Sarah Emery California Bixby Bridge
Expat lifestyle

How to Thrive at the Expat Lifestyle

Take the plunge to living the expat lifestyle.

Have you ever been the new kid on the block? Or the newbie in a school or to a sports team? What about being the new employee?

If so, then you too have fumbled around trying to figure out your new surroundings. And of course, the dreaded….. who are you going to sit with at lunch?

What comes after moving abroad, to living abroad? Living an expat life is transformative and rewarding.

Becoming and learning the intricacies of an expat lifestyle is an eye opener.

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

What was I doing before life as an expat?

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

Prior to living in Singapore, we lived in the Bay area of San Francisco. Our life in the States was a happy, familiar, suburban existence that fundamentally incapacitated needing the skills to knowing how to live in a new culture.

I didn’t know how to be a trailing spouse, or how to stop constantly comparing things and I didn’t know what it takes to form new, meaningful connections as an adult. In my short time as an expat, I have learned A LOT.

When Tim and I moved from the suburbs of Washington D.C. to the East Bay of San Francisco, California. Both logistically and mentally, it was an easier transition than moving country.

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

SO, let’s get to it. Here’s what to know, before you go, about living abroad.

10 things every expat should know for life abroad.

1) Laughter is a necessity for a happy life.

Well duh. Laughter has many health benefits and it’s best in groups with friends. 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 makes engaging with others to be a bit more strategic. STRA-TEGERY (George W. Bush). 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 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. And I followed up, by reaching out to people.

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. Finding your tribe takes effort, openness and patience.

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 hosts 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. He’s also an amazing man, so yeah, there’s that too 🙂

Sarah and Tim in Pacific Coast California

4) The secret to living in a new culture.

Learning how to live in a new culture is like learning a new language. There are stages to becoming fluent. Once you’re past the fundamentals and grammar, the next step is to become intermediate. The ultimate goal is to graduate by living like a local.

Thankfully English is widely used in Singapore. Most speak both English and Chinese. Yet it’s very easy to hear Malay, Tamil, Tagalog, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese, Hokkien and Teochew out in public. The public subway (MRT – which I like to call Mr. T) make announcements in Chinese, Tamil, Malay, and English.

Since I’m not learning any of these said languages (I am slowly learning Japanese). I am learning the way of life in Singapore and in South East Asia. It’s hard not to compare and try to duplicate past known ways of comfort (and thinking). But the reality is we’re not in Kansas anymore. Removing assumptions and not expecting things are done the same globally. Will assist in getting acclimated less painful.

Sure, there are frustrating parts to it (e.g. inefficiencies of bureaucratic processes). Being more flexible and accepting things are well, just different (e.g. I still don’t get why laundry dryers take FOREVER – but then again we don’t really use dryers here) will help ease small life obstacles.

The secret sauce is, don’t sweat the small stuff.

Life is obstacles and problem solving is how 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.

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).

Sure, I miss Target, Amazon, Mexican food, 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.

It’s such a bust when award points and memberships aren’t transferable. Ahem … Starbucks, Sephora. Dude! Why can’t I still earn points? The response I get, is, ‘it’s Asia’. As if that’s an acceptable answer. There’s this under current of Wild West rules that I’m still learning.

I also miss Yelp. It was my go to guide. Here, I’m very skeptical of Google reviews because 5 stars ratings are without comments. Or they are one-word commentary (‘great’, ‘cool’) or the comments are vague as if someone was paid to give a 5 star or just don’t know how to review a place. “Cool place, I’d come back” or “Fun area” are not sufficient comments that merits 5 stars!

My new Yelp is, people and hope. I ask friends for recommendations and if they don’t know, I go, try and hope for the best.

Yet, 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.

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 either replaceable and or unnecessary.

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.

7) Now, this next one seems to be echoed a lot, but I think it’s important. When visiting your home town. Don’t expect everyone to see you.

