Expats and Isolation
This episode is dedicated to everyone who is feeling isolated right now – expat or not.
I’ve been hearing from many expats recently that this topic – isolation – is particularly poignant right now. And this goes for recent repats, and non-expats too, of course.
When you move overseas, you’re expecting a fabulous new life. Moving overseas is exciting. It heralds great change; perhaps the hope of a better future. To most families it represents a new start in their lives both professionally and personally.
But it’s quite often that you’ll hit a period of feeling isolated and lonely as hell. Of course, now, in 2020, the isolation is even more pronounced.
This sense of isolation, loneliness and boredom is a common problem – even outside of COVID.
Here are some tips to help…
Please scroll down for transcript
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Welcome aboard the Expatability Chat podcast, helping expat parents navigate the challenges of moving and living overseas. With Carole Hallett Mobbs, Expat Life Mentor and Consultant and founder of ExpatChild.com
Welcome back to the Expatability Chat podcast. I'm Carole, and today we're going to look at isolation. And this topic is dedicated to everyone who's feeling isolated right now, expat or not.
I've been hearing from so many people recently that this topic, isolation, is particularly poignant right now. And this goes for recent repats and non-expats too, of course.
Last week, I was finally able to visit my mum for the first time since early March. She's really feeling the isolation of covid life. Before all this happened, she was really hard to keep track of. Each day she had one of her groups to go to: art Scrabble, people to meet, friends to give lifts to conversations and laughs to be had. Now, due to her age and medical issues, she has nothing - apart from the telephone. And it's really not working out positively for her as she's someone who needs the interaction with others regularly and to exercise her mind, as most of us do. It's hard. It's really hard.
The isolation of an expat is a very specific thing. When you move overseas, you're expecting a fabulous new life. Moving overseas is exciting. It heralds great change, perhaps the hope of a better future. To most families it represents a new start in their lives, both professionally and personally. But quite often you'll be hit with a period of feeling isolated and lonely as hell. Of course, now in 2020, this isolation is even more pronounced.
[Miaow] Even Sumi feels isolated! That's because I won't let her on the desk to chew the microphone.
The first part of moving overseas comes with the end of your previous life. It's a frantic period. It's jam packed with things to do, belongings to pack, people to say goodbye to, jobs to finish. Then you get on a plane and you land in your new country and you do all of this in reverse. You start a new life. You're busy getting everything sorted. You're finding out where to get food, medicine, finding doctors, dentists, school, interesting new sights to take in.
And then your stuff arrives and you have belongings to unpack. You find new people to say hello to, new jobs to start. And with children around too, there's even more to do and even more to take care of. Once all this frantic busyness is out of the way, what actually happens then? There can be a tendency to feel somewhat adrift and shell shocked.
Oh, is that it? Now what? If you're lucky and if you're really proactive, you then kind of pull your socks up and get on with meeting as many people as possible. It's not always as easy as that sounds. When you have to start your life from scratch in a foreign country where you potentially know nobody apart from your partner, where you're not familiar with the customs, where you don't really know the location or even the neighbourhood, there's a very real danger that you'll end up feeling extremely isolated.
And this is especially true for accompanying partners, because while your partner is out at work all day and has focus, motivation, people to talk to, from the outset in your new life you're the one that's at home dealing with the isolation and the newness of it all by yourself. And this can be really scary, upsetting and of course, very, very lonely.
And now you've got the covid pandemic. So you've gone through all of the move. You've arrived in your new country fairly recently. Perhaps you are right in the middle of transitioning from just arrived, to looking forward a bit, and then bam, covid; lockdown. Your plans went up in smoke. Any travel and exploration ceased. Visits and visitors just ain't happening. And even school is out. Life is different, shall we say.
And not the different we were hoping. For those who moved shortly before lockdown, it's particularly tough as you're in a new home, unable to get out and explore your new life with none of the backup of work colleagues and potential school gate friendships.
Life can look pretty bleak. And you're exhausted. And you're so over being alone and isolated. I get it. I really do. As my Facebook group members shared recently, even if you moved a couple of years ago, you're probably still quite lonely. Lockdown is highlighting just how isolated many of you are. And it's not that easy for many people to make friends. Of course, there are some lucky people who are friend magnets and could find a genuine friend on the moon.
