This blog post was written by Maja Meglic. Maja is an expat from Slovenia, living in Brussels for six years. She has 12 years of experience in telecommunication in three different countries and currently she is in a middle of career transition. She is also a certified professional coach, interested in work-life balance, well-being work, mindfulness… One of her big passions are people and their stories, life of expatriates and their experiences. You can follow her on LinkedIn!
In my first blog I wrote about my personal experience of being an expat, of moving twice and how different both experiences were. If you missed it, you can read about it “HERE”. I also shared two key take-aways at the end of the blog post; first, that the majority of expatriates and other people (spouses, children, immigrants), moving abroad for various reasons, do struggle, so if you are one of them, feeling irritated, tired, overwhelmed or overstressed, do know that it is normal; and second, that challenges expatriates are facing depend on many different factors and are very much individual, depending on the situation and circumstances of each individual expatriate.
If my first blog post I explained that as I was searching for answers linked to my first tough years while adjusting to life in Brussels, I later conducted a thorough research with focus on challenges that expatriates, adjusting to the new environment, are facing. And the outcomes of this research were quite interesting in many ways. So today, I would like to share with you some of the findings I came across. I will share with you the most common challenges, and in my next post I will dig further into those that are less ordinary.
I feel there is a need for a disclaimer at this point: My research was conducted on a small scale with a narrow circle of 14 expatriates, because my aim was not to play with general statistic of most common challenges within a big group of expatriates. On the contrary, I was particularly interested in the depths of the individual stories, into concrete struggles and challenges, and emotions that accompany one’s move to a foreign country. I wanted to look behind the “facades” we see on daily basis, into experiences that people are often reluctant to share, likely because they are often anything but easy.
What were the findings?
When I asked the audience at the Talentree event what they thought the expats in my research mainly struggled with, no one guessed correctly. When first analyzing the results of my research, I, too, was taken by surprise. Almost all the expats interviewed in my research struggled with “not-the-most-friendly” weather. “I think weather was and has been the only big challenge in my move…it was quite a shock, because it was very grey and humid. I am really sensitive to weather, so it was a big shock.”, shared one of the interviewed expats. I could very much relate to that statement. I moved to Brussels in May. And May that year was great. But then summer arrived, you know, summer, when we are ready for even more sun and blue sky and temperatures above 27 degrees Celsius, and what we got that summer was rain or showers almost every day. I don’t recall ever experiencing that many grey summer days as in the year of my move. Ready for wearing dresses, skirts and sandals, I was standing in front of my closet having no idea what to wear. Rainboots?
Due to the fact that the majority of expats participating in my research were single, it does not come as a surprise that the next most common challenge was linked to loneliness and the fact that expats are on their own and are not able to talk to anyone about the problems and issues they face. One participant described her experience as follows: “The biggest challenge was just feeling completely alone, on your own. Alone. So coming home in the evenings on your own. It’s a lonely existence. It’s a very lonely existence.” Someone else said: “Wow, that was really one of the worst times in my life, really bad time. Totally alone, totally like isolated, nobody was taking care of me.”
The majority of interviewees also struggled with various cultural differences experienced on a daily basis. Those cultural differences are being linked to several areas: physical environment, poor service, people, apartments.
Adjusting to a new, different physical environment was difficult for many. Personally, I could strongly relate as I also couldn’t easily accept my new environment. Particularly, I was very annoyed with trash and garbage all over the place. No exaggerating, my street was just full of it, and even after six, eight months…I just couldn’t get used to it. To this day, after six years of living in Brussels, I still can’t fully accept those terrible garbage bags on the streets. Coming to Brussels from Austria, where I used to live before and being originally from Slovenia, where we don’t throw trash all over, I just couldn’t help it, but being annoyed. Everything seemed grayish and half done… just trashy and dog shit all over. It turned out I wasn’t alone. Another woman expressed herself in a similar way: “The mere fact that you cannot walk quietly in the street and go window shopping because you might fall into one of the holes in the pavement of Belgian streets… for me this was out of the range of acceptable for a Western European country.”
