“Expatriate/Expat: A person who lives outside their native country.” English Oxford Dictionary
Our expat journey began a little over ten years ago when we were offered the possibility of a new life in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Once I had established exactly where Abu Dhabi actually was (Dubai I knew) our incredible expat journey started with a family trip for the interview process to scope out the country that could potentially be our new home.
After much deliberation, the longest pros and cons list ever and a unanimous family decision our adventure began and ten years on we are still HERE! It’s not all been a bed of roses, there have been many challenges along the way and we have ridden an emotional rollercoaster at times, insert that old cliche ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ here. There’s been different jobs, family scattered across the world in different time zones, moving house FIVE times and seeing many new friends, that you’ve shared so much with, come and go.
I wrote Ten Things change forever when you live abroad back in 2015 and to celebrate our ten year anniversary, here’s a little update, ten things I’ve learned as an expat which is in a similar vein. It may inadvertently help those newly arrived folk or those tottering on the edge of that MASSIVE decision. It might even dispel some myths about the region itself and WHY we took the plunge to move abroad and settle in the Middle East.
- Embrace The New
I braved the whole process with a gung-ho attitude, a degree of determination to give it my best shot and a mountain of lists. Being eased in gently over a period of time did help in some ways but personally I don’t recommend that approach. If circumstances allow go together as a family and take all your possessions (or incur exorbitant storage charges in your home country). When I finally arrived full-time it was ridiculously hot/humid and Ramadan, I found myself in a cavernous, soulless villa in the middle of nowhere with not even a shop in sight to grab basic supplies. It was certainly quite the baptism of fire! Did I question my decision daily in those early days, YES I most definitely did!
- There Will Be A Lot Of Admin
The phrase ‘Simple tasks can become huge challenges’ is so true. Negotiating the bureaucracy and processing all the paperwork is initially daunting and at times totally overwhelming. It’s worth all the stress in the long run and it gets easier (ish) with each renewal. Ask for advice and don’t be afraid to seek out fellow expats for help. There are many helpful community groups on Facebook, ask questions even those you may think are silly or obvious. Once you find out a process play it forward and pass on your knowledge/information to help others.
Trust me you will need patience because the wheels can turn very slowly (in the UAE anyway) and the lack of customer service can be frustrating. The visa/medical/ID card process is certainly a test of anyone’s patience but it’s has improved year on year (either that or may expectations have adapted accordingly) but as it’s a necessity, you have to just get on with it! Managing your expectations is key to easing your stress.
- Always Expect Questions
If I had a £1 for every time over the last ten years that I’ve had been asked the same questions I would be a millionaire. How’s Dubai? (umm hello I live in Abu Dhabi) Can you Drive there? (Yes, I don’t live in KSA and women can drive there now too) Can you Drink there? (ummm yes! Have you heard of brunch?). I gave up long ago trying to explain to people that we don’t actually live in Dubai, it’s easier to just nod and agree that living in Dubai is good and then just actually underplay everything from that point forward. As an expat living in the UAE people have many preconceived ideas about culture and religion that is not helped by the western media. I’m happy to hear opinions of people who have visited the region but if you haven’t, quite frankly I’m not interested.
- You Will Be Homesick
First and foremost you have to give it a proper go and try not be too negative even when it’s the only emotion you feel. You will have bad days, in fact really bad days, but they are outweighed by the good days and the memories that you make on this amazing adventure. Social media is a great way to keep in touch but it can also be the cause of extra sadness especially when you are missing certain events and get togethers, friends and families updates can make you smile but also tug at your heart but the longer you are away the more nonchalant you become. You grow an unintentional thick skin because you have had to and after all, we all CHOSE to leave our home countries and go on this journey but where the head sees reason the heart does not always comply.
Inevitably you change because you have embraced and conquered a huge life-changing hurdle that brings with it a certain type of confidence and sense of achievement. As I have only lived in one country besides my native one I don’t feel that brave compared to those serial expats who have moved from place to place. I do, however, feel adventurous compared to those who have not had this opportunity or indeed would never entertain it. When I go home it feels that the world has stood still but over time I’ve come to realise it’s because I’ve changed and that my two worlds are so very different.
