The Shifting Expat Scene

My personal experience and tips for changing environments.

“Once again I find myself alone, sitting at the small wooden table in this cold kitchen, wearing wool socks on my feet and a hot cup of tea in my hand. As I gaze out the window at the pouring down rain, I can’t help but think this summer was all just a dream…”

This excerpt is taken from one of the first journal entries I had wrote upon returning from a summer spent working in Southern France for diversophy®. Coming “home” is not always as sweet as the saying when you feel there are a million pieces to your puzzled life to put back together. This post will share tips, coping strategies and other ways to make it easier to get through the sour parts of returning to a “home sweet home”.

The 3 Main Difficulties:

  1. The never ending to-do list (which seems to keep on growing)
  2. Unexpected behavior (from yourself and others)
  3. All of your thoughts, feelings and emotions

Whether you were gone for a few week vacation or a few years as an expat, chances are there is a pretty large list of honey dews waiting for you. Taking these next 4 steps will help you accomplish what needs to be done and hopefully save yourself from the total mental exhaustion in the process.

1) Write it ALL down

All of the small task clouds seem to morph into one large storm in your head. Writing it all down can help you clear your mind and see exactly what needs to be accomplished.

2) Prioritize

Prioritizing the list can help you see what the most important items area and what needs to be urgently accomplished. You can more clearly define your list by color coding and categorizing according to the type of task, due date, location or any other element of differentiation.

3) Make a plan of Action

After knowing what needs to be done and by when you need it accomplished by, the next step is making a plan of action. This should be relatively easy if you have written everything down and organized it. Start by looking at the nearest deadlines or alternatively the size and complexity of the task. Without a proper transition time you may need to get creative to accomplish all of your to do’s. I find it helpful to multi-task such as the different possibilities of getting things done while drinking my morning coffee, during a spare moment at home or even a lunch break at work.

4) Start!

The single most important piece of advice is plain and simple, just start. It is easy to procrastinate, over think or plan when there is no clear place to start. It does not matter how many detailed lists you write up or how great your plan is if there is no follow up action.

The transition period before feeling back to a “normal” can be filled with awkward moments and unexpected behaviors. From personal experience, some of the most awkward moments have been when forgetting to switch languages and adapt to the appropriate cultural behaviors. 

A recent example:

“I was so excited to see my Finnish friend after being away for a few months but when I went to greet her by saying bonjour and kissing her cheek, she looked horrified and took a huge step back. Realizing my mistake I quickly changed languages and tried to hug her and compensate with an overly cheerful a hello! After a second funny expression plastered on her face, it finally dawned on me she was not use to this new “normal” behavior of mine and expected my “Finnish” norm of simply giving a short hug, keeping my distance and saying a calm, Moi!”

Other normal everyday activities which may feel a bit odd at first are grocery shopping, getting dressed and following your usual sleep pattern. When away you get use to a different way of eating, sleeping and even dressing for the day; a sudden change in environment can leave our bodies and minds a bit confused. There will always be times when we fail at remembering to change our behavior but the best reaction is to always laugh about it!

Feelings, Thoughts and Emotions, Oh My!

If each one of us went on the same journey, had the same experience and returned together, we would still have drastically different reactions. Not only do we all differ in what we think or feel but the most important aspect is recognizing HOW we choose or choose not to deal with those. Your attitude and how you choose to cope is entirely up to you but be warned of the two pitfall categories people tend to fall into upon immediate return.

The Overly Optimistic:

“Everything works better here, the transportation is always on time, the food tastes better and people don’t bother me in public, why did I ever leave...”

The Pessimist:

“I do not want to be here nor do I know why I came back, the food is expensive, the weather bad and no one ever talks to each other, it is just horrible to be here and I wish I was still there.”

It is natural to react to a change in environment and as a result, feel a mix of emotions. Neither of these previously listed polarized ways of thinking are healthy and view the world divided into the right and wrong. Your own tendencies can be revealed by paying more attention to your thoughts, daily comments and typical attitude.

Plan -> Accomplish -> Weird Behaviors -> Feelings -> Now What?

What is missing is coping strategies to deal with these ongoing changes and challenges in the transitional period. Suppressing emotions and avoiding dealing with any arising issues only postpone the conflict. Here are a few important things to ask and remind yourself about if you are finding it difficult to adjust:

  • Why am I here at this moment and not anywhere else in the world?
  • Do you care about your job, are you going to school or do you have close family and friends there?
  • What had I previously enjoyed most about being here?

It could be nature’s changing of the seasons, sporting activities, the local foods or anything else unique to where you live.

The beautiful sunset at Tuomiojärvi Lake, a few minutes from my apartment downtown in Jyväskylä, Finland

Remind yourself of all of the good reasons to be there. During the rough times do not be afraid to reach out to your friends and family if needed. Journaling and another reflective activities such as going for a walk or cooking something new can really make a difference. The most important piece of advice to remember is make time for yourself to process and reflect on your experiences.

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  • Very good advice in an easy to read way, sounds like coming from a pro,
    which you are at this,

    The SuperFinn on

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