Expat Guide: Living in A New Country (Without Losing Yourself)

Learning a new language, leaving a career, having to calculate time differences to set up Skype dates with friends and family…that’s what I signed up for when I became an expat. Moving to a new country, I knew those things would change…I was even prepared for some of them. What I never realized was just how difficult it could be to mesh two cultures together and somehow find a balance that makes me feel happy.


I’ll be honest: there are days when I flat out hate being an expat, when I really feel like I hate Belgium simply because of how different from Canada it is. The way people are, the “norms” that I find really abnormal, the traditions, the expectations, the cultural values…sometimes things are just a little TOO different then I’m used to.

The biggest question I struggle with is; am I compromising too much of myself to be here? Am I letting these new cultures, traditions and expectations cut me off from my own heritage, my own culture and the way I usually do things?


Moving to another country (whether it be for love or just simply because you wanted to) is everything you’d think…it’s exciting, exhilarating, adventurous and scary. But it’s also a lot harder then you’d think. There are things you obviously know you will have to deal with (immigration papers, filing taxes in two countries, finding health insurance, etc), but there are other, more personal things that never even really crossed my mind until a few months ago.

Living as a Canadian in Belgium suddenly became this huge source of anxiety for me; which culture will I go with? Do I even have to decide? If I choose to ignore this Belgian custom, will my Belgian family be offended?
Am I allowed to pick and choose different Belgian customs and mix them with my Canadian way of life?


The REAL test of moving to another country is trying to meshing your two worlds together into a balance that you’re happy with. A balance that makes you feel like you embody both cultures, both countries; because both can be equally important to you.
Finding that balance between you as a person of your nationality and you as a resident of your new country can be really difficult, but it’s so important.

You can’t feel like you’ve sacrificed parts of who you are in order to travel or live in another place, especially if you moved for love.Β  I can’t feel like I’ve given up on important family/cultural traditions in order to make a life with my Belgian partner. Those are just recipes for disaster.


THE STAGES OF ASSIMILATION TO A NEW COUNTRY

OVER COMPROMISING
I think it’s probably safe to say that this is most peoples’ first stop. You come to a new country and you just want to fit in, you are excited to be here and you want it to work! When I first moved to Belgium in 2013, I went a little overboard with that concept; I came with the “foreigner” mindset, which obviously didn’t work out well for me. I basically came here assuming there would be so many barriers, that I myself had a big hand in building those barriers. (Which is obviously a super unhealthy approach.) I alienated myself, made little to no friends, didn’t really try and set up a life here. I just wanted to slip into the country seamlessly. But moving to another country has seams!! Obviously it will be difficult, and you’re allowed to hate it. You’re allowed to pick and choose which traditions you’d like to pick up, and which you’ll say “hell no” to. Just because you live in Belgium, doesn’t mean you have to be a Belgian.



UNDER COMPROMISING
There have been a few times (okay, a lot of times) that I have been so very tempted to just do everything my own way, with no regard for Belgian customs or society. This is the “I’m doing things my way, so get out of my way” attitude, and it’s also really unhealthy. Of course, you’re allowed to have things the way you usually have them, but you moved to ANOTHER country. As in one that isn’t your own. Obviously things will be different and you will be expected to bend a little. Be flexible, don’t be stubborn.



JUST OVER IT
There are many days (many recently, anyways) when I am just over it. Done. I’m over trying to find a balance. I’m done with trying to make room for Belgian traditions. I just don’t want to pick which Canadian traditions I’ll keep and which Belgian customs I’ll pick up. I don’t want the judgmental looks from my Belgian family as I set up my Christmas tree ‘too early’. I don’t want to have to over think every little thing I decide to do. These days (although really exhausting) are actually important, because you deserve them. After 2 months of being criticized for not saving every single penny I make, your damn right I’m going to treat myself to a manicure. An expensive one, too. Bouncing back from these days is where the “balance” comes into play.


Speaking of THE BALANCE…
Is it an illusion, or can it really be done?
Your goal, when you come to a new country, is to find a balance that YOU’RE happy with. A mixture of your own independence, your own country and your new country. No one but you can find that balance, because no one but you knows what it is. It will mean adjusting…and a lot of it. It will mean a lot of trying to understand the other culture. Researching, even. If your partner is from another culture, it should involve a lot of talking each other through it. Compromises. Discussions.
You should be allowed to veto an old Belgian custom if you’ve been doing things differently your whole life. And your partner should be allowed to insist/suggest that you at least try a few things before deciding.


The right amount of compromise is key to finding a balance. Compromising too much of yourself and your customs can result in a lot of hostile thoughts and negative experiences in your new country. Compromising too little of yourself can result in you not feeling like you belong in your new country.

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HOW DO I FIND THAT BALANCE?

