Culture

The dark side of living abroad

This post is a little different than usual, but it has been on my mind for a while now. If you’ve ever lived abroad for any amount of time, you know how it can be lonely it can be. We recount its advantages together or and commiserate about the difficulties we’ve faced. After 6 years, I’m only now starting to get past the various negative emotions, which truly come in waves overtime, I’ve felt since leaving my previous life behind.

Living abroad is an adventure but it’s more of a challenge. An ongoing challenge, which I’m not sure ever really ends. The formalities and all the permits and blah blah is nothing compared to the loneliness you experience. There are times when you forget the differences which set you apart from everyone surrounding you and then it’s recalled swiftly and without warning. A song which everyone seems to know the words to which you’ve never heard before. A joke which has to be explained to you long after everyone has stopped laughing. Those instances are like a subtle warning whispering to you. Don’t get too comfortable. This isn’t your place. You don’t belong here. But then again, isn’t everyone reminding you of that constantly? Of course it’s not intentional but people’s comments and behaviors continually force a rift between you and everyone else. Each person you meet balks at you and asks why you live here. They giggle when you speak their language, which stings no matter how many times it happens.

The effort that must be made to fit in, to communicate what you really mean, to present yourself in the manner which reflects your true self most accurately – those are complex enough in your natural environment, much less a different context. Other aspects cause long-lasting damage. The friendships which fade away despite your best efforts to keep in touch are one of the worst side effects of moving abroad. You can’t know for sure the reasons why some people make an effort and some people don’t. Why your best friend from college pushes you aside as if you never mattered. Why your friends don’t ask how you’re managing. Don’t they know how hard it is for you? How sometimes you’re just barely holding it all together?

Despite the fact that you’ve lived away for years, it’s still a struggle that you want people to understand. It’s not something that others get. Your family, your friends, your partner – those people who haven’t lived abroad for an extended period of time – they can’t understand the sadness and loneliness you sometimes feel as a perpetual alien. And the knowledge that you miss every birthday, every Christmas, every important occasion in your family’s lives. You’re the one who’s always missing. You have to deal with the guilt you feel for not being there. You try as hard as you can to stay in touch and make those you left feel loved but most don’t seem to reciprocate. You visit, you write, you call, but how often do they? So they’re forgetting and letting go. Even with all the forms of communication we have nowadays, it’s still not the same to see someone and be with them in the same physical space. It’s as if they’re offended you left, when it really has nothing to do with them but your own wish to live as you choose and go where the wind blew you, not a conscious decision to hurt those who care about you.

How do you reconcile those feelings? If you do move back, it will never be the same. You’re different now, changed. You can simply reassimilate as if nothing ever happened. You have an altered way of being, of living. A lifestyle which can’t simply be relocated. When you live abroad you start to change your habits, ways of communicating, thinking. How do you just go back? Is it possible? My guess is that after so long abroad, you can’t fit in anywhere. You have to accept a constant state of limbo where you don’t feel right here and you don’t feel right there. But inside your home, you can feel right. That’s the only place you can be you.

If you’ve had a similar experience and can offer some advice or just simply want to commiserate, please write to me in the comments.

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43 Comments

  • Reply Danielle Hryniewicz 2 May 2017 at 17:10

    I could have written that so many times over my 13 years living here. I have gone up and down only to go back up and than farther down and back up again. If it were not for Facebook I highly doubt I would ever hear from anyone I knew in the past apart from my dad as he actually puts effort into keeping in touch with me through Skype. I will write it here as I highly doubt they will ever see it. I have been through so many emotions about the lack of effort in keeping in touch. Heck my own siblings and my mother hardly put any effort into it and it used to break my heart, but I have found ways to separate it from my love for them. I know it is harder but that is why you make it a priority and don’t let anything stop you from trying. The other side is that the effort can’t be one sided, after years of being the only one who calls I just don’t want to anymore, call it stubbornness but I did an experiment and did not contact my mom and brother for 6 months. I got nothing, not even a message on Facebook. I know that they love me, but damn if it doesn’t hurt to know that it does even ocuur for them to check in with me instead of waiting for me to make the move.

