Expat advice: The key to a happy expat life

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Just because your body is here, doesn’t mean your mind is…

The two years I’ve spent living abroad have been a crash course in the emotional ups and downs that come with uprooting your life and starting again somewhere new, all with the lurking expectation of doing it again in a couple of years. This week I was compiling all my little tips about how to have a happy life as an expat no matter what your circumstance when I realized my advice was rooted in the same practice: mindfulness.

Though originally a tenet of Buddhism, the practice of mindfulness—much like yoga—has become much more mainstream. In its essence mindfulness is focusing your attention on the present, which allows you to observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad. If new age-y terms freak you out, just think of it as being in the moment or living in the here and now. If you’ve read articles about disconnecting from technology, staying in the moment with your kids, or listening to your body to avoid over-eating, then you’re familiar with mindfulness.

Because life abroad doesn’t come with a built-in support system, expats can benefit from using this tool to refocus their thoughts. Keep reading to see four particular areas where mindfulness has helped me manage expat life.

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The truth behind an expat’s social media.

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So you’re at work, tapping away at your keyboard and—taking a minute to let your mind wander—you innocently scroll through Instagram or FaceBook.

Ugh, again? There’s so-and-so, hiking some far-flung mountain, cheers-ing in front of a tropical sunset, or arms akimbo with some group of laughing weirdos. Cue rolling eyeballs and a silent promise to unfriend/unfollow/un-whatever at the next gratuitous display of glorious life-abroad fun.

Well, thank goodness you stumbled upon this article because there are so many myths to dispel when it comes to the ‘glamourous’ life we expats lead. You can make anything look good from the outside and when it comes down to it, expats are just as good as everyone else at curating a perfect life on social media.

Of course, white sand beaches look amazing from a cubicle, but let’s take a moment and pull back the curtain on a lifestyle that is so often idealized, to see that the grass isn’t always greener. Below are a few ideas at what’s happening behind the scenes of those perfectly cropped and captioned photos.

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Is expat life a shortcut to happiness?

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Does expat life really make you healthier, wealthier and happier? is the title of an article highlighting a study of 1,000 people, half of which have lived abroad and half of which haven’t. This particular study shows that those who’ve lived abroad were more satisfied with their lives than those who haven’t (albeit only slightly).

I agree in theory, but don’t think that living abroad is some kind of magic cure-all or ticket to enlightenment. Flip through some of the posts here and you’ll get a healthy serving of the downsides of expat life—loneliness, identity issues, struggling to find a new normal or to redefine your ideas of home. One way that expat life does point you in this direction, though, is by throwing a bucket of cold water on the cozy complacency that comes from living in the comfort of your native culture.

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Reverse culture shock is a thing.

El Dorado Bar San Diego
El Dorado was our spot for the last couple years we lived in San Diego and is always on the top of our list on trips back. Thankfully, it’s only changed a little bit.

I never expected to experience culture shock and I certainly didn’t anticipate the reverse. How could I have a hard time visiting the U.S.? That’s basically being a stranger in your own home. But it happens every time: I can’t decide what to eat because I’m overwhelmed with options, I can’t quite remember where things are, something I’ve built up in my head has changed or closed or wasn’t very good. Spend enough time outside your home country and a short return visit will feel foreign as well.

It’s particularly strange when I visit San Diego because that’s the place I considered my home. I have family and friends there, it’s where I got married and settled into ‘real life.’ Facing the ways your former home has changed can be daunting, and there’s always a sepia tone that creeps in somewhere (I’ve written before about the dangers of going back too soon).

I spent a week in southern California towards the end of February and decided to put into words the foggy feelings that come along with regularly moving between two worlds. Below are a few of the things I’ve come to expect when visiting my former home.

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