You might be surprised when reading this, but quite some expats found cultural differences linked to poor service in restaurants and supermarkets disturbing. “I have to queue 10 minutes, and once I am in front, I see a beautiful blonde lady, and when I ask if can I have a tea, the feeling is almost like that I am telling her ‘sorry if I am making you work,’ because she doesn’t want to. She’s unfriendly, totally unfriendly, and you feel like sh**…you feel like that when you go to have lunch or dinner, or when you have to go to the dry cleaning…every single service in the city sucks, and this is something I cannot support” was a statement of one interviewee. And he wasn’t alone. Not at all.
It was to be expected that expats struggle with cultural differences expressed in the daily habits of people: “I think that it were the people, that were my biggest challenge”, said one. “It’s the culture of being very closed, and rude… and the aggressiveness and self-importance of people, that is really what presented my biggest challenge to get used to. And to overcome.”
As mentioned earlier, quite a few expats have struggled with a cultural differences linked to differences in apartments. Again, I can relate to this one as well. I remember visiting 15 apartments on my searching-for-my-new-home-day. The agent accompanying me was very patient while I was saying “NO” to pretty much all of them. The few that I did like, have just being rented. The others had tiny staircases, terrible carpets, small windows with NO light whatsoever, noise coming from the streets, floor plan where guests needed to walk through your bedroom on the way to the toilet and on and on. Here is a statement from another expat: “So the apartments, they were quite old fashioned and they asked a lot of money for them. There were small cultural differences, like how they like to put tiles in their apartments… and everything was so cold. I had a single glazed window, no proper heating. So it was a bit of a cultural shock then”.
Last group of challenges within the group of culture differences is linked to daily routine. Especially expats coming from more Southern or Latin cultures mentioned those differences often. A woman of Latin origin explained it this way: “Moving to Belgium was more difficult, because here you need to plan. You need to plan pretty much everything; the social aspect, how things work, everything is much more distant, a bit colder or independent… Being Latin, we are very much social, warm, we quickly find an excuse to have a party, to talk forever… for example at home my parents would have the key to my house and they can come whenever they want. But here the space is very much private, contained, you need to plan in advance, you need to make an appointment to go for a visit. And this for me was tough, cold…..”.
Last but not least in the group of most common challenges while adjusting to new environment is… yes, of course, the fact that expats don’t speak the local language when they move. I guess it is not a surprise. Even for some people, speaking French as a foreign language, it was a struggle (“In Belgium it is all in French, but I was not so familiar with this bureaucratic French, so it was also a bit hard.”). It is easy to imagine how difficult it is for those not speaking French or Dutch at all.
One expat shared his story related to not being able to speak French in this way: “It was terrible…when you want to complain in the shop about the bad service…and you don’t even know how to explain. And also to organize yourself for your daily life. At the commune for example they don’t speak any other language, they are militant francophone or speaking Dutch.” I also remember some of my struggles due to never having learned any language from the Romance language family. I recall the anecdote of sending a package to Austria. Today I can call it an anecdote, but then it wasn’t funny at all: First, finding a post office. Yes, “google it”, you might say. Sure, but how do you say “post office” in French? Yes, I know, there is Google Translator. But I tell you, when you have to put energy into something that basic several times a day…. Well, somehow I managed to find the post office, but then… explaining I want to send a package to Austria. That was funny, I tell you. All I said was “To Austria, please!” when handing in my package and then the official started asking me something. And I had no idea what. So what else can I do, but say again “to Austria”. And she asks again, a bit slower this time, something sounding like “Ostrish” (Austria in French is “Autrishe”). And my eyebrows go up and I point on the name “Austria” written on the envelope. I don’t recall her facial expression, but I felt she thought I was dumb or something. When she finally printed out a sticker and then told me the price in French, that of course I don’t understand. Luckily, I could pay with a credit card, so all I did was hand her my card and only later saw the numbers on the terminal.
I am sure there are similar anecdotes waiting to be shared. While I am preparing my next blog on uncommon challenges I am looking forward to hearing from you, our readers, about your experiences. Feel free to drop us a line and share with us your stories, your struggles. What was difficult for you? What was causing you “grey hair” when you moved to Brussels or to other cities in Belgium? How did you deal with it and how did you overcome it?
Email us either on email@example.com or drop your comment here below the post into the comment area. We are looking forward to hear from you!