10 of the Hardest Things for Expats to Get Used to

Global Citizen By Stefan Zechner July 2, 2017

Something funny happens when people live abroad. The expats stick together – even if they’re from opposite sides of the world. That’s because expats have strikingly similar experiences acclimating to their new environment. Plus, you can’t really commiserate over the bizarre foods and unfamiliar customs with a local. Here are the top ten things that take time for expats to get used to.

1. Standing out everywhere you go

This can be good or bad, depending on where you expatriate and your tolerance for attention. In Europe, being from another country is a constant conversation starter. In parts of Asia, if you have blonde hair, people ask to take pictures with you. And in some third world countries, people surround you like paparazzi to ask for money, school supplies, and other items.

2. Coping with new snacks and cosmetics

Do you crave creature comforts like Combos or Chex Mix at random times? It’s these little things that really get to you as an expat. Generics like potato chips and Q-tips are international, but so many things are slightly different in each country and there’s really no substitute for your favorite junk food or products.

3. Missing your home team

Americans suffer the most because baseball and football aren’t popular exports. But wherever you’re from, if you’re a sports fanatic, you’ll miss your home team’s games. Reading the recaps and watching the highlights can work for a quick fix, but it’s not the same as watching all nine innings or seeing a thrilling comeback live.

Choosing a new home team in the sport of your choice can help you come, but picking up a new recreational sport is even better. Team sports are a great way to assimilate, make new friends, and learn new cultures since they require teamwork and communication.

4. Never hearing or speaking your mother tongue

Even if you already know the language where you’ve moved, it’s not the same as kicking back and hearing your favorite sitcom or reading the news in your native language. Translating every little thing, including menus and streets signs, is exhausting.

Subscribe to your favorite news sites from back home, download podcasts, and order a few box-sets of DVDs to give yourself an outlet.

5. Converting the currency

Sure, there are currency conversion websites and apps, but who wants to pull out their phone at the checkout counter everywhere they go? The mental math gets easier over time, but for the less analytical among us, it takes a while to adjust.

6. Interpreting measurements

Fahrenheit to Celsius? Miles to kilometers? Pounds to stone?  Similar to sports, American expats have the worst time with this because of our refusal to adapt to a more international scale. Apps can help you on the path to understanding everything from the weather to the street signs.

7. Learning the rules of the road

Driving on the left side is the most famous difference, but there are nuances to driving in countries all around the world. In Germany, there’s no speed limit on the highway. In the Netherlands, honking is only used in an emergency situation. To play it safe, study up on the local laws and try to always be deferential on the road.

8. Mastering the etiquette

It’s considered rude to tip in Japan. In South Korea, it’s a faux pas to start eating before your elders. Each country has their own protocol. Some countries have etiquette books to get you up to speed, but others will require trial and error. In the meantime, try to observe how others behave as you go about your daily life and ask the locals if you’re unsure.

9. Understanding cultural references

You don’t have to look further than Top Gun or Seinfeld to know that cult classics and regional sitcoms are culture-defining. When you’re new to a foreign country, you don’t even know what you don’t know. Jokes and references go completely over your head. It’ll take some time to catch up, but ask natives which classics are required viewing and start binging.

10. Getting acclimated to the weather

Moving from Los Angeles to London? Toronto to Hong Kong? There’s no getting around it: The first few years are going to be rough. Major swings in weather are tough to adjust to. If you’re experiencing seasonal affective disorder, try sitting by a light box for a few hours at work. If you’re constantly freezing in your new surroundings, layer up. Over time, your body will adapt.

The homesick period hits almost every expat, but there are ways to adjust. All of these things will come with time and a bit of awareness to your surroundings. You may have to wait until you’re home to load up on your favorite snacks and DVDs, but it’s a small tradeoff for the experience of a lifetime.