For the rest of us, it's much harder. Please don't worry. This sense of isolation, loneliness and perhaps boredom is a common problem, even outside of covid. It doesn't even matter where you've moved to. Pretty much everyone experiences the same thing from time to time. As the expat partner, it is often harder for you to settle than your other half. They'll fall into the automatic new routine of work. They'll meet colleagues, they'll have daily social interaction, and their brains will be active with new professional challenges.
Perhaps they're working from home now, and your daily work outs have had to stop to accommodate Zoom meetings and home education. Fun, isn't it? No! In normal times, your kids will probably have started school, if they're old enough and have their days neatly structured. They're meeting new friends, discovering new activities and generally getting on with their new life. Now you have to worry about their friendships too. As if we don't already, but you know what I mean. They've had to leave their school friends that they were just getting used to, they're just making new friends and now they're isolated as well.
When you live somewhere familiar, i.e. home, there's a lot that you take for granted without even being aware of who they are or what role they play in your life. The truth is, there are so many familiar faces around you, whether it's the person in the local petrol station or the shop attendants in the supermarket. Or that guy that walks his dog down the road. You may not know them, but they're familiar faces in a familiar place. You may be on nodding terms or small talk terms with them.
Then you've got the other experts in your life, like your doctor, your personal trainer, your children's teachers. If you're at work, you've got your colleagues, you've got your friends and your family. But now all in one magnificent swoop, they've all gone.
It might be that in your previous life, you treasured your alone time. But now in your new life, when it's all forced on you, you may feel that you've got too much time on your own. You feel isolated and a long way away from your people. And this can be especially poignant if there's a big time difference between you and home. Or if you're somewhere where the culture is vastly different and with a different language.
As an expat partner, it is important that you learn to deal with isolation because it does happen to us all. It's just something that you have to cope with for a while, except that it's going to be there for a little while.
Try not to let it get you down and try and find ways to beat it. There is a difference between isolation and loneliness. Isolation is a lack of social contact, a lack of relationships or emotional support. Loneliness is a hunger for social contact, a hunger for relationships and emotional support. The two can obviously go together. They can also exist in isolation.
Let me think of some solutions. Finding a sense of purpose is essential to long term well-being.
This can be at an individual level, such as finding a new project to sink your teeth into, perhaps decorate the house. Start a new podcast. Hmm. Wonder where that came from? Or at a wider level, such as volunteering somewhere, perhaps. Of course, everything's kind of closed right now, so just hold those into consideration for later. In the meantime, here are some top isolation and boredom busting tips.
Get to know your way around your new town or city, your new area. Knowing your way around is one of the fastest and easiest ways to create a sense of familiarity or belonging. When you know your way around then life does start to feel a little bit more normal. You don't get that bewildered, confused, lost feeling each time you step outside the door. You may well still be isolated, but this helps take away the lost feeling. If you can, become a tourist. Being a tourist is one of the best ways to get yourself out there and to appreciate your new surroundings.
It's a good idea to do it as soon after you moved as possible but if you were stuck in lockdown, then just start now. As humans, we tend to do what we always do and don't take advantage of what's around us. So start becoming a tourist straight away. Grab a tourist guidebook and get out there, see what's around. Do something new.
You may be living in an area with many other expats if you're very lucky. This tends to happen if you've moved with the military, the embassies or similar business setups where everyone is located around a single hub or head office. Use it! Find out what's going on in the business, as it were. See if there are any events that you could attend, meet ups you could join, any colleagues partners that might be available to you? Even if an event is not your cup of tea, your thing, just do it. You never know. You may find someone just like you who's at that event when they'd rather be off surfing or shopping.
More likely, though, you'll have moved somewhere normal where you need to be even more proactive than ever, and in some countries it really is hard to make inroads.
Do you have kids? Are they of school age? The school gate is the number one spot for making new friends and connections. That only works, however, if your child is young enough to need escorting to school once they get older and go there alone, you're also alone. Perhaps you'll want to join the PTA. That may be something that you can see yourself getting involved in. Meanwhile, can you arrange some outside play dates? What parks, clubs and sports are available near you. Or perhaps even a little further away if there isn't anything near you?
Perhaps you could join a golf club or a park run group. Even if you don't run these are a great way to meet new people as you walk around. Is your local library doing anything? These are great places to find adverts for things to do for events and for clubs around in the area. Are there any adult education classes that appeal? Sometimes you have to search your local authority website for those. Look for a class in something that you like, it gets you out of the house and you learn something new, plus, you'll meet people with similar interests.
If you've moved to a country where the native language is different, joining a language class is your best starting point. It's a great way to meet new people and you need the language.