    Not sure why I am doing a big emotional dump here, maybe because it feels safe, maybe because my hubby has heard it enough. I don’t know what the answer is. I do know that your post sums it up, that it ishard as hell.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 3 May 2017 at 21:53

      Danielle – I know how you feel. My brothers don’t contact me anymore either. We basically talk when I’m there and on Skype a couple times a year maybe when they’re at my parents and that’s it. I try to message them when I know they have something going on or just message them to let them know what’s going on in my life but it’s basically one-sided. It’s sad but what can you do? Just keep trying but after so many years? It just starts to seem pointless.

    • Reply Ania 4 May 2017 at 11:04

      Danielle,what a bloody true!

  • Reply Suzette Hamblin 2 May 2017 at 17:32

    I know what you mean. We came to Poland last week, so I can relate even more. And my daughter’s birthday is this week. She’ll be 23 years old, so it’s not like she needs me to be there, but my family will gather without me there. My husband I left for a one month vacation, and that was in September. It’s getting harder and harder to stay away. Going back to being a regular American doesn’t really appeal though. We left our 9 grown children back in the US.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 3 May 2017 at 21:50

      9 children?! Amazing. What did you come to Poland for? Are you thinking of staying for the long term?

  • Reply Anna 2 May 2017 at 17:54

    Hi, I love your post as I have the same fellings! Good to know that I am not alone. I’ve been living abroad for the past 7 years. All the friends in Poland are no longer my friends, right we meet once I am there but I feel so different compared to them…. I constantly fight to stay in touch with people that matter to me but it’s more and more one-sided. I feel that my home is where I am right now but I still don’t feel 100% myself as language barrier doesn’t let me to express myself fully. Oh dear, the struggle is real… And on the other hand I would love to try living in Poland now but I cannot see myslef fitting in this society. And once you have children it gets even more complicated… Oh well, but it was/is my choice after all.
    Stay strong!
    Take care,
    Anna

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 3 May 2017 at 21:57

      I feel you Ania. Of course it was your choice but still you do your best to stay in touch because it’s at least something and people just completely don’t hold up their end. I can’t understand it. It’s like they’re pissed at you for leaving but come on – you make all the effort to talk to people and see people and they never call you back and never come to visit. I don’t think it’s fair for it all to be on you.

  • Reply Federico 2 May 2017 at 18:09

    Hi Leah, I can relate so much!

    I have been living abroad for the past 7 years. It’s been great, but sometimes I feel like I’m trapped in a corner and I have no way to escape.

    Fortunately, this feeling never lasts too long. I believe that a life abroad is way more interesting than a normal life back home.

    Can you even imagine how your life would be if you never left home?

  • Reply Jedrek 2 May 2017 at 18:09

    When I was abroad I watched a TV series called Stargate Universe. It’s about people flying on a ship, which they can’t control, light years away from the Earth. There was a quote there which immediately struck me as the best description of being abroad I’d ever heard. It backs up some of your observations.

    “You know… you’d figure being stranded on this ship in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of strangers would be the problem, but that… that isn’t it exactly. It’s not so much being out here as it is not being there.For the birthdays, the weddings, the funerals… simple things… like just taking your nephew to school on his first day, Or even taking the dog for a walk. You know, just not… not being there.”

    Wish you all the best!

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 3 May 2017 at 12:42

      That’s quite a quote and I think you’re right, it hits the nail on the head.

  • Reply Wiktor 2 May 2017 at 18:54

    In spite of the fact that I never lived abroad, I know exactly what you feel. I’ve visited many countries and although I enjoyed the stay, something about the architecture, the cities and sometimes even the body language of the natives made me estranged. They didn’t think like I did. They didn’t know the things i did and the other way round. That is the main reason I never moved away from Poland although many people encouraged me to do so.

