Expat Reflections – Things That Change Forever When You Live Overseas


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I read 17 Things That Change Forever When You Live Overseas the other day and I found myself nodding vigorously at each of the author’s points.  It made me reflect on how living overseas has changed and affected me and our family.  We are finally at that sweet spot in expat life where we are feeling really settled.  I can look at my Facebook feed and not feel homesick and not feel terrible that I miss out on things “at home”.  Each time we have moved overseas we have jumped into the whole experience without thinking twice.  We don’t have to be convinced of the benefits of living overseas; we approach it as an amazing opportunity we are given. But that doesn’t mean it is all smooth sailing and there is never any self doubt.

There were so many things in the article that struck a cord with me.  Read the original article; it is incredibly beautifully written and so spot on if you have lived overseas.

Point 1: Everything is New and Exciting

Poor Santa in his winter suit

Life as an expat is full of new experiences, new places and new ways of doing things.  Like a junkie, this gets addictive to the point that I worry about when we return home to our routines where everything is familiar.  Living overseas allows us to travel, discover our new city, experience Christmas at the beach, take trams to work, participate in new school events and so much more.  It is just one new experience after another and we are always seeking out new experiences.  We get excited to go for dim sum in Melbourne on the weekend.  We could do this in Toronto and yet we don’t.  We have found that we are way better at exploring our new home then we were at exploring our home city.

Point 2: Everything at Home Stays the Same

When you live overseas you miss “home” so much and it is hard to see online all the things you are missing out on: birthday parties, babies growing up, get togethers with friends.  Yet, when you go home, you realize that life has stayed the same for the most part and you really didn’t miss out on anything.  You spend all this time thinking about returning home and when you do, it can be a bit of a letdown after the honeymoon stage is over.  We are headed back to Canada this week for a visit and we are super excited, but I wonder if I will feel this way again.

Point 3: You Lack the Words (and Yet You Have Too Many)

When we come home for our visit, I know everyone will ask how is life over here?  How do we like living in Australia?  What is it like?  When we came home from our 6 month trip to the Bahamas, I couldn’t find the words to describe what an epic and amazing and special time we had.  I said things like “it was wonderful, it was amazing.” Yet these adjectives didn’t seem strong enough to describe just how wonderful it was.

Point 4: People Think You are Brave

We get told quite often that we are brave to pick up our lives and move halfway across the world.  We get told that we are brave to backpack in India with our kids.  We don’t feel brave at all.  If anything I just feel like we are acting selfishly: doing what we want to do, dragging our kids along.  We view traveling with kids as a natural progression of our own love to travel.  As our kids get older they share their feelings on these life changes and it can be hard to watch your kids struggling with adapting to their new life.  When I was a teenager and my parent’s told me we were taking another year long trip to the Bahamas sailing, I was not overly enthusiastic.  Like my own kids, I liked my social group and routines.  However, we really believe that these new experiences build resilience in our kids and opens their eyes to the world.

Point 6: You No Longer Speak One Particular Language

Unfortunately for us living overseas has never led to learning a new language, but it has still left a mark on how we speak.  When we lived in Malaysia, I learned to speak a more simplistic version of English with non-native speakers.  I apparently also adopted this style of English when speaking to our very fluent au-pairs.  Living over here in Oz, Australians sometimes have trouble understanding us because our “accents are so strong”.  Our 7 year old has picked up the strongest Aussie accent.  But just because we don’t have Aussie accents, we can still put together a good Aussie paragraph.

Point 9: Normal?  What Normal?

Living abroad opens your eyes to different ways of doing things.  Sometimes it can be hard to drop our ethnocentric tendencies to really open ourselves to new cultures.  It can be easy to be judgmental.  Why can’t I turn right on a red light in Australia?  Why do we have to queue in our cars to drop our kids off at school in Malaysia?  But living overseas totally turns normal on its head.  It can be frustrating to constantly adapt to new ways of doing things, but it is so enriching to be able to see and consider alternatives to your “normal”.

Point 10: You Become a Tourist in Your Own CityCircle Tram kid

We have explored way more of Melbourne then we have our home city of Toronto.  Things that we wouldn’t think to do in Canada, like checking out the State Library, we do here on our endless quest to make the most of our time here. Every weekend we find something new and interesting to check out in Melbourne.  We can do this because our life is not as cluttered and scheduled with activities and social gatherings.  In fact, when we lived in both Malaysia and Australia we really appreciated that the weekends and evenings were our own.  We missed our social circle at home of course, but since we didn’t know many people in our new cities, we owned our time.  We have time to discover every playground in our suburb, try a new restaurant or check our an obscure museum.

Point 11: You Learn to Ask for Help

Australia is so similar to Canada that the learning curve wasn’t that difficult, but it was still a hard transition.  You have to find dentists and doctors, learn how to sort your rubbish, understand how school fees work and so much more.  I was lucky enough to be befriended by a mom from the school who answered all my local questions and is a huge resource still for me.  Moving to Australia is not really a cultural shock, but moving to a new city is challenging.  It has made me reflect on families that move to a new town in Canada and how hard it is to start over.  I have pledged to do a much better job then I did before about welcoming and including new families when I am back in Canada.  Moms that have gone out of their way to interact and include us have made a huge difference to our transition here.

When we lived in Malaysia, everything was drastically different.  There we relied heavily on our fellow expats for advice.  The ones who had been there longer become a resource for expats who have recently arrived.  I would spot a new expat family in the grocery store and go up and introduce myself.  In many ways the transition to life in Malaysia was easier because we became instantly part of the expat community in Ipoh.

Point 12: Time Flies

In the beginning when you are getting settled, time moves slowly.  You see all the things you are missing “at home” and you mourn what you are missing.  But after awhile time starts to fly by and you realize your time in your new country is limited and you need to make the most of it.  We are less then a year into our Australia adventure and already I spent a disproportionate amount of time worrying that we don’t have long enough here.

Point 14: It’s Not Where, its When and HowMelbourne Southbank

You realize that it is not the country you miss, but the moments and the people that make it home.  Melbourne is a fantastic city and as we are now settled in, I recognize all of its wonderful characteristics.  It really is a “most-liveable” city, it has better weather then Canada, better work-life balance and we enjoy the relaxed feel of life here.  But, Canada is home and it tugs on us to return.  It is home because of our friends and family, our roots, our community and our familiar rituals, routines and way of doing things.

Point 15: You Change

Living abroad has definitely changed me.  Just like a block being carved, we are shaped by all the experiences of our lives.  Living in Malaysia and now Australia has definitely contributed to my “shape”.  Once you have a taste of living overseas, it is addictive.  Having a family can make this challenging as we try to balance our desire for newness and travel with providing stability and a community for the kids.

Point 16: Home is Where You Are

I call Melbourne home, I call Canada home; it gets confusing.  Home doesn’t have to be a specific place.  It is the place we are together.  It is not the physical home that makes it special, it is that feeling of familiarization.  We sometimes contemplate a nomadic lifestyle, but are not sure we really want to give up “home”.  This is what we loved about living on a sailboat – we had a tiny home, but we got to travel around and explore from it.

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