Take up a new hobby, try something that you've always wanted to do, but you've never had the time. Research some local workshops and classes. Local groups are a great way to meet new, like-minded people. Or you could perhaps study something via distance learning to keep your mind occupied. You're not going to meet new people, but you'll be busy.
Perhaps you could dabble in painting your new scenery, or you could learn to crochet. If art isn't your thing, take up photography and take the opportunity to document your new life in pictures.
I had a marvellous time learning Ikebana - a Japanese flower arranging method - in Tokyo, where I met some amazing people who remain friends to this day. In fact, I loved Ikebana so much I went on to get my teaching certificate whilst overseas.
I also studied graphic design and coding websites. Also Japanese calligraphy, which was surprisingly difficult and enamelling, which wasn't. Try to find an American Club. Even if you're not American. They're pretty good and seem to exist in most large cities.
One key point in this day of technology, find Facebook groups. Search for expats in your town or expats in your country. You could see if your embassy holds public events. There's nothing better than meeting with people who speak your language and have information to help you get started in a foreign country.
If your embassy doesn't, perhaps others do. It's always worth a try. Something else to help you: Skype old friends. Rather than just pick up the phone, which unfortunately doesn't really work with time zones - I have had a phone call at two o'clock in the morning before when somebody didn't check the time zone! Schedule regular Skype or Zoom calls with friends at home on weekends or during the week depending on your lifestyle. It makes you feel that you're still part of the group. And Zoom parties are quite the thing nowadays.
A new life doesn't mean that you have to give up all of your old life and that includes your best friends and family. Although your friends and family might fall into the trap of thinking you're far too busy in your new life, make sure they know that you still need and want them around. Many people swear by scheduling regular catch up calls.
Notice the connections that you make every day. Isolation is not having the social connections, so notice that you actually really do and make the most of them. Take a moment to recognise just how many people you talk to and connect with during normal day to day transactions. I used to go to a certain gift shop in Pretoria, purely because the staff were so friendly. We would chat for ages about everything. And of course I would then feel compelled to buy something! It sadly closed a year or so after we arrived and I missed them so much. My wallet didn't, though!
Which leads me on to talking to strangers and shopping locally. Yes, I know we've always been told not to talk to strangers, but if you're going to make new friends, a new friend starts as a stranger. You need to be proactive in making a new life for yourself overseas. And that means engaging in conversations you wouldn't normally attempt. This is especially important if you're living somewhere where you have to speak a new language.
I have always been into various random conversations in shops, at bus stations, on public transport everywhere. In fact, I do this everywhere I am. It's a great way to discover insider points of view into your new or old country. I am basically the nutter on the bus!
A social life comes in all formats, from close friendships to casual conversations on the street or in the local shop. They're both at different ends of the scale, but they're all social interactions.
Yeah, it would be great to have coffee with your mates when you want to see them. But just talking to anybody, the person at the coffee shop, will help you. Be friendly and most of all open to connecting with others. Follow your intuition. Obviously stay safe and don't talk to people who you think are dodgy, but be open minded. A smile and random hand gestures, as usual go a long way, until you've mastered the language.
Of course, go out and use the local stores, the local post office, the local dry cleaners, the local hair salons. You may decide that they're not necessarily the best ones for you in the long term. But if you make an effort to visit them regularly in the beginning of your new life abroad, you'll notice how quickly these people become familiar faces. They'll recognise you and you'll recognise them pretty quickly. Likewise, if you can, join a nearby gym or perhaps yoga class. Again, it may not be the place you'll stay, but it's somewhere local to you, somewhere close to you, where you'll see people who live around you.
By building up a familiar network of local faces you'll be amazed at how quickly you'll start to feel at home in your new location. And of course, your neighbours are included in this.
Depending on the country you move to, your relationship with your neighbours can play a vital role to your new life abroad. But it does depend on the culture in that country. In the USA, for example, it's completely normal to introduce yourself to your neighbours when you first move in, and often you and your neighbours will form a close bond.
On the flip side of that, you can live for years in the U.K., in London and never know the neighbour on the same floor as you. France apparently is also the same. So do your research before you move overseas to check on any cultural differences, do things differently, you need to start thinking laterally. You won't necessarily be able to do the things exactly the way as you did them back home. And the trick is not to let this defeat you.