    On the other hand, people move around all the time. You yourself come from a country built by people who sailed across the freakin’ ocean into the unknown. You have a husband and a kid here – that’s pretty much of a root. Just make sure your child will feel well both in USA and in Poland. It’s a hell of an advantage 😉

  • Reply Marta Zielinska 2 May 2017 at 19:06

    Definitely can relate! We all go through similar mood swings and experience the loneliness, unfortunately. Living a life abroad is full of chalenges but also very fulfilling and you have to always remember and revise the reasons for making this decision 🙂
    I truly recommend the group I am Triangle on fb that directly addresses the expat struggles . Have a look and let me know if you found it useful! Warmest regards! Marta

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 3 May 2017 at 12:41

      I am a Triangle… ok I gotta search for that! Interesting name. Thanks for the recommendation Marta!

  • Reply stefi 2 May 2017 at 19:38

    Cannot agree with you more. Few days ago I just had some king of disagreement with my partner that I think as long as we are adult ( both more than 24 and his is 27!) , for me it doesn’t feel cool that we still go home for parents, stay with parents eat every meals with parents (I live outside however he still lives with parents). And he replied me as that I am not Polish I will not understand this culture things that parents here tend to offer everything for their children life.
    I really feel not cool at all to hear that.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 3 May 2017 at 12:39

      Hm yeah that wasn’t very nice. They are very family-oriented but still I think you have to compromise a bit. We try and do the same things sometimes like when my husband wants to go to Easter breakfast then stay for dinner all day and then supper and then do it all again the next day and you just have to draw the line somewhere sometimes 🙂

  • Reply Amy Trojanowski 2 May 2017 at 19:42

    Hi Leah. I lived in Poland for two years, in the Peace Corps, and when someone finds that out, they say,”Ooh, that must have been fun!” “Well, it was challenging,” I reply – struck by how American their enthusiasm is, and how Polish my reserved answer is. It was hard. Yes, I learned a lot and I miss some things and all that, but I do not miss the daily sense of being so very different. And I’m Polish-American, and grew up in a very Polish-American community. I looked the part, until I opened my mouth to speak or I smiled at a stranger or I got in line the wrong way. “Are you having a blast?” friends from home would ask. I tried to focus on positive things so that I didn’t dwell on how alone I felt. And really, I did not want to go home. But I was never really able to feel completely myself there. The experience has given me a heart for the immigrants and refugees I meet, and I love teaching ESL and learning their stories, and trying to reassure them on hard days. Because whatever else it is to live in a country not your own, it is hard.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 3 May 2017 at 12:38

      I love the question “Are you having a blast?” It’s so American. How else are you supposed to answer that except for positively? 🙂 Of course they just don’t realize that after the traveling is over that it’s real life and that’s not loads of fun sometimes :/

  • Reply Anna 2 May 2017 at 19:47

    Leah,
    I feel you so much!! I live and work abroad and sure, it’s exciting and I don’t regret moving, but sometimes, it’s just a pain in the ass.
    They want you to speak their language, then they look amused with your every attempt to communicate.
    I actually like some of their habits and got used to them, but then, I meet with my family and I feel like they’re trying to force me to switch back to the Polish (as in, correct, of course) way of living.
    On the other hand, some of the foreign behaviours are so ridiculously strange I simply can’t make them my own, and thus I feel like I don’t belong.
    What I actually found very helpful is to spend some time with other internationals – sometimes people from my country, but generally those who are as lonely as I am, as they surely have similar experiences and it feels so good to just meet up during the weekend and complain about that weird country in which we all somehow decided to stay.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 3 May 2017 at 12:36

      Hi Anna – I agree. It’s like a breath of fresh air to spend time with other expats, from your country or not. There’s just an understanding there which makes you feel more at ease. It’s interesting that your family wants you to switch back to the Polish ways of doing things. I see my family sometimes feels upset and says “America’s not that bad, you know” or “How can you live without _____”, which is funny.

  • Reply Ai 2 May 2017 at 19:54

    I could definitely relate to you laura. I’m living here in Poland for quite awhile now. That being said, doesn’t guarantee I’ve adjusted well with everything ..the language for example and the lunatic Polish weather. And that creates a depressing mood for me. Living the tropics all my life and not being able to see sun almost everyday definitely wreak me off many times. But, trying to keep myslef busy with the things i still passionately love doing, really helps a lot. Now, engaging myself into running changed a lot of my moods. Being active physically it would do you well. So you’re not alone. Regards!

