Moving abroad to live and work – or moving abroad to retire - can be an exciting project. It can also leave people feeling unexpectedly uprooted. Getting started on a new job abroad, organising a place to live, and actually finding you can work effectively in a foreign language is a kind of thrill. But at the same time, the lack of some of the aspects of life ‘back home’ start to make themselves felt, and often painfully: the lack of proximity to close family, or long-established friends; or different ways of socialising; the sense of being outside a kind of shared culture, right down to the ability to know when and how much you are permitted to swear!
Anyone who has lived abroad for a while will tell you that however good you get at the language, there are times when you can feel half a step behind: there can seem to be a shared understanding that does not include you, and which can leave people feeling rather isolated. Some describe it as a bit like losing the ability to be spontaneous. Others say they feel they are two different people when they are at home and when living abroad. While a frequent comment is that it feels hard to make the same quality of friendships, compared with back home.
A possible antidote to this is to find people who are experiencing what you are going through and talk about it together. This will only work, though, if everyone else is also having a similar experience to you. If you find that your fellow countrymen are all having a great time and you’re the only one who’s not, then it’s no great help.
The key to all this is how much the effect of being uprooted actually gets under your skin. Sometimes, cutting loose from ties at home can be a huge benefit. But for many of us, we don’t realise how important they are until they are no longer there. And without these in place, other preoccupations, anxieties, and self-doubts can start to creep in.
At its heart, this is not so solely about fitting in with a foreign culture. It is also about trying to find the freedom to be yourself, wherever you happen to be living. That means doing a bit of work on what holds you back: the constraints, the inhibitions, all those hidden fears that we carry round with us. Seeing them for what they are can help keep them in check.
Woman alone in cafe working on laptop