8 Ways Expat Life Sucks Worse Than Puppy Cancer

Expat Struggles

This picture will help you feel sorry for me…

Exactly one year ago today, we were waiting in the Vancouver airport for our flight to South Africa. Everything we owned was already stuffed into a container and floating across the ocean to meet us at a later date. We were exhausted, excited, and nervous. We had said all our goodbyes to friends and family and were about to embark on our new journey. Expat struggles were something we didn’t even think about.

Fast forward one year later, and we pretty much blend in with the locals. That being said, there were several things we didn’t yet fully understand about expat life. Like, for instance, that sometimes expat life isn’t awesome. Here are 8 ways being an expat sucks:

1) You’ll Feel Isolated (At Least to Begin With)

Yes, I know this one seems painfully obvious. But even though you prepare yourself, it still comes as a shock. Look, I was a fat kid with a mullet when I was in high school- I know all about being lonely. But at least then I had my family and a couple of friends who were too stupid to realise hanging out with me was social suicide. But once you get on a plane and bugger off thousands of kilometres away, you’re kinda on your own.

OK, yes, I have my wife and kids, and I usually sort of like them, so I wasn’t totally alone. But moving across the world isn’t quite like simply moving to another city within the same country. For starters, time zones are more annoying than that kid in class who kept asking the teacher if there was any homework. Shut up, Paula- nobody likes you.

I have approximately 15 seconds each day when it’s convenient to talk to people back home in Vancouver. That’s it. The rest of the time either I’m sleeping or eating dinner, or they are. The advent of video chatting apps definitely makes things easier than I imagine they were several years ago, but still, sometimes you just want to hear a familiar voice without waiting for someone to wake up. You never truly realize how much time people spend sleeping until you get hit with time zones.

It also takes a while to build your social circle in a country in which you know literally nobody. Even though I’m incredibly popular, hilarious, and humble, it still took us about 6 months to make some really good friends once we moved. And if you’re an introvert, well, good luck.

The isolation doesn’t last because you’ll eventually get into your own groove, and your new country will start to feel more like home than home home, but it’s still a bugger to start with.

2) You’ll Question Your Competence

If your company decides to send you and your family to another country, there’s probably a good reason for that. You’ve either a) pissed off enough people that they want you gone, but you have compromising pictures of one of your senior managers, so they can’t fire you, or more likely b) you’re very good at your job. You have a particular skillset that is needed elsewhere, and you’re confident in your abilities.

But imagine this scenario: An athlete on a professional sports team (let’s say football because it’s clearly the king of sports), gets traded to another team far, far away. No problem- he can score touchdowns at home, and he’ll be able to score touchdowns away from home.

Except when he arrives, he finds out the rest of his team have never held a football before in their lives. Oh, and also, they’re not people- they’re just bowls of rotten tapioca pudding. And his coach is a drunk pigeon who does nothing but crap all over the field and then struts around like that’s an accomplishment. Oh ya, and it turns out he’s not the quarterback anymore; they’ve decided he’d be a much better water boy. And obviously, he gets no support from his old team who traded him.

In that situation, it would be extremely difficult to score touchdowns. He’d try, but eventually he’d become so beaten down that he starts wondering if HE’S the problem.

This sometimes happens in expat life. No matter your track record, capabilities, or accomplishments, if you’re thrust into a situation with little to no support, you begin to wonder if you were EVER good at your job. Congratulations- you’ve been gaslit.

I’m not saying it will be as extreme as the above example, but you’ll almost definitely come to a point where you question your own sanity and ability to do your job. The good news is, you’ll get over it. Maybe.

3) You Find it Hard Not to Compare Here to There

Look, I know it’s an incredibly huge dick move to leave one of the most desirable places to live in the world, show up in a country that is decidedly NOT one of the most desirable countries in which to live and say, “Hey, this isn’t like home!” But whatever. Despite our best intentions, we ALL do it. You just want things to work. You just want some freaking customer service that doesn’t make you so angry you want to punch a baby right in the face.

You know it’s wrong. You realise the country you’re in doesn’t have the infrastructure, training, or desire to provide your pampered behind with all the comforts of home. And you know this going in. It still doesn’t make it easy though.