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 3 May 2017 at 12:33

      Yeah I get you with the weather thing. I’m not from the tropics but I’m from Florida which is sub-tropical and it’s similar. It just makes life more difficult when there’s no sun, doesn’t it?

  • Reply Piotr 2 May 2017 at 20:01

    What a sad post! I have never been nor lived abroad but I can figure out what you experience. As I said before, I have my beloved cousin living in Great Britain. She comes to Poland twice a year and when the time of leave comes, I am almost in tears. We communicate via e-mails or SMS but nothing can replace a real touch, smile and talking face to face. It`s only a weak substitute and not the same thing really. Live abroad seems fascinating to me- I love British films and English sense of humour. However, I am fully aware that being a foreigner has a few dark sides. Even if I get integrated with natives, I will never belong to them totally. There is always something what exposes me-accent, carbon copies from my mother-tongue, appearance, point of view, different taste and so on. I would like to see London, exercise my English with habitants but I have no clue if I would manage to create my life there. You and expats who decided to leave their homeland to live anywhere else are superheroes to me. And if you will be a bit down again, think you wouldn`t have your great family currently if you hadn`t known your husband before.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 3 May 2017 at 12:33

      Piotr – it is fascinating and it’s a lot of fun but sometimes it’s just exhausting and it hurts. I know it’s worth it and it would be hard to go back as well because I love my family and life here too. I think I just need more trips back home but it’s far!

  • Reply David Lived in Faroe Islands almost 9 years 3 May 2017 at 01:32

    Fall down 7 times, get up 8 😉😊

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 3 May 2017 at 12:31

      Another person commented on my Facebook that they lived in the Faroe Islands and apparently it’s a difficult place to live?

  • Reply Bea 3 May 2017 at 07:00

    Hi Leah ,
    I can definitely relate to your post.
    I have been living in Australia for the last 14 year, have a beautiful husband and daughter, but miss my family a lot from Poland and Germany.
    It does help to go back once a year but to leave them and come back to Australia is getting harder and harder.
    I talk to my parents a lot and we Skype but that is really not enough.
    I love Australia, but I think one day we might move back to Europe. You just never know.
    Bea

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 3 May 2017 at 12:30

      14 years, wow. And it’s getting harder? That’s not good news. I’m worried about when I have my baby and my parents can’t spend more time with him. That’s going to be really hard I think.

  • Reply Meric Ostrowska 3 May 2017 at 08:35

    I feel the same sometimes. I am living in Poland for 3 years. It will be 4 soon. I feel lonely here sometimes. Can’t talk the language proper. Not having a single friend…My friends are in my homeland. AND the worst is I am missing my country’s hot weather, sea , foods everything. This missing part is harder to me than complications of living here.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 3 May 2017 at 12:29

      I know what you mean Meric. I think the guilt is one of the worst parts for me. I know I can deal with my loneliness but I feel terrible for hurting my family members and friends back home as well.

  • Reply Martin 3 May 2017 at 12:45

    Does nobody here think that a person can be alone and lonely in their country of birth and that the feelings are pretty much identical. Feeling alone because a decision was made – IE leave for another country, well no real surprise there. Alone in your own is the same and probably worse.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 3 May 2017 at 13:03

      Well of course you can feel alone anywhere but for different reasons. Here we’re discussing the challenges of living abroad, not the challenges of living in general.

  • Reply Adrianna 3 May 2017 at 23:16

    Well, I used to live abroad (southern Europe) for some time, and I’ve got to admit you’re right. It really hurt to realize, that I’m the one to make the effort to mantain the contact, and it made me re-evaluate my relationships with people I did cared about, but apparently it was not mutual. Like seriously, how painful it is to write one single message per month or so?

