The Challenge of Feeling Settled Abroad

feeling settled abroad

My walls at home are bare. Two and a half years living in The Netherlands, and I’ve hung nothing – the Turkish plates that usually hang above the Chinese sideboard, the rice paper Apsara dancer from Cambodia, the Vietnamese propaganda paintings – they’re all collecting dust in the garage.

Usually I can’t wait to hang things up, to adorn the walls with family photographs and memories of our life lived across the world. Rich memories come to mind often, vivid and overwhelming, of places loved, friends cherished, lives created. These memories crowd my mind as they inform my everyday life, confirm my identity as someone in perpetual transition, and bring color and texture to the story of my life. Yet my walls remain bare.

My friend Erika tells me it’s because I haven’t settled into life in The Netherlands, as though my body resides amongst the canals and cookie-cutter houses, but my heart remains on the beaches of South Africa, strolling the ancient streets of Istanbul, or searching for peace amidst the chaos of Asia. Erika should know, she’s lived a global life since childhood. She can spot reluctance to settle a mile away.

Feeling Settled: Everyday Life vs The Big Picture

Do we ever really feel settled when we move abroad? How do we measure the feeling? When do we declare, ‘Yes! I am now settled!’

Is it when we begin to feel comfortable in a foreign environment? Or perhaps when we finally begin to grasp the new language? Is it when we have established a routine? Or when homesickness no longer sneaks up on us, throwing us for a loop?

Or does it have more to do with acceptance? Acceptance that this is now your home, that you are here and nowhere else, and that you can be nowhere else other than here? Settling in logistically is one thing. Settling in emotionally, well that’s a whole other ball game.

I’ve been moving around the world for sixteen years and have lived in six countries, and as I examine the concept of feeling settled and what it means to me, it occurs to me that there is ‘everyday life’ settled, and ‘big picture’ settled, and that one can exist without the other. For example, you can feel perfectly settled in a place without assimilating. You may not learn the language, may need to use your GPS every time you get in your car, and never figure out which brand of yogurt to buy, but you have accepted that for the next few years this country is your home: your big picture is settled. Conversely, you may work hard to become fluent in the local language, know your city like the back of your hand, buy property, enroll your kids in local schools, be completely assimilated on the everyday level, but still feel unsettled because you’re dreaming of your next move. You’re treading water. Your big picture is not aligned with your everyday. This, for me, and I think for many of us, is the challenge of moving to a new country. Unless our everyday and our big picture are aligned, feeling truly settled will remain illusive.

Tips on feeling settled in your everyday life:

  1. Open your front door, get out there. It is up to you to venture out there. You will not feel settled by staying at home. It can feel scary to set off into the unknown, but bite the bullet and just go. Use public transport, go sit on a bench in a park and do some people watching, absorb the feeling of your new city, even if it feels strange at first.
  2. Find your tribe. Making friends is, I believe, a make or break part of feeling settled. You need people to share your ups and downs with, to laugh at your cultural feux pas, understand how crippling homesickness is, but also to serve as a reminder that you are not alone. Seek out others who have settled. You know, that person who knows everyone and is a fount of local knowledge. That’s who you need to make a bee-line for. Ask her (or him) for tips, be curious about her experience, she may have wisdom to impart.
  3. Leave the expat bubble. Yes, you are different. You stick out like a sore thumb. Whilst it may feel comfortable to remain firmly behind the walls of your fortified expat bubble, you will deepen your connection to a place if you embrace the local culture. Make local friends, learn local customs, try to pick up the language, even if you know you’ll be in the country only for a few years. Be curious about how things work because with understanding comes appreciation.
  4. Support local businesses. Melody Warnick talks about this in her book This is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are, which was an important find for me personally. You’re much more likely to strike up a conversation with a local shop owner than someone in a commercial chain store. Create a routine by going back to the same café or veggie stall, and be open to conversation. Slowly you’ll establish yourself as a local there.
  5. Get out into nature. Walk in your neighbourhood, explore outdoor areas near by and further away. The more you interact with your natural environment the more you’ll feel it begin to be a part of you.

Feeling Settled in Your Big Picture:

In my experience, the big picture shift is more difficult to attain because acceptance often follows no apparent logic. You know this is your home now, your mind accepts it, but your heart rebels. Homesickness or nostalgia for a place left behind makes acceptance an ongoing struggle. My only observation on this is that as expats and immigrants, we need to shift from the ‘if, then’ to the ‘right now’. The feeling of the big picture being settled does not lie off in the future when A B and C have been achieved, but rather right now as a clear decision to commit to the now. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that waiting for the future to be nicely laid out and clear, so that I can feel settled and happy now, is not how living abroad works. We need to find the ‘right now’ in spite of the ‘what-ifs’.

Ways to do this can include meditation, expressing gratitude on a daily basis, practicing mindfulness, and reminding ourselves to live in the moment.

I think it’s time for me to follow my own advice and hang some pictures on my walls!

Melody Warnick’s book This is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are is a great resource for building place attachment and she has some wonderful tips on how to make where you live feel like home, no matter where that place is.

Author: Lucille Abendanon

Lucille Abendanon is a blogger and freelance writer who gets to reinvent her life as she moves around the world with her husband, their three tri-national, bilingual boys and the family cat. She has lived in England, Vietnam, Thailand, Turkey, South Africa and currently calls The Netherlands home where she is hoping that her memories of the African sun will see her through long the winter months. Lucille writes about travel and the expat experience on her blog Expitterpattica.com and The Huffington Post, and is a contributor to two expat anthologies: Knocked Up Abroad Again, and A Cup of Culture and a Pinch of Crisis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *