This week marked four months since I arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark to reunite with my partner, Mike and begin our journey as American expats. I was also featured on an awesome blog, Young American Expat, where they asked me to talk about my experience and provide advice. I decided to reflect a little deeper on this and share my thoughts here as well.
Expatriating to Europe was an easy decision, and happened very quickly. Mike made his first trip to Copenhagen in November and a few weeks later we were planning to expatriate to Denmark indefinitely. The first week in December we made the decision, Mike was back in Copenhagen a week later and he fully moved there the first week in January.
Things. Moved. Fast. The normal planning period is at least six months and usually both partners are around to navigate the process of closing life in the native country and preparing for the next chapter away – this wasn’t the case for us. While I took on a lot of the burden of the move, Mike was simultaneously working two jobs separated by 6 time zones. By late March of this year, the finish line was close and I was boarding a plane to my new life in Copenhagen.
It’s now been four months and we are getting ready to board another plane back to America, just as Copenhagen is starting to feel like home. The extra work load for Mike and the insanity of moving our entire life abroad in 90 days is long in the rearview mirror. During the last four months I’ve learned some things about life as an American expat. Here’s a little advice on surviving and thriving as you begin your expat experience.
You’re a Local Now:
When you first arrive it’s easy to live like a tourist or a business traveler. It seems like an obvious statement, but you live there now. Take a few weeks and avoid going out to eat, buy your food at the local market and cook. It’s not easy, trust the guy who was struggling to google translate labels and figure out weird settings on the oven, but the worst thing you can do is continue living like you’re on an international excursion and not in your adopted country.
Do some research and go to cultural events and festivals, markets and hangouts that locals frequent. I didn’t make Copenhagen home by visiting castles, I did it by doing the mundane everyday life events and finding ways to participate in Danish culture. Persevere when it seems tough, because it won’t always be easy but you cannot adapt to your new home if you don’t live life as if you belong there (because you do).
If you’re moving abroad as a couple or family, communication with one another will be more important than almost anyone else in your expat experience. Share your feelings, you’ll have a lot of them and the highs will be higher and the lows can be lower.
Mike and I each had trepidations throughout our time here so far (some of mine may have bordered on melt downs). Be open about how the experience is affecting every member of your family or each partner in your relationship – you may be in the same physical location, but you may not be in the same mental place with the journey.
As the trailing partner, I had to wait several months before being given a work permit and having the chance to participate in Danish classes or other career workshops that are offered to expats. This meant a lot of time alone and I had to be upfront with Mike and explain how some days he is the only native English speaker I encounter all day. I also know how it feels getting home from work and needing to decompress, and his job in Denmark was even more draining. We had to communicate to understand how we were each being impacted by the new lifestyle we were thrust into and meet each others needs.
If you’re moving abroad alone, keep a journal of your experience and take time to let yourself feel. It’s important to have a sounding board and mental check in, even if it’s in the form of a journal.
Get involved as soon as you can and meet everyone and anyone. Whether it’s through work, classes and workshops that are offered to expats, different expat social organizations or just people that you can meet out in social settings – MEET EVERYONE. Having a community to lean on will make things easier for you and keep you engaged in your new home.
With the help of social networking, there are a myriad of expat groups in every major city and many coordinate frequent events and social gatherings. The online expat community is strong even if you aren’t in a major city and merely need advice from someone who has been in your experience. From questions about finding housing, going out to clubs or finding ricotta cheese, these groups can be a lifesaver and help you get connected to the community.
Look Ahead or Hold On:
Depending how long your expat assignment is, this can be a tough thing to decide – how much do you hold onto your old life and how much do you dive into a new one that may not be permanent. While you may keep in close contact with friends and family back home, you cannot succeed as an expat if you don’t balance that with making new relationships and building a new life abroad.
Maintaining a deeply engaged life in two places is unsustainable, even with all the technology and social media in the world. Strike a balance that works for you and know that you’re going through experiences that some friends may not understand so you should develop relationships with others expats and locals that can help you look forward.
Developing a routine is extremely important for an expat. Decide when you’re going to complete daily tasks, Skype or FaceTime with family back home and plan out your vacation schedule. This is something that I struggled with at first, but has made a tremendous difference in my time abroad.
Because our initial commitment to Copenhagen was six months, but would likely turn permanent, we erred on the side of caution and did a lot of traveling in our first few months. This made building a routine tough and we were finding it hard to live like locals when we were traveling to other European cities so frequently. We also hosted a lot of visitors for the same reason, they didn’t know if we would be staying in Denmark beyond the six month marker. Once we settled into a routine, we were able to experience a little more expat harmony, things felt more like home and there was a lot less stress.
I did a lot of research before moving to Denmark about how leaving home to move abroad can drive anyone to some degree of culture shock. Depending on the source, the timelines were different, but everyone agreed that it happens between 3 and 6 months. It is true that the novelty of your new surroundings wear off and you eventually feel like an outsider in your new country, but it’s important to remember that you’re a cultural guest and keep learning and plugging along.
There have been several times where I’ve turned to Mike and said, “I’m so sick of how fucking Danish everything is here – there’s a Danish way to do this, and a Danish way to do that…” and it’s true. There’s a nuanced cultural way of doing things that I always noticed, but eventually came at odds with when things started piling up that didn’t work the way they do in America. As frustrated as I was in those moments, all of those things eventually resolved themselves and I learned to keep in mind that I was a guest in Denmark. Some of those moments I talk about in my blog post: “Celebrating” July 4th Abroad.
Overall, the experience of an expat is challenging but incredibly rewarding and worth every moment of stress. The highs are higher and the lows can be really low, but being open to these experiences has tested me, Mike and our relationship in a positive way where we have grown closer and tougher because of it. When you expat, you pick up everything and move to another country – few people do that unless they have to, and their reasons are usually a lot worse than career advancement and adventure. I try to keep that in perspective through this crazy ride.