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 meglic.maja@gmail.com or drop your comment here below the post into the comment area. We are looking forward to hear from you!

5 thoughts on “Behind the scenes of expatriation – “Common challenges”

  1. The article is interesting, but just to make it clear. You, just like me we are not expats, we are just immigrants in Belgium. An expat is somebody that is sent by his/her company for a short period in another country. We are simply immigrants.

    1. Hi Marius,

      Thank you for your comment and sharing your point of view. I am happy you pointed this out. Believe it or not, the question “Who am I, an expat or an immigrant, was actually one of those main questions that triggered me doing the research years ago. I knew I wasn’t a “proper” expat, because as you said, an expat is someone that is sent by his/her company for a short (depending how you define short) period of time to another country. But I also didn’t feel myself really being an immigrant. So while reading many academic articles on this topic, I got to an answer that I qualify as a so-called Self-Initiated Expat (SIE further in text). An internationally mobile individual can be considered an SIE when it fulfills the following key criteria (I am also adding references to academic articles to support my reply):
      – the initiative for relocation must come from the individual herself or himself (Doherty et al., 2013) and not from the organization;
      – the SIE changes employers, and does not relocate within an existing organization to its local affiliate;
      – the SIE finances the relocation and the move herself or himself and is offered neither a traditional expatriation package nor organizational support;
      – the duration of the move is not pre-defined and the intent of the stay is not permanent;
      – the SIE is employed on the terms of a local contract; and
      – the SIE has moved voluntarily, based on her or his own free choice, meaning the nature of the move is not forced as in the case of migrants (Al Ariss, 2010).

      Further, as indeed the differences between the two terms – “immigrant” and an “SIE” in the literature are blurred, let me also mention two key differentiators that distinguish Self-Initiated Expats from immigrants, again, as per academic literature:
      – The forced or chosen nature of the move (1) –> Al Ariss (2010) found that in case of migration, individuals relocate out of necessity more than out of the choice to travel to another country, whereas SIEs decide on the move based on their free choice.
      – The period of foreign stay (2) –> When it comes to the period of the relocation, migrants usually migrate with the objective of finding permanent jobs abroad, especially in more developed economies (Carr, Ikson, & Thorn, 2005), with the goal of permanently staying in the new country. On the other hand, as per Agullo and Egawa (2009), in case of SIEs there is more temporariness in their choice, and they often relocate with no definite time-frame in mind.

      I truly hope this better clarifies.

      References:

      Agullo, B., & Egawa, M. (2009). International careers of Indian workers in Tokyo: examination and future directions. Career Development International, 14(2/3), 148-68.

      Al Ariss, A. (2010). Modes of engagement: migration, self-initiated expatriation, and career development. Career Development International, 15(4), 338-358.

      Carr, S. C., Inkson, K., & Thorn, K. (2005). From global careers to talent flow: reinterpreting ‘brain drain’. Journal of World Business, 40(4), 386-398.
      Doherty N., Richardson J., & Thorn K. (2013), Self-initiated expatriation and self-initiated expatriates: Clarification of the research stream. Career Development International 18(1), 97-112.

  2. Hi, I find this quite an interesting read. I come from Ireland and have also been living in Brussels for 6 years now. I lived in France previously. While I can understand some of the frustrations, I don’t share the problem with the weather (it’s much better than Ireland). I also find it to be a very sociable city, especially for internationals, and don’t really find that things have to be planned far in advance at all. On service, I totally agree that there could be a lot of improvement, but some of the examples are sweeping generalisations that I don’t think can be applied to all areas. E.g. I find some restaurants to have fantastic service, with friendly waiters and also greetings for returning customers. The trash is annoying, but it’s because it has to be put out the night before, two nights per week, which are different nights in different communes. It’s definitely not the dirtiest city I’ve been in. The pavements are awful, and really need to be dealt with. And the fact that roads just collapse and need construction work all the time is plain annoying.
    Finally, I think that the experience you have as an immigrant to Brussels really depends on the sector that you are working in and your social circle. I know many people who don’t speak a word of French but can get by just fine, despite the fact that communication can be difficult from time to time (again, this depends on which part of the city you are in). And while it is easy to slip into loneliness, I also find Brussels a great city to shake that off pretty quickly – there are so many international groups to join for all interests. Simply put, I think Brussels is a much better place to move to than the post here makes it seem.

    1. hi Chris, I am happy to read your comment. And very happy to read that you see many positive sides of Brussels and as it seems, enjoying the city. From what I learned while doing my research and while still talking to many people is that indeed everyone’s experience is different and it indeed depends on many factors. For example, when it comes to weather, usually people moving from UK or Ireland, like you, don’t struggle with the weather at all, while many of others, coming from other parts of the world, have a totally different feel and do find it “hard to accept”. Same goes for example for people from Paris when it comes to city itself. Majority of them love Brussels because is it is smaller, less packed compared to Paris, traffic seems more manageable etc. So what I am trying to say is that I learned it is a lot linked to what one compares with, where one is coming from, what is the point of comparison. Also, in my post I am talking about challenges. I am sure if I would do a research on what people like about Brussels, I would find many many things! Including myself I adore many things about the city and living in it. But the purpose of this blog is simply to share with people the challenges, for people who do struggle, to know that it is OK, to know it can happen, that it is normal if going through a rough times after the move.

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