Sarah Emery California Bixby Bridge
Expat lifestyle

How to Thrive at the Expat Lifestyle

Take the plunge to living the expat lifestyle.

So you’re ready to move abroad and begin your new life at being an expat and learning a new culture. First off, congratulations and secondly, it’s going to be an adventure for sure.

After moving abroad, comes the living abroad.

For me, it has been the best sight unseen decision I have made to date! Experiencing expat life will enhance your lifestyle, 100%.

Living an expat life is transformative and rewarding.

What was I doing before expat living?

At the time writing this, it’s been 1 year and 4 months since Tim (the hubs) and I moved from the US to Singapore. And thinking in retrospect, there’s definitely a few things, my Now Self would have tell my Past Self.

Prior to moving to Singapore, Tim and I lived in the Bay Area of San Francisco. Our lives in the States was a happy, familiar, suburban existence. It was a life that fundamentally incapacitated us needing to learn skills. Such as, how to live in a new culture, unravel the unwritten rules, and …. well, everything.

And it wasn’t that moving was new to us. Individually we had moved States within the US. Before California, we were in the suburbs of Washington D.C. The coastal move was logistically and mentally, an easier transition than moving country. Full disclosure, I naively thought moving country would be similar.

Moving abroad to a new country is a whole different animal.

One thing I was completely unaware of, is being a trailing spouse. Or even the word and what it was. I was also new to how to form new friendships when you don’t have a place of work, or sports or a gym that you frequent.

In my short time as an expat, I have learned A LOT.

10 Things For Life Abroad

1) Laughter is a necessity for a happy life.

Well duh. Laughter has many health benefits and being with friends that you have endless belly laughs with, is just good for the soul. In expat life, cultivating new friendships as adults take a bit of effort and time. But there are sure ways to make it easy.

Sarah Emery laughing with Laura Grier

If you’re in a similar situation like myself, which is not being company employed; ergo no office to frequent or colleagues to converse with. Also sans children; no play dates or meeting other parents. It takes more energy to engage with others. Especially when not knowing a single soul in a new country.

Watching Netflix on a comfy couch is not going to make you friends.

For the first 2 months living in Singapore, we lived in a hotel and the only people (besides Tim) I spoke with. Were either ringing me up at the grocery store (asking if I needed a bag for my groceries) or hotel staff (asking me what room I’m staying in).

To get past the staff questions, I needed to integrate in actual social settings.

The first areas that came to mind was to repeat how I met people back in the States. Volunteer programs, the local gym and of course my place of work! Well, some things just can’t be duplicated. So what did I do?

I did something that I’ve never had to do before. I exposed myself. Now, not meaning I was flashing myself down roads and raising up my Freak Flag. Rather, I put myself out there. I connected with people via social media. I asked friends and family if they knew anyone here.

Now a days, it’s so much easier to meet people via the internet. There are so many expat groups, meet up groups and more particular groups (e.g. foodie groups, outdoorsy hiking groups, etc.). These groups are looking for like-minded people who want to establish their tribe. Gotta love that social media.

For myself, I have made friends, from friends of friends, meeting people at events, bars, standing in line (yup), neighbors, friends of neighbors and the blessed social media. I will say, for Singapore specifically. When talking to random strangers in public spaces. They were all expats. I’m the friendly American that can talk with anyone and here, well. It’s not usual for Singaporeans to engage with strangers. So you can imagine the strange looks I get when I do interact with strangers, say hello to comment on something we both see. They give me the weirdest looks, and I’m sure they think I’m completely mad.

At any case, finding your tribe takes effort, openness and patience. But it is worth it and necessary. As finding your people, gives you more of a sense of belonging, grounded and support. I’ve also learned, friends in expat life often become as close as family.

2) Saying yes to every invite has ripple effects.

I met a wonderful local woman from social media who invited us to a 17 person dinner that started 2 hours after I landed from an 18 hr flight. Trust me, it was easy to decline with the excuse of travel. But I made the commitment and I had to keep to my rule of saying yes to everything.

Not only was it a lovely dinner but it turned into a new social group for me. A group of 74 people in a Whats App chat centered around food that meets up once a week, to eat.

From saying yes to every invite I put myself in more social settings. I have met both expats and locals. Which is important.

Singapore is home to a lot of expats. Which could seem discouraging (for those who don’t have a time stamp on a work contract), but it’s really not. What makes it amazing, is expats get each other. It’s like we seek each other out and we understand making connections in a new country doesn’t have to be difficult. We also know the importance of connection.