Living on the beach and seeing the sea everyday is a privilege. We undoubtedly take for granted but living in a hot country also brings many challenges especially in the height of summer. It’s ridiculously hot and humid, outdoor activities are limited and the only way to survive is with the air-conditioning on full blast wherever possible but the rest of the year is glorious. Swings and roundabouts as they say.
- Friends Become Your Family
Friends become your family, your inner circle is tight and you confide in people much quicker than you would in usual circumstances. If you have a young family hiring live-in help will replace the extended family you relied on at home and give you some independence too.
You will hear the word transient used a lot for good reason, people come and go regularly due to changes in their circumstances usually based around employment. The expat bubble is a melting pot of interesting people from many different backgrounds, at varying stages in their lives and who have different reasons for leaving their native countries. You meet lots of people, some who you just ‘click’ with and others who you don’t, it’s all part of the journey. I’ve met some fabulous people who will be good friends for life and have completely enhanced my expat journey. People become expats for many reasons and you could find yourself in a circle of friends from totally different countries, cultures, ages and with different agendas.
For us the UAE offers so many new and exciting opportunities to explore within the region and as a hub to travel to nearby countries. Go dune-bashing and camp in the desert, visit all the seven emirates and drive across the border to Oman where you can snorkel and dive in Musandam or hike in the mountain ranges. Take a short flight to other Middle Eastern countries like Bahrain and Kuwait to experience what they have to offer.
Make the most of the UAE’s location to travel to so many fabulous places that are within a 4 – 5 hour flight such as the Maldives, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Kerala and Zanzibar to name a few. Go skiing in the mountains of Faraya, just a short drive from Beirut in Lebanon. Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore are also just a little further afield as is Malaysia, Indonesia and of course Australia and New Zealand. My advice is to travel as much as you can.
- What is Normal?
When you live abroad, like when you travel to different destinations, you realise that normal just means what you are used too or what you deem acceptable from your previous experiences. Finding your ’norm’ in your adopted country may be something that takes the most adaptation, it can mean making changes to what you believe. Really who knows what normal is anymore!
Day-to-day the expat journey is a series of adjustments, small things like which side of the road you drive on, the currency you now use, whether you now valet or park your car or use air-con rather than heating. More challenging adjustments like the language barrier, administration issues and learning new customs take more time to learn and understand. Quite frankly the quicker you adapt the easier it is to survive and accomplish everyday things, be prepared that it make take an unexpected period of time and some things do take longer than others.
- Make Memories
You do miss your old life at first and it’s not necessarily individual things but a combination of people, places, events and even simple routines. You might go somewhere that you remember as being amazing but it was that way because of who you were with and why you were there rather than the place itself. Time flies ridiculously fast here as the weeks, months and years clock up at unbelievable rate.
I have cried through days of missed birthdays, hated life when certain family members missed milestone celebrations and have wanted to get on a plane numerous times when you feel too far away. Real friends make the effort to stay in touch and come and visit (some lots of times which is amazing) and this journey has enabled us to make new friends hailing from all corners of the globe.
- You Can Always Go Home
The chance to become an expat is a once in a lifetime opportunity and you have to give it adequate consideration if you find yourself facing the tough decision to move or not. Do you want to be someone who looks back later in life and says I should have done that! Let’s face it you can always go home but give it a chance before you make any rash decisions especially in the early days when you are going through a rollercoaster of emotions. At the end of the day what do you have to lose? The expat life isn’t for everyone and it’s not a right or wrong scenario.
So all in all ten years on from that first trip I can safely say we are here to stay for as long as possible. My overall experience has been a mainly positive one and it’s one of the best decisions I ever made as a parent giving my children the opportunity to live in another part of the world. Maybe you won’t get the opportunity yourself but have friends or family that live abroad so go visit them and share their experience. Go wherever they move to because it’s about seeing them not just where they live, it’s obviously a bonus to explore more of the world and they will, trust me, love to share their adopted country with you.
All views are my own based on my own experience. © Jo Brett 2018. All rights reserved.