Expat Life Version 7.2.8: Survival Mode

1953_1_1Recently a friend confided to me, with a mixture of both surprise and exasperation, how difficult she’s found managing her time. A new job, two young(ish) kids, a house, a husband, a life, the whites, the darks, the ironing and all the rest.

It’s a lot to fit into the confines of the day, I assured her.

“But I didn’t have this much trouble back home,” she confessed, “and I worked more hours!”

Working less, kids getting older, life getting marginally easier. It stands to reason it would be a cake and Chardonnay walk in the park, right?


To quote my kids: “But why?”

Here’s why: As an expat, you expend slightly more energy than normal. Not necessarily on the big stuff, the stuff you’d expect, but on all the little things you go about in your daily life. Each interaction and action and corresponding reaction requires just a pinch more thought, a dash more understanding, a soupçon more interpretation.

Even though the individual amounts may be small, all the extra effort drains your battery faster than you’d expect. Just like the programs open and running on your laptop, the ones you don’t see or hear or use but are essential for running the programs you do use.

Life outside your home zone requires a little bit more. You have to run a lot of extras in the background to make sure the Expat version you’re currently using is the most up to date and compatible with the rest of your life. All those extras are a drain.

When you’re living outside your own end-zone, you exist in a semi-perpetual state of hyper awareness with regard to the small, the every-day. The little differences, the not-quite-the-same norms, and the kind-of different rules that are innate to the culture you’re guesting in. You are more aware of stepping on someone’s foot when they don’t move out of your way on the sidewalk (have I mentioned the Danes seem to be constantly engaged in a country-wide game of chicken?).


There is the concentration required when you are driving on the wrong side of the road, whether it’s the right or not. There is the focus it takes to make yourself understood in another language, especially when you land in the emergency room or if you have a child with a fever. If you’re American, there’s the added burden of constantly converting temperatures and weight into metric so the rest of the world understands what you’re talking about. There is making sense of the strange-sensical. There’s often a open app for homesickness and an always-running niggle about ‘what next?” All of these things are things you normally don’t spend energy on when you’re inside your own culture, among your own tribe, when you’re ‘home’.

Thinking about all of that, even unconsciously, takes up a lot of valuable space and energy.

I think perhaps it’s why so many expats look forward to going home for big chunks of time. Not only to see family and friends and eat gut-busting amounts of their favorite foods, but just to let those busted guts hang out; to take a few weeks to shut down and reboot.

Being ‘home’ allows you to recharge your battery by only running the basics. There’s nothing major lurking in the background sucking your brain dry. Home is usually, blissfully, nothing more than Shopping V. 3.4, Eating V. 6.0, and Slothing V. 10.

Just like you often don’t realize how much power your computer is actually using until you start getting the black screen of death or the spinning wheel of despair, you probably don’t realize how much energy you’re expending on a daily basis when you’re living somewhere other than home. Is it any wonder then that sometimes the everyday seems a lot more exhausting than you would expect?

See, I got rid of the BakeSale App. That freed up some space.
See, I got rid of the BakeSale App. That freed up some space.

So what do you do? Most of us switch out the battery for a new one every few years. You reboot as needed. Sometimes you need to run Disk Warrior in the form of a vacation. Sometimes it helps if you close out a few dead-weight programs you forgot you had running, things like PTA Bake Sale V. 1.4 and Converting Currency V. 4.2.

Usually then you can free up some space for the latest version of Expat Life V 7.2.8: Survival Mode (tennis, massage and bonbon pack optional). And it’s always a good idea to shut down every now and again. I recommend doing it with a glass of wine. Perhaps a bag of Cheese Doodles. And if you need something to read, there’s a really great blog I know….



23 thoughts on “Expat Life Version 7.2.8: Survival Mode

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  1. I used to compare it to a time I helped do some field research for scientists studying salmon habitat in the Pacific Northwest: standing all day in a stream or a river, even if you can’t quite feel the currents against you, requires a little extra balance and muscular exertion, to where coming home I’d be completely pooped. Home is a good place to rest; seems you’re reminded you’re not home when you can’t quite rest the same, out here.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m just saying but what if I want to recharge from the good ole USA? The constant presidential news cycle that analyzes how many times Donald Trump has blown his nose??? The all you can eats and the pursuit of money and the go go go without really getting anywhere??? I feel like you are coming back to the asylum to “recharge”. Of course, I get the sense of expat life from what you wrote. The wife and I are going to try out the expat kind of “tired” at some point. Things are kind of weird in Kansas, Dorothy, and everywhere else over here…the Yellow Brick Road ain’t half bad…


    1. Well, yeah, there is that. I guess I’ll get the brunt of it in the summer when we’re there. People over here are fascinated (election campaigning here is limited to a matter of weeks). But you are right, things over there are really weird at the moment. I keep hoping it’s a siren call, you know? Something that will hopefully make people sit up and take note of what’s really going on. Hey, a girl can dream right? Even if there are no wizards around to get me home.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m writing a memoir about my experiences as an expat wife in West Africa in the 1990s. At the time, I didn’t realize how much energy went into everyday decisions and I didn’t have any fun blogs to follow. Here’s a relevant excerpt:

    “When you have to translate all your raw, complicated feelings into another language, you lose a level of authenticity. You remove yourself from the situation momentarily while you search for the right word or the right syntax. When you come back to speak the words you’ve rehearsed in your head, it’s like you’ve become the actor and the audience at the same time. You’re both speaking and listening to yourself speak. You’re inventing your character as you talk, improvising the right intonation and gestures that communicate your message in a style that you might never use in English because you could sound shrill or questioning. When speaking another language, you become somebody else. It was the beauty and the horror of my life at that moment. I must have been so deep in my own thoughts, that I couldn’t call forth the necessary phrases for basic interpersonal dialogue.”

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    1. I can’t speak from the language perspective with any authority, but I can feel what you’ve written rather viscerally–I think it goes beyond just the actual language of dialogue and encompasses the language of the culture as a whole–the body language, the language of personal space and how it’s used. I am sadly mono-liquistic, but I am in love with the idea of speaking another tongue, and I think you are probably absolutely right, when you do, you become a different person–or at least a different version of yourself; like a split personality. I think having English as a first (and only in my case) language is a blessing as well as a curse. It’s never forced me to learn another language because it is so widely spoken. How exciting that you are writing a memoir. I imagine that expat life in the 1990s was much different than it is now, not to mention an African posting. I’m sure it’s fascinating–not only to have lived, but to revisit in your memoir. Please keep me posted as to when you’ve finished so I can look out for it. If the whole thing is as astute and well written as what you’ve posted above, I can’t wait to read it!


  4. This makes a lot of sense. Like everyone I’ve found it hard to express just why life is harder here, when I have so many “luxuries”. Thanks. I’ve shared with my FB friends.


  5. Thanks for writing this! The language barrier is a big one for me, and bothers me more the older I get. It causes me no end of low-level stress here in Poland, with one of the more difficult languages in the world. I recently took a trip to Spain, where I can at least speak the language competently, if not perfectly, and it was just such a huge relief to be able to understand everything and say what I needed to without pulling up Google Translate on my phone. I needed that break, big time!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I give thanks to the language gods that our two postings were populated with incredible English speakers. It sounds horrible to talk about moving someplace and make no effort to learn the language, but it’s a huge investment when you know you’ll only be there short term–especially with a language like Polish or Danish which are not spoken outside their own countries. I wish they had simple conversation language classes so that you could order food and talk to the Dr. but without having to become fluent!


  6. Great post! I feel the same way a lot of the time, that even the simplest tasks take more concentration. Finding ingredients for a recipe, mailing a package or ordering a prescription are now all more significant chores.


    1. Yes! All fantastic examples. I am always amazed at how long it takes me in the supermarket sometimes–up and down the aisles, up and down the aisles, looking for the peanut butter. You don’t think about it, but all those little interactions add up to a lot of exhaustion!


  7. Loved your blog, Dina! I feel exactly the same way about expat life–it’s fun and exciting, but challenging and exhausting at the same time.I liked your analogy of being an expat and running extra computer programs in the background–that was genius!


    1. Thanks, Gabi! Sometimes I have what I can only hope is a ‘relatable’ way to think about something. If I’m lucky enough, I remember enough of it to write it all down when I get home! But you are right, it’s exciting and exhausting all at the same time. Challenging, in both good and bad ways. It’s most definitely an experience I wouldn’t trade, but it’s also one I can see being ready to give up at some point in life!


  8. These sort of thoughts go round in my head a lot. I have no more to “do” on paper here in South Africa than I did back home in the UK- same kids, same husband, same job (I remote work). And yet I seem to have to run to keep up, where before I probably mostly jogged. Things do take longer to do, shopping, for example, is a game because the things you want might not be where they should be. But on top of everything else the security situation here means we have to be constantly alert and that is very energy-sapping. I’m definitely looking forward to a few weeks at home in the summer to “recharge”, although in all honesty I love it here otherwise!


    1. Yes, I can’t even imagine keeping a low level program of worrying about your safety and the safety of your familiar open and running all the time. That alone is enough to sap your energy. And it’s so true what you say, I probably do ‘less’ here than before, especially as I’m not working/earning, and yet I still feel tired at the end of the day. All the little things do add up at the end of the–literal and figurative–day.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This describes perfectly why being an expat with PTSD, like myself, is so difficult. My brain is always in “survival mode” anyways & doesn’t do well with the constant, low-grade stress inherent to living in a foreign country. I really don’t need more hyperawareness added to what I already experience.


    1. I can see how difficult that would be. Constant sensory overload. The flip side is that when I’m around Danish speaking people, I can just tune out, which is kind of nice and because I can’t read/speak the language I don’t read the local news, which protects me from the worst of Danish society (which, admittedly, is still pretty good). But I imagine with PTSD, you’re probably not even getting a break with the language bubble.


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