There have been times when I’m in another country and have been introduced over a text to a new connection. Or the exact opposite. I have been contacted by friends of friends, telling me they are coming to Singapore and would like to meet up. It’s pretty fantastic.

3) Know that home is not a place, it’s a feeling.

It really is. When I go back to previously lived places, it is visiting. My home is when I’m with my husband. He has all the feelings. As much traveling we do together, I can easily be anywhere and feel right at home when he’s next to me.

Sarah and Tim in Pacific Coast California

Since my late teens, I always had trouble sleeping. Constantly waking up several times and taking forever to fall asleep, was an every night occurrence. Every since I’ve been with Tim, I’ve had the best sleep in my life. There’s really something said about restorative sleep and having a responsive partner.

4) The secret to living in a new culture.

Learning how to live in a new culture goes in stages. Once you’re past the fundamentals of daily life (getting sorted with grocery stores, transit, etc.), the next step is experiencing local traditions, getting to know the history and more local life. It’s getting to know what’s under the hood.

Sure, there will be frustrating parts to it (e.g. inefficiencies of bureaucratic processes). But being more flexible and accepting of things. Will help ease life obstacles.

The secret sauce is, don’t sweat the small stuff. I know, it’s easier said than done. Life has troubles and keeping focused on being solution oriented, will help you to move on.

BUT believe me! Having a good vent-fest over wine with a friend, who has a good sense of humor is also helpful and necessary. It’s also good to know a few locals to help you through some of the frustrations. They will be your wise fairy godmothers on bringing a bit more clarity to troublesome situations.

5) Let go of brands, apps and memberships.

A good way to infuse your life with your new surroundings is to let go of what was and learn what is now (research good applicable local Apps).

It’s such a bust when award points and memberships aren’t transferable. Ahem … Starbucks, Sephora. Dude! Why can’t I still earn points?

Sure, I miss Target, Amazon, coffee creamer (a particular brand) but after hours of searching for specific items, it’s easier to stop wasting time and to let go. LET IT Goooooooo !!! Learn to live without or find its’ equivalent.

I also miss Yelp. It was my go to guide. Here, I’m very skeptical of Google reviews especially those with 5 stars with unhelpful comments. Or, they are one-word comments (‘great’, ‘cool’). For example, I learned very quickly about the reviews on condos. Most are written by real estate agents in attempts to lure in potential tenants.

My new Yelp is, people mixed in with hope. I ask friends for recommendations and if they don’t know, I go, try and hope for the best. In the meantime, I do occasionally write a Google review. Hoping it may help a tourist or a newbie expat.

I will say, if you are hellbent on having particular brands. Research if the items are available in your new country before moving. If not, stock up on those particular items. Also, have friends and or family to mule them in for you when they visit.

This is something I have to do when going back to the States. I, of course have a heyday on clothing, but my go to is toiletries. For me, it’s significantly less expensive and I can find particular items I know, trust and works for me.

6) Junk draws are the cockroaches of moving.

They pop up everywhere. Learning to live with quality and beneficial items that are useful in daily life is liberating. I have downsized 4x in my life and I have discovered extra stuff is unnecessary.

Marie Kondo’s said, “It’s a very strange phenomenon, but when we reduce what we own and essentially ‘detox’ our house, it has a detox effect on our bodies as well.”

This is definitely something I should have acknowledged when I moved from the East Coast, USA to West Coast, USA. There’s no need to pack your junk drawer. Sure, there are things that make a house a home.

I find it best to own things that I use daily or at least weekly. Everything else is clutter.

7) When visiting your hometown. Don’t expect everyone to see you.

This one seems to be echoed a lot, but I think it’s important.

In the same context, don’t overextend yourself to see everyone. It can make travel worse. In my case, flying to Virginia is halfway around the planet. Depending on the flight pattern, layovers, time to and from an airport. It can be 30+hours of travel.

While seeing everyone is fantastic, sometimes it’s just not doable for a whole laundry list of reasons. Especially during the Christmas season, where a great migration happens and everyone’s appearance is in demand.

The easiest arrangement is to pick date, time and location that can host as many people as possible (a restaurant, bar, winery, park, brewery or someone’s home) and call it a day.

The other piece of going back ‘home’, (that’s often repeated expat advice) is feeling disappointed when friends and family don’t make an effort to see you. At times, certain situations don’t make sense and efforts aren’t matched.

