Is being an expat a blessing or a curse?

Is being an expat a blessing or a curse?

What do you think first when you hear the term "expat life"? Before I became an expat myself, I thought being an expat meant glamour, travels and fun. Now, 15 years later, I still sometimes think that, but also other things come to mind, such as loneliness, not belonging and feeling stuck.

One day, when I had been living in the Netherlands for a couple of years already, it suddenly hit me. I realised what this weird feeling that I was carrying around for some time was. It felt like I didn’t belong to any one culture anymore.

Living in the Netherlands opened my eyes to many funny things we Polish people do, like, for example, putting a cotton hat on our child’s head, in the middle of the summer, in order to protect their ears. But I realised I also didn’t feel like I fully belonged in the Netherlands either.

Here, I am still seen as an overprotective mother who will not allow her child to wear sandals when it is 12+ degrees outside, just because it is a sunny day for a change.

That was the moment that I fully realised that my life was not going to be the same anymore. Due to the frequent moves, five in total in the last 15 years, I have gained many invaluable experiences, but also lost some irrecoverably.

Below, I have made a list of things that I praise when it comes to expat life, but also the things I often curse it for. 

The blessings of expat life

These are what I consider the blessings of expat life:

A new perspective

Expat life opens your mind and broadens your perspective like no other experience. It enriches your life with new people, culture, food, places and experiences. There is no way you could gain these experiences living back home.

The expat life lets you learn things about yourself you would have never found out otherwise, thanks to your exposure to different cultures and habits.

Meeting new people from different backgrounds and cultures

Expat life enables you to develop new friendships with people from different cultures and backgrounds, people you might never have been friends with living back home.

When I look at my friendship circle from when I was living in Poland, the people in my circle were all my high school, study or work friends. Roughly 99% were Polish with a similar background and education to my own. But when I started to live abroad, I was hungry to meet new people and make friends quickly.

I noticed that with Dutch people, you needed to put in more time and effort to become close, but with other internationals, the friendships were made quick and were often deep. After all, we are all in the same boat; we left our old friends and want to connect.

Rapid career development

Expat life helps you to develop, advance or completely change your career. Many of my clients decided to fully transform their careers after they moved to their new country. This happened for many various reasons.

Sometimes they were not interested in their current path anymore, sometimes their current path was not available to them in their new country. For other clients, expatriation meant rapid professional development and career advancement which would take them much longer to realise in their home country.

Your true self

Expat life makes you discover your true self. I came across this saying: “The shortest way to yourself is living around the world," and I think it is so true. Thanks to living abroad, you will quickly learn what truly matters to you.

When put under pressure, you will learn about the hidden talents and strengths you possess. And finally, you will grow as a person and develop new parts of your identity and character.

The less glamorous aspects of expat life

Here are some of the more painful aspects of expat life:

Not being able to be there

For me, the most painful one is not being able to always be there for my loved ones in their moments of joy or pain. I've experienced this many times; the most painful moment was when I was living in Mexico and my grandmother got very sick.

I jumped on a plane to be with her and when the time came to leave, I said an eternal goodbye in my head, as I knew I might never see her again. I realised I probably wouldn't be able to "jump" on a plane again. It hurt. Truth is, I never saw her again. And it still hurts.

Loss of identity

Expat life can make you feel like you do not belong anywhere, really. I am Polish, but I do not feel 100% Polish anymore, nor will I ever feel Dutch, Mexican or Brazilian. This partial loss of identity will always be there, and we need to learn how to live with it.

Saying goodbyes to your new / old friends over and over again

The first time my husband and I were in Brazil, we did not make many new friends. We realised that when we mentioned that we were only there for six months, people would immediately lose interest in us.

We did not make the same mistake again when we moved to Mexico. In Mexico, we just told people we didn’t know for how long exactly we were staying. I know, we were bit deceptive, but we wanted to connect and were afraid people would no longer be interested in us if they found out that we were not staying there for long.

Every time we moved, my biggest regret is the people we left behind.

Putting your career on hold

I moved twice knowing that I wasn't able to work. I actually didn’t mind, as I had a small baby to take care of, but I know that many people, mainly women, put their professional life on hold for the sake of the whole family.

They choose to be a stable factor in their family life, someone who will arrange everything in the new country and create a safe nest for their kids and partner.

Being grateful

When I look at all the points I have mentioned, I would still choose the same life, however hard it can be sometimes. It makes me feel like I am growing as a person. It makes me feel like a citizen of the world.

We can control or change some negative aspects, but not all of them. They are inherent to the expat lifestyle and the only thing we can do is accept them and see them as a lesson to be grateful for what we do have in our lives.

I am curious, is the expat life a blessing or a curse to you? What do you find the most difficult and most inspiring about it? Please share this with me and others!

Dorota Klop-Sowinska


Dorota Klop-Sowinska

Official Member of Forbes Coaches Council. I specialize in international career and expat coaching. I am the author of the book Career Jump! How to Successfully Change Your Professional Path...

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