  • Reply Gosia 4 May 2017 at 14:05

    I can relate to all of you, although I look at the problem from a different perspective.
    I’m Polish, but I was studying abroad for 5 years. It was hard there to miss birthday parties and other celebrations, of course I was coming back for the holidays, but I started to feel this strange wall between my family members and friends. I got used to it, thought it would fade away when I get back after graduation. Well, it didn’t… it still stands. It feels lonely seeing everybody has build their lives and I’m not really a part of it. Ok, I have a job, I work, but unfortunately that’s it. If anybody of you think about studying somewhere else and than coming back home, remember to also consider that all new, amazing people you’ll meet during that time, you will also have to leave. So that’s even worse, kind of like a double abandonment.
    Buuut, it was fun anyways! 🙂

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 4 May 2017 at 15:31

      Hi Gosia! I never even thought about what that might be like. I suppose leaving all those people behind who you met during your studies was really hard and then coming back to Poland after having such a life-changing experience… well now you just don’t fit in anywhere, huh? I can’t really imagine what it would be like to go back to America. I’d probably really miss Poland to be honest…

  • Reply Marina 5 May 2017 at 05:00

    I can definitely relate to what you’re going through. I lived in South Korea for 7 years. I came back and my niece and nephews were all grown up. I missed most of their childhood. Now I live a plane ride away and I still don’t get to see them that often.

    When I lived in Korea, I would often get the blues and feel negatively about everything. I think if I had any advice to give, I would say to try not to let the negatives get to you and try to get involved with some kind of project, whether it’s alone or with a group. I organized a few art shows my last two years in Korea, and I regret not getting involved in something sooner. Now that I’m back in America, I feel that I didn’t take full advantage of my time there and I wish I would’ve done more.

    It’s true for me that I don’t feel I belong anywhere. I’m trying not to make the same mistakes in Denver that I made in Korea such as not getting involved, not doing enough, and focusing on the negative. That being said, I totally understand the feeling. It was rough at times and it’s rough being back here. I don’t have the same close friendships here that I had in Korea. I’m still a little weirded out by being “home”. I’m busy with work at the moment, but I’m looking forward to going camping this summer & hopefully reaching out to build friendships. I hope you find your peace in Poland, and make peace with being so far away from “home”.

  • Reply Katie W. 5 May 2017 at 23:30

    I can definitely relate as well. I think that to those who have never lived abroad see it as very glamorous but it can truthfully be really challenging and lonely at times. The hardest part is, like you said, not really belonging in either place. Even when you start feeling like you’re beginning to belong here, it is quickly brought to your attention that you are an outsider and the constant question of “why would you ever leave America” gets painstakingly difficult to answer politely when you know the answer will never be fully understood or accepted. I also really understand the dwindling contact that comes from your friends and family. The first few months were exciting for them because they want to know all the details about your new life, then it fades. It fades even quicker when you switch to a local number and the only way to keep contact is if they download Skype or whatsapp. Half of my family and most of my “friends” still haven’t downloaded it and it really sucks not to be able to keep contact with them as I don’t have a Facebook (which I am glad about). Missing family events is also a bit of a gut punch as it’s a mixture of guilt but also a feeling of “don’t forget about me!”. I had to miss my little brother’s wedding last month because I’m still waiting for my karta pobytu which I think was the hardest thing I’ve had to miss thus far. But, with all of the difficulties and challenges faced, I still wouldn’t trade this experience for the life that I left behind. Being able to experience a new culture up close and personal is really exciting, challenging and eye opening. I also feel a little honored now to belong to a unique group of people (expats) who I can identify with all over the globe and who also understand the difficulties of starting new. I’m always so grateful to read your posts as it is always good to feel like I’m not alone as well as see “what lies ahead” in the future. 🙂

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 6 May 2017 at 19:49

      Oh no missing people’s weddings is really hard. I miss one of my best friend’s weddings as well because it was just bad timing. It’s not that easy to just go back to the States on fairly short notice. One thing I will never understand is why people won’t just download Skype or WhatsApp. I had the same problem with some people. It’s like “oh yeah I still haven’t done that” and it’s not like it’s hard or costs money or takes time. It takes like 2 minutes max. It just shows how little they care if they can’t be inconvenienced to download the best ways to contact you. Even my parents both have Skype and WhatsApp because they know how useful it is. But honestly it’s typical. There are just a lot of people who can’t stay in contact with someone unless they live in the same city and have constant face-to-face contact. Pretty ridiculous but true. I wouldn’t trade the experience either but those little things sting…

