanks for sharing on this. Are you still in the UK? If so, I’ll bet you feel a lot more at home. 😉

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