For example, years ago a friend of mine flew over to visit friends and family. A local mutual friend of ours, who was a 15 minute car ride down the road. Said she wasn’t going to make our reunion and didn’t make any follow up plans to meet up later. Obviously, the feels of disappointment came over my visiting friend. She had flown 6 hours, taken time off work and planned with everyone to meet with them, weeks in advance.

So you can understand the hurt feelings of unmatched effort and then questionable friendship. Not to mention just the appreciation of someone taking the time to spend time with people and spending the money on flights.

It’s best to let it go. Time is valuable and it’s far better to spend energy where it matters and has meaning.

The solution is, Whats App, Facetime, Skype, or a home telephone number (do they still exist?). They become the hero to save the day. It makes the distance not feel so far.

8) What does it mean to be a Trailing Spouse?

This is a heavy topic that comes with a lot of moving parts. It merges with number 9) & 10) on my list and why 1) and 2) are important. It’s not the same for everyone but the topic does surface itself into expat conversations.

No matter what you call it, trailing spouse, expat partner, etc. it does not define a person. Yeah, I can easily raise my hand up and say, “Yup, I am living in Singapore because my husband accepted a position here.” Does that label me? No, it gives reason to why we are here.

I’ve read that for some, they denote the title trailing spouse as a horrible descriptor. For me, the label doesn’t bother me. Sure, I wish things were different. The loss of independence in certain areas, does have me thrown. Sure, I contribute to our little family in other ways, but I do miss being able to treat my hubby on dinner dates.

There is an inner journey to being a trailing spouse. While both parties relinquish social networks and instant support from close by family and friends. Trailing spouses give up their job which also means financial independence (which is me). And with that comes a whole host of various additional factors associated with it.

Research by the Permits Foundation showed 90% of trailing spouses had a career prior to relocating and due to visa & work permit restrictions and other contributors, only 35% could continue their career. To me, that a significant amount of women who aren’t working. And in my experience when chatting with others about this. 99.9% wish they were able to work.

Honestly, I do wish I would have done more research on this, prior to making our decision. I’m not positive that it would have changed our decision to move, but it is ABSOLUTELY IMPORTANT for potential trailing spouses to explore BEFORE making the decision to move.

My visa status here is called a Dependent pass. Not only is the word dependent in the title, but I am fully dependent on my husband. Which means as a capable adult, by law, I can’t do some of the simple things. Such as, be the sole signature on a lease, rent a car, etc.

Since I currently do not work, I don’t feel a loss of identity. Personally, I’ve never associated my job title with who I am as a person. That doesn’t mean I didn’t love to work. As a buyer and planner I absolutely love bringing value to the end consumer. I also love being part a company’s successes and working with dynamic people. I really enjoy being buyer, planner and sourcing products.

Yet, I cringe of the thought of someone saying at my funeral, “Sarah was the best buyer out there.” Um, thanks …. was it my awesome excel spreadsheet skills? Or my inventory profitability skills? Ha!

Yet, it is scary for some, because they do feel a loss of identity as a trailing spouse. Which subsequently could turn into resentment.

This is why it’s super important to understand and discuss everything related to being a trailing spouse.

Sarah Emery California Bixby Bridge

As a trailing spouse, what do you do all day?

As a trailing spouse, I’m often asked, “So, what do you do all day?” A question that used to confuse and offend me. Before moving to Singapore I was never asked that question. When I moved from Virginia to California – NO ONE asked me that question. And I’m surmising because I had a job.

I don’t know if it’s a replacement question to, “What do you do for a living?” Which I’ve always found to be a soulless question and straight up riddled with judgment. It was a common question back in the States, moreso on the East Coast vs. West Coast (where it was very uncommon & almost shameful to ask). I’ve always found it a bizarre question outside of business functions.

Nowadays, “Where else have you lived, where are you from, or how long have you lived in Singapore?” is the common starter question.

Understandably, I can see the, ‘what do you do all day?’ question. From the perspective that I don’t have an employer and children. It’s a valid inquiry.

My answer is, I do what most people do with their free time. Which is, whatever they want.

I choose to fill my days with travel. For the days I’m not traveling. I’m often hosting visitors and touring around Singapore. What’s also amazing, is traveling with visitors. It’s so easy to jump on a flight and visit neighboring countries and share new adventures. My first year in Singapore, I was here 50% of the time.

The next obvious is the social calendar with friends. We have a fantastic network of amazing friends here.

Outside of travel and socializing. I allow my curiosity to lead my day. Sure, I do the mundane of house organization (laundry, grocery, gym, etc). No, we don’t have a helper (which is common here in Singapore). I find that I can get all that stuff done on my own.

My curiosity has led me, to learn how to sew, how to read and write in Japanese, and starting this blog. Which subsequently, has taken me, to making connections with other expats, globally. I’ve also published an adult coloring book.

My days fill up very easily and quickly. I find that time evaporates and towards the beginning of an evening. I often feel, there are not enough hours in the day.

I do keep a rule for myself = no television during the day.

My advice to those in a similar situation of being a trailing spouse. Enjoy and expand on your personal interests. Think about what you would like to do during retirement and what brings you joy.

Being a trailing spouse and how it is handled does come down to the individual. Also partnership, and I have to say, I have amazing one.

9) Strong communication with your partner is crucial.

I thought I had great communication with my husband prior to moving overseas. Moving abroad has strengthened it. We don’t have years under our belt as a married couple but our understanding and communication is ever evolving in strength, with each passing month. We have experienced big life milestones together and still come out on top. I love the partnership we have and how we overcome obstacles.

Sarah and Tim talking

A big change in our communication is, listening and understanding. I know, sounds simple right? But in the heat of an argument, one is often never trying to listen. Rather we want to bark back and get out our side of the argument. That’s when we need to actively listen AND be mindful of each others feelings. Which can be extremely difficult when all you’re doing is shouting at each other and thinking of what you’re going to say next.

Active listening is a mindful skill.

Some of the best date nights I have, are laying on the couch (no mobile devices – gasp – I know, no television on, absolutely no distractions) and talking with each other, for hours. Sometimes we talk about nothing in particular. And sometimes it changes over to checking in with each other on a more emotional intimate level.

10) Recognize feelings of loneliness.

** Full disclaimer. Seek professional help when feelings of loneliness are overwhelming. If you discontinue doing your regular routine and or find little interest in things that you enjoy doing, seek professional help. Communicate with your spouse and reach out to family & friends letting them know how you feel. **

Unexpectedly, I received a lovely email from a friend that hit me to the max core.

I wanted to follow up on our chat last weekend.  I was completely sincere in telling you that you are one of only a very few people I have known who seem to shine with happy, positive energy.  There is a selflessness about your basic character that marks you as one in a million.  I also see your somewhat fearless, adventurous side with complete clarity.
 
When I learned that you decided to abruptly marry and move overseas, I was not in the least surprised.  I viewed the move as both brave, and a little dangerous.  So while I’m certain you did the right thing, it also registered in my brain as something to be concerned about.  And something I should check up on from time to time, as I was able.
 
 A move like you made seems dangerous to me, because you end up rather isolated.  For at least the first few months, you are unlikely to have anyone else to truly talk to and spend time with other than your husband.  Particularly in a situation like this, where your husband will be immediately surrounded with a built in set of work colleagues, and you will not.  This was why I asked you how you were filling your days, and whether you had managed to find a few friends.
 
 If the move is working for you, even if not in the way you originally envisioned, then I’m happy for you!  But if things are not working out in a way that you actually LIKE, you will probably need to tap that same courageous streak that runs up your center, and take steps to address the issue. 

 My greatest fear is that the light that shines from you will be dimmed.  Or, God forbid, extinguished.  That would be a tragedy, and a massive loss for those of us who count you as a friend.

 All of which is to say, I wish only the best for you.  But I remain concerned.

I cherish this email and read it from time to time. It helps SO MUCH!

Being a trailing spouse, there are a lot of periods of being alone.

Situational depression is a thing & it tells its victims a lot of lies.

Situational depression lays a heavy blanket on its victims, making it feel to be effortless. It’s so important to recognize when it’s upon you, and to know the exact opposite should be applied. Take action, communicate to others and seek professional support. This corresponds to number 8) & 9) and again I repeat, why 1) & 2) are vital to living abroad.

As much as I traveled in our first year, there was a good amount of time I was alone (Tim travels frequently). In the beginning, being on an island without an established supportive group of friends did turn being alone into moments of loneliness. Where that heavy blanket almost felt like a layer of concrete. It’s heaviness seeped into my brain and filled my thoughts of doubt, worry and emptiness.

Being alone and being lonely are 2 different things.

My lesson and advice for those who experience this challenge is to speak up. Thank goodness for my husband and fellow expats that I can talk to about this. As it is not something to get over. It needs attention and action to get through.

