When I was little, I had no idea that my parent’s decision to move to the United States would ultimately change my life forever. The plan was to be abroad for 2 years and move back to Sweden. The reality? We never moved back.
My parents were in their early thirties with 3 kids under the age of 6 when they decided to move abroad. My mom barely spoke English. We (the kids) spoke no English. My sister had just turned 2 when we left.
I remember my parents telling me that we were moving and taking me to English classes. I was aware that something was happening, but I don’t think my 6 year old self actually understood what was happening. I cried every day for 3 months when I started Kindergarten. I was pulled out of class to go to ESOL daily, and every Tuesday night, I had Swedish School at the local library (think – the “Greek School” scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding).
Fast forward 12 years. I was about to graduate high school and had I’d lived abroad twice as long as at ‘home’ in Sweden. When I finally had the choose to decide for myself, all I knew was that I wanted was to continue being an expat.
The life of an expat can be glamorous – company paid home visits, exploring new countries during school breaks, learning a foreign language, and seeing more of the world in a few years than what most people are able to see in a lifetime. Yet, when you decide to make the move abroad, you also have to be aware of how difficult it can be and set expectations. There are downsides to the expat life too. The first downside is Culture Shock.
Culture Shock – Merriman Webster defines Culture Shock as:
A sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation.°
When I was little, I knew we were different. We spoke a different language, ate ‘weird’ Swedish food, and my mom never let us have candy like the other kids could. Yet, none of this bothered me. The biggest culture shocks happened as I started high school, and eventually, started college. As a young adult, I realized how differently I was raised; particularly, with what mattered to my parents versus what mattered to American parents. What I also came to realize was that when I was in the United States, I felt very Swedish, and when I was in Sweden, I felt very American.
When you decide to move abroad, you most likely do it for the experience – for getting out of a routine, seeing things you never thought you’d see, learning a new language, and eating foods you didn’t know existed. What will happen in the process is that you’ll also grow stronger and get to know yourself in a way that you couldn’t before. My first piece of advice before you make the decision is know what you’re getting into. Read as many expat stories as you can, consider reading The Culture Map, learn about the third culture kid, and set expectations. You will have the best time of your life, but only if you commit to the experience.