  • Reply Jessica 6 May 2017 at 17:33

    My husband and I live in the US but he is from Poland and we might be moving there. We have an 11 month old and I think of all of the struggles we will face in a new country alone. My husband speaks the language and has family there, but I’m afraid of the isolation. I feel like leaving the US may be in my daughter’s best interest as the quality of life in the US is falling, but the guilt of leaving all of our family and friends is so heavy.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 6 May 2017 at 19:51

      Hi Jessica! Why would you guys like to come to Poland? Just a change or work or something? It’s definitely going to be a challenge but also it’s very enriching, especially for your daughter. I’m pretty happy that my baby will grow up in Poland because I think the value system is better here than in the States but also he’ll be exposed to life there too since he’ll visit his American grandparents and uncles. Still, it’s never going to be easy to leave your friends and family and you’ll probably always feel guilty, but I believe it’s worth it.

  • Reply marek 9 June 2017 at 14:04

    I think it is possible to become comfortable in your “strangeness”. My Polish mother has lived in the UK for over 60 years and is still a foreigner. The feeling of feeling different becomes second nature.

    I firmly believe that most humans can get used to anything

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 19 June 2017 at 19:51

      Marek – hm that’s an interesting perspective. Your mother doesn’t feel assimilated after so many years? What does that mean for me? I’d be 83 before I lived here for 60 years! For me, I feel less and less American and more and more Polish, but still it’s hard not having the history and being the only foreigner in some circles of friends.

  • Reply ŁUKASZ 11 June 2017 at 23:26

    Hi Leah,
    Hope you OK,love your blog and can tell you something,you should write a book,you’ll be very successful😀,your way of putting emotions into words it’s just amazing.I have been living in England over thirteen years and I have wife and daughter with me,we want to go back to Poland in 2019, through all these years I felt not fully assimilated in England,there is a lots of pros and cons however mainly we missing so much our friends,families,weather (can assure you polish weather isn’t that bad come to England and you will be crying every day of not seeing the sun,I remember six or seven years ago it was raining all year absolutely nightmare.
    I remember not always white and very white Christmas in Poland and frostbite fingers and toes.Summer is shocking to us in England,temperature flat line 16/17 degrees with some higher temperatures,you can count them on your fingers and you will need only one hand to do that, very often I dream about being in Poland;summer, when we have like 36 degrees,can feel hot wind on my face or when is winter and we/you have mountains of snow,I remember times when was so much snow and my dad had to sweep snow of our car,neighbors had same car,same colour and instead of doing ours he have done theirs,he should check registration before,I was laughing like half day,I know lots of people not smiling in Poland but that is changing every year now,unfortunately if you think English people smiling all the time (as Ive been told in school)you would be rather disappointed,they are very moody.I know I will miss things from England when I be back to Poland,however I have good feelings for our country.Leah we are kind of ,,triangles ” suspended between two countries,in my case I have same language speaking wife,but I still feel like you ,,suspended”(sorry for mistakes I made in English).Dont worry with your polish language but learn hard you will be fluent speaking polish person within 10-15 years it will come in some stages,basic polish(not understanding a lot)(understanding more)(understanding all polish conversation),writing some words and sentences,phone conversations,speak only polish at home,it’s very very difficult but fastest way to learn our language,I will remember 2 things when I move to Poland;to ask foreigner living in Poland what language he wants to talk,and to adjust my speed of speaking in polish,thanks for that.
    All the best
    Wszystkiego dobrego,nie poddawaj się głowa do góry,dasz radę 😀

    Łukasz

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 19 June 2017 at 19:53

      Hi Łukasz – it’s nice to hear from someone with a similar situation. Only we can really understand each other! I’m sure your daughter feels very comfortable in England but I wonder how she’ll feel when you return? Has she ever lived in Poland? She’ll have reverse culture shock to you I suppose!

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