P.S. Fellow expats – if you’re feeling loneliness – reach out to me and let’s chat. You are not alone 😉

Attitude can change the landscape of your experience. In the early months of life abroad, I had times of loneliness. My amazing husband responded to my needs and said, “that’s it, we’re moving back.” My immediate reaction was “no”. I recognized I was having bad moments that came in waves. I was determined to shake off that heavy blanket off indefinitely.

Focusing on and being positive is something I like to think I inherently do and I find it extremely annoying listening to complainers. While I recognize I’m not rainbows and butterflies 100% of the time – because that’s just lunacy. I’m determined to not allow my moments of sadness and loneliness the reason to end our journey.

Which are few and far between nowadays (in case anyone is worried).

There is it. The top 10 things to know about life abroad.

The last few points sound serious and scary but I want to be 100% honest and transparent. There are ups and downs to life abroad.

There are more ups than downs.

I don’t want to discourage anyone but I also don’t want to gloss over the truths.

There are ways to making life abroad absolutely amazing and I can say I am living my best life.

I do not regret moving abroad.

It’ll be interesting to see a few months from now, what my 2020 Self thinks of my 2019 Self. Will I roll my eyes, laugh and think oh – you knew nothing little grasshopper. TBD. Or realize that expanding skills and new experiences is life shaping.

Cheers to shape shifting expat lifestyle skills.

Outdoor enthusiast thriving in the expatriate traveling lifestyle. Looking to connect with your sense of adventure.

29 Comments

  • tmpowell

    I love this Sarah! Great perspective and advice; especially for all of us trailing spouses. Love your honesty and humor!

  • Lloyd Unsell

    Sarah, thanks so much for this glimpse into your new life in the Far East. It’s a real eye-opener! We’re proud of you and love you guys “to the moon and back.” Can’t wait to see you again and have a serious face-to-face to talk about your experiences in more detail.

  • Miun

    I loved reading this! You hit on some great points about the ex-pat life. I know it’s an opportunity not many of us get and there’s a trade off with familiarity and conveniences that aren’t readily available in other countries. But like you wrote, you adjust and get used to your new normal. I also love the idea that home is not a place but essentially what you make of it; the rest is just geography, right? Love your personable writing style!

  • Roamy

    I have been an expat for almost 20 years, I no longer consider myself an expat, I consider this my home now and would not change it for anything as I love it so much.

  • Beth

    When I was a kid, we moved to Europe for a few years. It was an amazing experience for us. It sounds like you are really enjoying your life as an expat.

  • Cendu Param

    It is a brave adventure to take on the expat life. I don’t know if I could. I have so much admiration for those who do. It’s not easy to leave your comfort zone and seek new experiences in a foreign land. But i love your advice that home isn’t a place, its a feeling. This is so so true.

  • Riana Shahid

    Wow I cannot imagine myself living outside of New York, let alone another country. You really embody the concept of really thriving! What do you think surprised you the most about living in Singapore?

  • Jackline A

    Such a well written article Sarah. Your making me want to pick up my things and move aboard as well. Life is too short not to experience the many wonders of the world.

  • Martin

    I think you have given me something new to try. (Although not moving countries) I think I am going to start saying yes!! YES!! because what have you got to loose? Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Pool Operator Talk

    I love this! I’ve put a lot of thought into the expat life and would love to try it at least for a while, not permanent. I cannot imagine a better way to experience a culture. I do like my junk drawer however and probably will not be able to let go of that

  • www.8rent.ae

    After I originally commented I seem to have clicked the -Notify me
    when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on every time
    a comment is added I receive four emails with the exact same comment.
    Perhaps there is a means you can remove me from that service?
    Thanks!

    • Sarah Emery

      Hi There! In the notification emails, there should be a link to “Manage Subscriptions.” By clicking on that link, you will have the option to remove your subscription to the comments on that page.

  • Miss Footloose

    Great advice! Although I’ve been a serial expat for years, living in 8 different countries, I still read post like yours at times because I find it interesting to see the different perspectives expats have. For a laugh, one list someone put up listed as number one to make sure to bring a stash of your favorite shampoo. (Can hair be that much of a problem?) Your points “let it go!” and “say yes to everything” are right on of course, and like you said laughing is important. Having a sense of humor is crucial. Enjoy Singapore!

    • Sarah Emery

      Thank you so much! That means a lot coming from a seasoned expat. Yes, to let it go 🙂 Sometimes, it’s best to take the path of least resistance. And having a sense of humor about some things, is the best route. Cheers to thriving at the expat lifestyle 🙂

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