For example, you may want to hire a cleaner. Back at home you would just ask around the people, you know, to get a personal recommendation because you don't want to ask a complete stranger into your house. But overseas, not knowing anyone to ask, is another issue of isolation. You need to think outside of the box and come up with a different solution. You could ask around at work, of course, or ask your partner to ask around at work or if you live in an apartment complex but a little notice up by the mailbox asking for recommendations. Make sure you've translated the language correctly first, though! It may not be exactly what you would have done at home, but it's just a different version of it. So think laterally.
Moving overseas forces you to take the initiative and to get the most out of your new life. If you sit inside your new home all on your own, you don't reach out and you don't make things happen, then I'm afraid isolation will stick around.
Accept that isolation may be a temporary phase, but stay determined to beat it. Make an effort to explore your neighbourhood, know your town, join some groups. You don't have to make a huge commitment just take baby steps very quickly that place will feel far more familiar and those feelings of isolation will fade.
And give yourself a break. These are difficult times and you've just gone through a huge transition. These are just a few of many, many ideas on how you can fill your time.
Of course, everyone is different and not all people get bored. But if you've recently had to leave your full time job in order to relocate overseas, I can completely understand how those new hours can stretch out ahead of you.
Also, don't feel that every minute of your time should be dedicated to your new country. Remember, you're still living your life just in a different place. By all means, take advantage of the benefits your new home country offers you, whether that's more sunshine or better opportunities for an outdoors life, but only if that suits you. For example, if you've moved to a mountainous country, there's little point feeling guilty for not going mountain climbing or skiing every day if you categorically don't enjoy those activities.
You need to work hard to build an active and fulfilling social life for yourself overseas. Follow your passions, and by following your interests, you're more likely to find like-minded souls, too.
If you're still feeling isolated may I recommend that you get a dog? It sounds nuts, but you have to take the dog out for a walk every day. You tend to meet other dog walkers and doggy people talk to each other. I met an awful lot of people walking my dog in all my countries and we have conversations. No, we don't end up as best buddies, but there is somebody that I can talk to. We, of course, never find out each other's names, but we do know them as Rover's owner. OK, so a dog might be taking a bit too far, but I actually don't think so. Everybody needs a dog and it will get you out in about.
[Miaow] Hah, Sumi the cat has got something to say about that: you can't really take cats for a walk, but you're never lonely with a cat.
So life for everyone is pretty weird and isolated right now. Even if you're feeling the pressure of working full time with a child or several at home, along with your partner, with little time and opportunity for socialising, remember, it probably wouldn't be much different if you were back in your home country, not the day to day life bit anyway. Being able to reach out to friends and family obviously would be different. But if you're organised, you can still do that. Just do the time zone maths.
Yes, I fully recognise that you were raring to go with your lovely new shiny expat life, only to have the rug pulled out from under you. It's really tough. And I promise you are really, truly not alone. Even people who moved a couple of years ago find it really hard to make new local friends.
If you're in the void then I hope some of these tips help you feel that you're not alone and help motivate you to being proactive in making your new life your own. If you do something that you would enjoy anyway, treat it as a bonus if you make contacts from it. You do need to prepare to rebuild your life from scratch.
When you move overseas, be open and ready to rebuild your social life from the very beginning. Stay in contact with your old friends, but do be as proactive as you can about engaging in your new life.
Remember, the differences between loneliness and isolation. It's really important. Isolation is a total lack of social contact. Loneliness is a desperation for social contact. You may be isolated in a country far away from home, but you can still reach out to family, friends, random Internet strangers - right here [miaow] and my cat says yes. Loneliness is a different matter. You can be lonely in an entire room of people or even in your own family if nobody seems to be on the same wavelength as you.
In both cases, you have the power to change how you feel. You also have the power to change how you react to it. Adaptability is the key to getting the most out of your new life abroad. This means adapting to fit into your new country, not necessarily changing your entire being to fit in with a certain assumed stereotype. Unless you want to, of course.
Moving overseas is exciting and can offer you the chance to redesign your life exactly the way you want it.
Yes, it is hard right now. Yes, it will get better. And there's still so much that you can do in the meantime.
And get a dog! Dogs help break the ice in so many walks that I've ever been on in my life.
So that's a little bit for me about isolation. Again, as ever, if you would like to talk to me about any of the topics raised in this, if I can help you in any way with your move abroad, your life abroad, then please do get in touch.
I look forward to chatting with you again soon. Do take care now.
Thank you for listening to the Expatability podcast, please check out ExpatChild.com for more free information and resources and follow me on your favourite social media. Don't forget to join me next week for another episode. Until then, bye bye.