What you have to know about the balance is that even once you have it, you might need to tweak it a little bit every so often. But once you have set your limits, it’s a lot easier to mesh the two worlds together in a pretty equal way. Here are some tips for finding that balance…

  • Take time for specifically {Canadian} things.
    Okay, so maybe you’re not from Canada, but you see my point. Getting in touch with your roots, your traditions and your way of life when you were back home is really refreshing. If I want to make pancakes, smother them in maple syrup I brought from home and binge-watch old hockey game re-runs, I will. I actually brought my own Christmas ornaments from Canada way back in February, because I knew it wouldn’t feel like Christmas to me without them. Adding those little “home” touches to your new life goes a long way.

 

  • Make time to re-connect with people in your country.
    So you email once a week with your dad and get a few Facebook messages from friends over the weekend. That’s not enough, in most cases. I’m talking arranged Skype dates, long phone calls and girly gossip sessions. Make time for your friends in your home country, because they will make you feel grounded and connected.

 

  • Find people in similar situations and talk to them!
    I have a really close friend here (she, funnily enough, isn’t even Belgian), who moved here to live with her boyfriend the same way I did. Although she’s from England and I’m from Canada, we share a lot of the same feelings about moving to a new country. We vent to each other, we laugh with each other and we give each other awesome (most of the time hilarious) advice. And I am telling you, honest to God truth, I could not live in Belgium without this girl. Finding those friends who understand your situation is amazing.

 

  • Be bold enough to make new friends in your new country.
    I am still lacking a little bit in the Belgian friend department, as most of my friends are actually friends of my boyfriend at this point, but they are still friends. Feeling that connection with people from your new country will allow you to have a sense of life there. It’s really easy to miss your old country if you’re sitting at home alone all the time. It’s a little harder if you’re exploring new cities and drinking beer with some new, awesome people.

 

  • Actually learning about the new country traditions and where they came from.
    Learning about why people do certain things can actually be really interesting, and give you more of a reason to pick up those traditions. Even the ones that seem a little strange to you, might seem a little less so once you know the history behind it.
  • Reminding yourself of your own heritage.
    There are actually a lot of things I do that I don’t even know why I do them. I just always have. But reminding yourself of your own culture and traditions helps you decide if they are important enough for you to keep.

 

  • Asking yourself “why am I even here?”
    On my absolute worst days, I look at K, sitting on the couch with our two cats, and I know that even with all the complaining I do, even with all the strange Belgian customs and the expectation of blending into Belgian society…there is no way I would want to be back in Canada without him again. I’m here for us, to build our life together, and reminding myself of that helps me realize that even though it’s frustrating and complicated, it’s worth it.

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Successfully moving to a new country doesn’t happen when you book your flight or sign your immigration papers. It happens when you can say you’ve found your balance between where you’ve come from and where you are now.

Yes, there are times when I stare at my suitcases, wanting desperately to pack my bags and be on the next flight back to Canada. I might not even want to move back there, but just to be there for a little while, to feel that Canadian side of me might be worth the insane last minute flight fare.

And then there are days when I love Belgium and never want to move back to Canada. That back and forth might never go away, but finding a balance between the two places that I call home will make things a lot easier.

The Canadian and the Belgian in me haven’t quite found a middle ground yet, but I’m getting closer.

How do you find your balance in a new country?

Share your story below in the comments!

 

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Travel Pray Love

Canadian travel & immigration blogger.

22 Replies to “Expat Guide: Living in A New Country (Without Losing Yourself)

  1. I kind of understand how you feel. I’ve lived in several countries for a few years and what I did was just immerse myself into the local culture, without abandoning my own way of living. When I moved to Spain I did not realise how different their culture was compared to Belgium (yes, I’m from Belgium πŸ™‚ ). But I thought, rather go with it than struggle against it. That way I really loved living there. The feeling I get from your story is that you are scared to get “stuck” in Belgium, forever. I knew I was going to move again to another country, so I did not care to live the local culture to the fullest. So I guess it’s a bit different!

    Anyway, at the moment I’m living in Belgium with my Southafrican husband, and he is trying hard as well πŸ™‚ In the end…Belgium is not such a bad place after all πŸ˜€

    1. Yes! That’s exactly it. It is a bit different because I know I’ll be living here for a long time. The decision to live in Belgium over Canada where I’m from, we made together, but now that I live here I guess I’m just afraid of losing ‘the Canadian’ in me, you know?
      I have started to immerse myself into the culture, but a lot of the traditions (things to do with holidays, mostly) are just so different from what I have always done, that I’m not really sure what to do anymore sometimes.

      Thanks for sharing, I’m glad you kind of understand. πŸ™‚ xx

  2. It must be super hard adjusting to a new country. I knew exactly how that felt 20 years ago when I moved from Japan to America. The cultures are just so outlandishly different! I could have used this post then πŸ™‚ Great tips!

    1. Wow, Japan to America would be so different and difficult! It’s so interesting to see how vastly people are different around the world. Thanks for reading! xx

  3. Great post! I have never moved to another country to live, but I think I can relate having moved to NYC a few years back. Nothing prepares you for that! It’s overwhelming to have to readjust your whole way of doing everything. These are great tips, and I will keep them in mind if I ever move to another country!

