This is the first post in a five-part series about the emotional component of the expat experience: leaving home, settling in and the issues faced in adjusting to life in a new country.
It has been a difficult few weeks. In preparing to leave Sydney and return back to San Francisco, I felt like a hot mess. I was a hot mess. And that’s okay. I knew what to expect (this isn’t my first go round) and I’ve been much kinder to myself and more open about my experience. Those actions have made things easier to process. Nevertheless, it has still been hard.
The emotional stages an expat passes through as they prepare to relocate is best described as a rollercoaster. Plenty of twists and turns and peaks and drops and being turned upside down, and all of it is lived at a frenetic pace. It can be overwhelming: you’re leaving behind one life to start another. You’re giving away your possessions. You’re farewelling your support networks. You’re cataloguing the ‘lasts’: the last time you’ll go for coffee at that little shop around the corner, the last time you’ll be able to duck out for dinner with your friends, the last time you’ll get to see your beloved football team play in the flesh. This time of your life is stressful and tumultuous, and it’s completely reasonable to be a hot mess. It’s a big step, even if it is one you’ve already taken before.
The Expat’s Emotional Rollercoaster of Relocating
So with time and a little perspective, I’ve been able to identify the general emotional stages an expat will likely go through when relocating to a new country:
First is the sense of impending doom. I feel this acutely as the date of departure creeps up and plans must be finalised. It’s usually accompanied by a deep, sinking feeling even though it’s an exciting adventure.
This is followed by the stage of intense overwhelm, and that’s usually identified by the uncontrollable sobbing in random places. It usually occurs when I’m packing my bags. This time for me, it was being unable to make it up the stairs to continue packing without collapsing and sobbing into the carpet like a baby.
Then comes actively committing things to memory: filing away into the memory bank all the aspects of hugs and smiles and feelings and the lines on friendly faces. You catch yourself wondering if this is the last time you will see aging family members, the family dog (and then you yell at yourself, but that’s all you can think about).
It crescendos into wishing time would stop/speed up/not exist when the final farewells are said accompanied by lingering hugs that would in any other situation feel a little over-the-top. I always feel as though I never get these moments right, but is there a perfect way to say goodbye?
Then, numbness. I usually pass to this stage once I am through customs and immigration, killing time inside the terminal. The numbness ebbs and flows until I arrive at my destination. It feels like time has no meaning, you float in an out of consciousness on the long haul flight, you see daylight when there should be darkness. It just like an episode of the Twilight Zone.
And much like a rollercoaster, you can loop around and go back to an earlier stage or jump forward or come to a dead stop. For all the agency that is involved in deciding to move abroad, the emotional component of the move feels completely out of your hands.
But then you find yourself in a new environment, and it’s glossy and new. You miss your family and friends and your favourite cereal, but there is a bigger pressing need that occupies your focus, and that’s settling in. Feeling comfortable in your new environment and establishing some sense of normalcy is essential for me, and seems to be the case for my expat friends. It’s about starting again, from the beginning. It’s exciting and sad and frustrating and fabulous, often all at once. You just have to give it time.
Have you relocated to a new country? Did you experience these whirlwind of emotions, too?
I’d love to hear your story!
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Thanks for sharing this! It’s spot on! I’m getting ready to move abroad again (after 10 years in San Francisco!), and it’s amazing what a roller coaster it is! It has been really helpful to read your posts about this. Thank you!!