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. It’s usually 20 hours of flight time. A 15 hr flight from Singapore to San Francisco, then a 5 hr flight from California to Virginia. And that’s not including layover time and time to and from airports.

While seeing everyone is fantastic, sometimes it’s just not doable for a whole laundry list of reasons. Especially during the Christmas season. It’s a great migration that takes planning.

Sometimes it’s easier to set one date and make one location the meeting point that can host as many people as possible.

This foresight is repeated expat advice but I’m not sure if everyone talks about feeling disappointed. At times, certain situations don’t make sense and efforts aren’t matched. For example, a friend complained to me that another friend who was 15 min’s down the road gave her a lame excuse that she couldn’t meet up. My friend had flown 6 hours to visit and took personal days from work to make this extra visit.

My advice is the same with known brand names and Apps, just let it go. Time is valuable and it’s far better to spend energy where it really counts.

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

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

I believe 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 it 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, it doesn’t bother me. It’s the loss of independence that has 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 the instant support from close by family and friends. Some trailing spouses give up their job which also means financial independence. And with that comes a whole host of various additional factors associated with it.

Research by the Permits Foundation showed 80% 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.

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 cannot sign a lease, get a mobile account, rent a car, etc.

Basically, I can’t adult today – applies to my everyday life.

Since I currently do not work, I don’t feel a loss of identity. I’ve never associated my job title with who I am as a person. That doesn’t mean I didn’t love to work. I love contributing to a company’s success and I absolutely loved my past employers, co workers and leaders. I really enjoyed being a retail buyer and sourcing products.

It’s an amazing feeling to see the public enjoying, using or wearing items that I personally picked out.

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

It is scary for some because they do lose their identity as an expat partner (if they can’t continue their career). Which subsequently could turn into resentment that can lead into worse life scenarios.

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, how do you fill your days?

When I’m back in the States, I’m often asked, “So, what do you do all day?” A question that use to confuse and offend me. Especially when the tone of the question was judgy. 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 of why, is, 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 only find useful to ask at business type events, otherwise I find it a soulless question. But it was a question that I found very common back in the States especially on the East Coast. Here, I find “Where else have you lived, or where are you from?” as the starter question.

Yet I can see the question, of what I do all day, 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 away or hosting visitors and showing them Singapore or traveling off to another country with them. I choose to let my curiosity 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.

Since I am a trailing spouse, I allow my curiosity to lead my day. I’ve taken up how to sew, learning how to read and write in Japanese, spending time with friends, I’ve published an adult coloring book, and of course contributing to my blog.

Filling up my day is easy. I find spending my days towards my interests, that time evaporates. 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 – enjoy and expand on your personal interests. Think about what you would like to do during your 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 an 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 only 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 that has strengthened our relationship is, listening and understanding. Sometimes what we are trying to say (or argue) to each other is brought to the surface when we actively listen combined with being mindful of each others feelings. Which can be extremely difficult in heated debates, but it’s a strategy that has increased our communication and understanding of each other.

Also, being able to recognize when we are at fault and identifying what actions we did that contributed to the argument.

Some of the best date nights are laying on the couch (no mobile devices – gasp – I know) 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 emotionally intimate level.

I also find taking evening walks, is a great activity as well.

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 use to love, seek professional help. Communicate with your spouse and reach out to others 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!

Situational depression is a thing and it’s a gawd damn liar.

Situational depression makes you feel, to be effortless. Where in fact 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). Back in the States, I had my foundation, my friends, my family, my routine. All the feelings of security and safety.

But being on an island without an established supportive group of friends can turn being alone into loneliness.

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 trailing expat partners – if you’re feeling loneliness – reach out to me and let’s chat. You are not alone 😉

Attitude can also 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 a bad moment.

Focusing on the positive is something I like to think I inherently do. I find it extremely annoying listening to constant 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).

It seems easier said then done but knowing how to combat the challenges when they peer their venomous heads, makes it achievable.

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.

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

28 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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