You find yourself comparing the food, the work ethic, the technology, and on and on it goes. You’ll accept the limitations of your new country at some point. You won’t realize it’s happened, but all of the sudden you just kind of stop thinking “this sort of crap would never happen back home.” And you also begin to appreciate the uniqueness of where you are, even if that uniqueness sometimes reduces you into a quivering wreck of a human being.

4) The Business Culture Can Be Difficult To Adjust To

If you’re an expat, you’re probably an expat because your work brought you to another country. But the way you’re used to working might be drastically different in your new assignment.

For example, I’m used to people replying to (or at least reading) emails. I’m used to people knowing what they have to do. I’m used to people doing what they promise to do. I’m used to some degree of competence. Well, I mean, I USED to be used to that kind of stuff. Not anymore. I’ve had to adjust how I operate because if I just trusted others to do their jobs without following up between 27-293 times, things wouldn’t get done.

And there are other countless examples of differing business cultures across the globe. Suffice to say it’s not super easy to adjust to a completely different corporate culture. Almost every expat I’ve talked to has gone through some variation of the above.

5) Finances Can Be Tricky

In the past, expat contracts were incredibly lucrative. They came with golf club memberships, first-class travel home, fancy vehicles, and enough money to buy ALL the drugs. But that’s not really the case anymore. No, the money doesn’t typically suck, but it’s not “set for life” money either.

And you may have been led to believe that your package would cover the difference in overall cost of living. Spoiler alert- I know a lot of expats, and most of them got the unpleasant surprise of finding out how hilariously misled they were.

For example, food and entertainment are relatively cheap in South Africa. But toys, electronics, and vehicles are ridiculously more expensive here. When cars cost more than double than they do in North America, it takes a buttload of cheaper meals to make up for that difference.

Another tricky thing is the tax rate may be higher in the country you get moved to. Your company may or may not make arrangements to cover that difference for you. If not, have fun with that. On the other hand, it can also go the other way- you may find yourself paying less tax than you did back home. But it’s definitely a good idea to be aware of all that BEFORE you go.

Oh, and inflation can be fun too. If you move from a country where inflation sits at around 2% to a country where it’s closer to 10%, but your contract doesn’t cover that, you’ll start to feel it in a couple of years.

In reality, 40% of all expats worry about their future finances, and 30% report they have lost money because they took an expat contract. I’m not saying it’s the end of the world- I’m just saying make sure you’re really prepared for the TRUE cost of taking the contract.

6) The Sheer Amount of Red Tape Will Bring You to Your Knees

When you move abroad, there’s a staggering number of things you need accomplish in a very short amount of time. I had one week to get my affairs in order before I started work. In that time, we needed to do the following things:

  • Get cell phone contracts set up
  • Find a place to live long term (we were in temporary housing when we arrived)
  • Set up Internet service
  • Set up TV service (which also required buying a TV license. South Africa is awesome for making you go through all kinds of extra steps)
  • Buy all new appliances
  • Figure out how to buy a car (this required getting a traffic registration number, which was a process all on its own)
  • Set up new bank accounts
  • Get registered with a doctor (which was made urgent when my daughter came down with strep throat the second day after our arrival)
  • Complete all the paperwork at the kids’ new school

…and a kabillion other things. A week isn’t nearly long enough, and it was more stressful than I imagined. And that was compounded by the fact we needed to show all kinds of documentation for the simplest of tasks. I just got used to carrying around my passport, rental agreement, proof of employment, and 3 months’ of bank statements wherever I went because all of that was needed for pretty much everything we wanted to do.

Obviously, this is all in the past, but to get it all settled took several months and was much more frustrating than I could ever have imagined.

7) Your Future Is Up In The Air

If you agree to accept an expat contract, you’re probably a special kind of crazy. You have no problem with risk, and you’ve somehow convinced your family that everything will be OK. And to be fair, everything will be OK. At least as long as your contract lasts. But after that…

I took my contract with the full knowledge that while my company will do everything they can to employ me once I return home, there will be no guarantee. And that’s the case in a lot of expat contracts. The thing is, you don’t really think about it too much at the time because it’s far in the future, and to be honest, you don’t care because the whole prospect of moving abroad seems so exciting they could tell you your genitals will be slammed in a car door every day for a month when you return and you’d still sign the contract.

