Challenges of the long-term expat

As the summer draws near it's end I am left with a rather large hole in my social circle. I am one of those rather unique expats who has lived here for five years now and has no plans to return home, or anywhere else for that matter. I am here for the foreseeable future. Like many of the clients that I work with in therapy, I do not really fit into either the expat community or the local community, as I have a foot in both camps. I am not even entirely comfortable with the term “expat” any longer as it suggests certain privileges and a lifestyle to which I am no longer privy. But that is how many continue to refer to me, it is just that my expat status is slightly longer term.

It can be challenging not to identify or feel entirely engaged with being either an expat or a local resident. I have been an expat long enough to grow emotionally tired of the wax and wayne of friendships. Whilst I have come to know, and even adopt, the local culture and customs I still feel somewhat isolated from the local community through my differences.You can however, turn this to your advantage. By recognising the commonalities that you have with each group you can open yourself up to many potential friendships and connections. You are in the unique situation of both being able to understand what it is like not to live in the country of your origin as well as understanding and sharing things in common with the country that you do reside in. The best trick you have at your disposal here is to try to shift your perspective and see these as advantages that open you to each group rather than shut you off. Try to recognise the similarities that you have with each group as well as the differences. These similarities might be the foundations on which future relationships can grown.

I have found that nurturing friendships with others in the same situation can be incredibly valuable and rewarding, and it is one of the ways I have learnt to cope in the midst of the expat exodus. They are some of the only people that truly understand what it is like to be a long term expat and can offer emotional support at times when it is most needed. Given that you might be here for some time to come these friendships also have the time to develop, grow and flourish without the added stress of knowing that they might be relocated or leave. The security and safety these friendships can offer is invaluable, especially at times of change. I use these friendships to anchor me, as safe spaces to discuss the sadness and pain of losing friends, and as a place to connect and cultivate my sense of belonging. Engaging in such friendships of course means you have to open yourself up to feeling vulnerable and reach out to potentially entirely new and unfamiliar people, a process that can undoubtedly be very difficult and painful if you have found yourself once again being “left behind” by your nearest and dearest this summer.

Ultimately long term expats all too often underestimate the transformational aspect of living abroad for extended periods of time as well as the challenges that this brings about. Living and working abroad can change us in ways that we could not have anticipated when we agreed to the assignment. It can also play havoc with our sense of identity as well as the circles of support which we spend so much time and energy nurturing. If we can learn embrace these changes in ourselves and the landscape of ever changing friendships this opens us up to we may just survive it (and make some connections that last a lifetime!)