    1. Ohh NYC would be a huge move (depending on where you’re moving from, but even then – NYC is different then anything, I’ve heard.)
      Thanks for reading! xx

  4. Such an honest post. I moved from London to Manila and I’ve experienced all the points you make. Making the leap from First World to a Developing Country is phenomenal, and even a year later I’m still making adjustments. Even though I have some family here, I miss my friends and immediate family like crazy. It’s so difficult to get a Skype in with +8 hours difference. You’re totally right about carving out time to connect and not losing the culture you grew up in. Thanks for this, so nice to know that expat loneliness is a thing!

    1. Thanks for commenting! It is really nice to know that people are relating to how I have felt the last few years trying to make the transition to a new country! πŸ˜€ Manila has always caught my eye in blog posts, it’s so beautiful there. Good luck! xx

  5. Spot on. I went through a lot of the same experiences when I moved to Korea. Its tough to keep, and sometimes defend, your personal cultural identity when you’re the “odd one out.” Figuring out how to be different, have those differences respected, while also trying to remain respectful of the local culture is such a delicate balance!

  6. This is a lovely piece. Really appreciate you being honest and sharing your thoughts about what many of us go through when we leave something we’re comfortable and familiar with, diving right into something completely different. You’re right – we need to find that balance and you’ve addressed how to find that beautifully. ‘Just because you live in Belgium, doesn’t mean you have to be a Belgian’. Damn straight girl.

    1. Thanks, girl! It’s been tough to find a balance but it’s working so far! Thanks for reading and commenting! (PS, I like your blog, I checked it out a few weeks ago!)

  7. Great piece! I am doing an expat series right now on the impact it has on us. I lived in London and now heading to Canada and i am Aussie. I feel more American than anything after visiting 43 states. Who knows what nationality I am actually trying to be, and what traditions I actually use. It is many haha.

    1. That’s the best part about traveling – being able to be a kind of “citizen of the world” type of person. Have a blast in Canada, it’s such a beautiful place! Thanks for reading. I have seen your Expat series on Facebook, I’ll give it a read next time I see it! πŸ˜€

  8. I love this post and everything you write is so true!! When I have to find a balance in a new country I generally take time to find new ‘rites’ that I know I will miss when away. I know that thinking about the moment you’ll leave is not considered as the best way to love a place but for me it is. Everything that is strange now will be a part of you on a little while and you must enjoy it as long as you have the opportunity to live it all.

    1. I totally agree! And before you know it, you’ll be somewhere else; so you have to enjoy the time you have in the place you are in that moment! Thanks for reading/commenting!

  9. Great read! I definitely can relate with what you’re saying, I have lived in Sicily and now live in South Korea and I have the same anxiety and worries as an expat trying to settle in a new environment, culture, complete new way of life – but how exciting is it that we do this to ourselves, push our boundaries and learn from our experience! Belgium is a must for me and I can’t wait to see the country for myself .. the chocolate is calling πŸ™‚

    1. It definitely is so exciting and amazing that we can push our own boundaries and do things like this. It’s good to remember that, because a lot of the time we’re hard on ourselves for not learning the language right or not finding a job right away. Thanks for reading!

  10. I understand! I’m from Argentina and I’ve lived in your country πŸ˜€ Canada is so beautiful, I miss it! Every country and also every city has it’s own traditions but I think you can never lose your own country ones. Living abroad and getting to really know a new culture is great, enjoy it!

  11. I can relate to everything you said! I’m Canadian, living in a small Flemish town, and moved here for love about 6 years ago πŸ™‚ I still struggle with many of the things you mention (and a few other ones too πŸ˜‰ I hold onto the important Canadian traditions, teach them to my children (I now have 2 Flemish/Canadian girls) and make sure they know how wonderful Canada is. But I’ve discovered so many, new & wonderful Belgian traditions too. Nevertheless, homesickness can be really rough… and somehow, on those low days, everything seems better in Canada! (It’s hard when we come from such a great country!) But I never regret taking the risk of coming over her πŸ™‚ I’ll continue to read your posts and cheer you on from behind my screen πŸ™‚ Enjoy the adventure!!

    1. Awe thanks!! It’s so nice to hear other people’s stories (especially when they relate so closely to mine!) We should talk more, because eventually I will have some Belgian/Canadian kids and I’m sure that’s a whole other struggle!! Thanks for reading! xx

  12. I loved reading this post! As a person from the US with immigrant parents from Vietnam, living in Spain for the past 2 years have been amazing but also a struggle. For the past few months I’ve been at the point where I’m so done with Spain, it’s culture, the people, how they’re a bit xenophobic and sometimes ignorant when it comes to people of different heritage but are one nationality.

    I feel you, girl! In the end, I do love spain, but there are days where I wish I could be back in a culture and country that I’m more familiar with!

    1. Definitely know what you’re talking about – and it can be the smallest things. I get sick of Belgium sometimes because of how the city smells or the fact that the stores aren’t open on Sundays or Mondays. They are little things but when you’re already overwhelmed they seem huge.
      I just think it’s important to let yourself feel that annoyance (no matter how small or stupid those things seem), because then when you get over it, you appreciate the city even more.
      I’m glad that you found some comfort in this post!

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