But when the honeymoon is over, you start wondering what it will be like when you go home. In many cases, you’ve already sold your house, and you may not have a job to go back to. So you know, there’s that.

8) You Have Serious Fear Of Missing Out

When you leave home, you also leave behind numerous people who you love and care about. And they love and care about you, too. I mean, unless you’re a complete psychopath or my sister. And guess what? They’ll have several important events in their lives, and you can’t make it to all of them.

People will have kids. Get married. Get new jobs. Die (or have someone close to them pass away, and you want to be there for support). Have anniversaries. You may have annual traditions or trips you do with your friends.

You’ll be able to make it to some of this stuff, but certainly not all of it. And when people post pictures of these special moments on the internet, you’re grateful to see your friends and family are so happy, but you’re super bummed you can’t be there with them. You know you’re going to miss out on this stuff, but it doesn’t really hit you until you’re actually gone.

And So…

My next post is going to be about how much I’ve loved this last year. But being an expat isn’t always sunshine and rainbows shooting out of a unicorn’s rectum.

So do I regret taking the plunge, uprooting my family, and moving across the world? Not by a longshot. Yes, there are moments when I’m homesick, when I want nothing more than to play Pictionary with Tom and Sabrina, go to show and talk about anything and everything with Curtis, smoke a cigar with Dave, laugh through an entire meeting with Colin, or hug my parents.

But I wouldn’t trade this for anything. And I’ll tell you more in my next post.

*Edit- as promised, here’s the link to 8 Colossal Benefits of Expat Life

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About the Author

I’ve been many things. A university English instructor, a picker upper of dead bodies, a musician, and a sales guy. My work brought me and my family from Vancouver, Canada to Pretoria, South Africa in September 2016, and I’m still wondering how that happened. I started this blog mostly because my friends back in Canada kept asking me how things were in South Africa, and posting about my experiences seemed more efficient than repeating myself hundreds of times. Maple and Marula is a way for me to make sense of my new surroundings as an expat who has no idea what I’m doing.

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    1. Hi Luze, the medical question is a little complex. In my particular circumstances, the medical care in South Africa is WAY better than in Canada. But that’s because I’m fortunate to have a very good private plan here.

      In Canada, there’s not a two-tier system, which means everybody gets the same level of care. That translates into incredibly long wait times to see doctors and specialists, and surgery waitlists are ridiculously long.

      I needed to see a specialist here, and from the time I saw my GP until I had my surgery, less than a week had passed. The process would have taken months in Canada.

      That being said, I recognize I’m lucky here. If you can afford it, health care is much better in South Africa. For those with lower incomes, Canada is far better.

  1. I am an expat, my sister is an expat (in a different country than mine) but I don’t feel like I am loosing my friends, i feel like I have tons of friends to go and visit asap all over the world. I am visiting some of them more often now than before. I am so happy about that and i’ve never felt alone.

  2. I didn’t post much before except my website. I grew up in apartheid South Africa. my father was a doctor. we came to USA in 1966 back to SA in 1970 and back to USA in 1973. my high school years were ruined. I became a poet/author in my 30s and have continued ever since. I also have an authors Facebook page. so, we’ll talk more and get to know each other. When u left Canada, had u ever been to SA before? I am born South African and left a lot of family behind, who I still miss.

    1. Oh wow- you’ve definitely gained some interesting perspective over the years. We vacationed in South Africa in 2006 and fell in love with the country then. So when the opportunity came up to take an assignment here, we jumped at the chance!

  3. All very true, you hit the nail on the head with that one! I left Montreal over 12 years following my heart to South Africa to marry a charming man I met as a candid 19 year old traveling through Europe (he was also 19 traveling Europe). 2 kids, 2 cats and 2 dogs later I’m happy in SA but some days I still ask myself what the heck I’m doing here!

    1. Hi there similar story here, 11 years later I am still in South Africa but divorced with two kids and pets, no family but I like it here. Can be challenging at times though offer to crime etc..

  4. Love your blog! Thank you so much! Find myself smiling and nodding my head and laughing @ the beauty and honesty of living in South Africa either as a South African or as a Canadian. Keep it coming! Will never look at kids birthday parties in the same way again!!!😂😂

    1. I can promise you that I’ve never been bored for even a second here! I’m sure the country will keep giving me lots to write about!

    1. I know it’s hard to control your overwhelming sense of loss.

      But don’t worry- I’m heading up to see your parents in December. I know you’re already marking your calendar.

  5. Love your blog! I’m South African, have been an expat in Switzerland, back to SA, and have just moved to Vietnam. I love your description of trying to get things done in SA! What a pain in the backside! 😆😩😳 We are a crazy lot, aren’t we?!

    But oh, how homesick I am right now – from Ho Chi Ming City, one of the most exhilirating cities on earth! – for the sea, the African sun, to hug my mother and nephew, for rooibos tea and my leafy, quiet, boring suburb!

    I’ve signed up for your emails and am looking forward to the next one!

    1. Yep, no matter why you leave or for how long, I’d imagine South Africa has a giant piece of your heart and soul!

      Thanks for signing up! I appreciate it.

  6. Ha ha! This is hilarious. We are US expats in Munich, and while Germany is no South Africa, this post still resonates! Waiting for people to wake up to call and hear a familiar voice? Check. Getting used to people failing to read or respond to emails? Check. Drunk pigeon boss? Check. On the plus side, a “small” beer is half a liter, and it costs less than a glass of water. That’s a pretty fair trade-off, in my opinion 🙂

  7. I stumbled on this blog through the SACanada.org forum. We are hopefully moving from SA to Canada in the next year or so. I don’t drink Rooibos tea and I hate sitting in the sun as I have a fair skin. Love the rain. Don’t drink beer. Have had more drunk pigeon bosses than anyone should ever have. Have a math genius husband and hope that my kid will be the same – so basically moving to Canada for a better education for her. (SA ranks 173 out of 175 countries for math education). I love your candid way of writing. I have been told Canadians are extremely PC and that is the number 1 thing SA expats struggle with, as we are very outspoken. Is that true? And PS: Do you think we’ll make it over there?

    1. That’s absolutely true! Canadians are a much more reserved bunch. But we’re also friendly, so you’ll be fine! I know you’re going to love it as much as I love South Africa.

      1. My experience is that Canadians are considered very non-PC by Brits, but “polite” by South Africans. It’s a relative thing. The biggest complaint I hear about Canada from South Africans who move there is that people are too “law-abiding” and are “sticklers for rules”.

        Almost all my SA friends are white, and you really cannot talk about SA without bringing race and privilege into the conversation (in the UK it is similar but it is “class”). This is not so in Canada – we’re all the same and we (well, most of us) truly believe this. That’s not so in South Africa (or the UK).

        White South Africans today are still incredibly privileged (despite the moaning I sometimes hear). Some are very used to Not Following the Rules, because – in their opinion – the Rules Are For Other People. You see fancy new cars being driven at double the speed limit with no number plates. In Canada, you’d be reported, caught within the hour and carted off to jail. IN SA, they do have the odd roadblock or speed trap, and they do cart the odd rich guy (of whatever colour) off to jail, but it’s sort of a special event – not the norm.

        It is undoubtedly true that in general education is better in Canada than in SA (or the UK for that matter). The very fact that there are so few private schools in Canada (my home province has *one*) tells you that most people are pretty happy with the quality of the “free” education system. IN SA, everybody pays school fees and the rich kids go to expensive schools that offer (for example) ski trips to Switzerland (obviously very important educationally).

        However, if you can afford to move to Canada you could probably also afford the fees at a good school? There are always many sides to immigration (I should know, I’ve got three passports and I spend three months in SA as a visitor each year). I drink beer and love braais and can handle the sun and the Kgalagadi at 46C. I get my fill of the interminable rain and grey skies in the UK in what they call “summer”. What concerns me about SA is the all-too-obvious inequality, the lack of personal safety and the failure of the post-apartheid government to provide for the poor. I hope one day to fly into Cape Town and see houses where I now see shacks. Thumbs held

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