Biggest Challenges for an Expat

When I decided to move abroad, it came with feelings of excitement of the unknown, expectations of adventure, and looking forward to learning new cultures and meeting new people. I focused on the positives so I didn’t talk myself out of going once I booked the flight and had my visa. I completely tuned out warnings of challenges from my family and friends that I might not like it, because I knew I HAD to like it. How could I not?

< One way ticket to Spain >
Booked a one-way ticket!

It wasn’t until we got there that I finally opened my eyes wide enough to see the negatives along with the positives. I can still say that, even with the challenges of being an expat, the positives outweighed everything and I don’t ever regret moving to Spain! I would highly recommend it to anyone who even has the slightest inkling of moving abroad. But just to prepare, here are some of the challenges I found that came with being an expat.

Not Speaking the Language

< Language barriers >
So many ways to insult someone if you get one letter wrong

Whatever you learned from a textbook, it won’t help you much abroad. People don’t talk like a textbook talks. I thought I would be fine speaking the Spanish I learned in school until I realized that “Where is the library” and “How old are you” aren’t common phrases that you usually ask someone. I never once asked someone where the library was or how old they were.

Also, reading words on a piece of paper is much different from hearing someone say the words. Just like we do in English, people who speak other languages tend to run words together or leave off certain letters. For example, in English, I say goin’ rather than going; the way I say “for” actually sounds like “fur”; English teachers in Spain couldn’t understand me when I said “thirty” like “thurdy” rather than the British pronunciation. In Spain Spanish, they tend to leave off s’s or turn five words into one (especially in Andalucia). It makes you realize that when you speak to a foreigner, speak slowly and enunciate, because I wished they spoke more slowly and enunciated for me!

< Going to a Spanish doctor >
I finally found an English-speaking doctor! Which didn’t help at the pharmacy

Even though I had some language barriers, I still managed to get what I needed when I needed it. I managed to order Internet service for our house, call customer service when our phones stopped working, take our adopted stray cat to the vet, dispute a charge on my Spanish bank account debit card, and go to doctors and pharmacies and speak in semi-medical terms in Spanish. Even though it was frustrating at times and I wished I could take the easy way out and speak English, at the end of the day I was proud of myself for getting it done in Spanish.

Moral of the story: You will be proud of yourself if you tackle a language barrier, whether you feel like you succeeded or not! Click To Tweet

Getting Used to Different Products

< Ham legs >
Ham legs at the supermarket

I love my toothpaste, my body lotion, my laundry detergent, and my makeup. I haven’t changed many of my products in years. Until I moved to Spain. As if having to change my products wasn’t hard enough, the new products were all in Spanish with technical words that I couldn’t understand, so I just had to pick one and hope for the best. Unfortunately, my first lotion didn’t work at all and my skin dried out real quick, but luckily one of my new Spanish friends took me to the grocery store and showed me what she bought, which then became my new favorite lotion that I wished I could bring back to America!

< Confusing washing machine >
Washing instructions…so confusing

The first laundry detergent I bought gave me skin infections, and it took me three months to figure out it was the laundry detergent causing them. I then had to figure out how to describe my skin infections to the dermatologist in Spain to get the right medicine. Once I figured out what was going on, my new Spanish friends took me to the grocery store again to help me find a hypoallergenic laundry detergent (and taught me how to say hypoallergenic in Spanish), which solved my problems. In fact, the new hypoallergenic laundry detergent worked better than ever!

What was weirder was the food. I’m used to everything chicken, but Spain is everything ham. The supermarkets even sell legs of cured ham so you can slice your own ham and make deli sandwiches. It freaked me out to think about it, but it was so good. I still will outwardly say I won’t eat it, but if I ever have the chance, that’s what I order.

Moral of the story: It doesn’t hurt to give something else a try. You might be surprised and find something even better than before.

Culture Shock

< Friends at dinner in Spain >
Dinner is more about socializing than eating 🙂

Sometimes, even just moving an hour from where you’re used to can give you culture shock, so it’s no wonder that moving to a different country is bound to shake anyone up. Culture shock can include anything from the way people act around you, like a double kiss on the cheek greeting, to different foods, like getting used to pork for every meal.

I tried to prepare for Spain’s culture by learning what I could, but culture is more than just a textbook or documentary. You won’t really know until you experience it first hand. I learned that siestas really do exist, and the Spanish people take them very seriously. Town gatherings and parades are a big deal and the town is a ghost town during these times. Socializing is extremely important in Spain. Spanish culture invented a mid-day snack just for people to build in time to socialize. And going out to dinner is more about hanging out than actually eating. Spain may have been a shock to me, but it was a good shock that opened my eyes to what I want in a culture.

Moral of the story: Try to prepare for a new culture, but expect the unexpected. Click To Tweet You may find that you really like your new culture!

Mental Health

< Summer wine and a good sunset >
Sometimes you just need to go sit outside with a Summer Wine and a good view to keep up good spirits

I prepared for culture shock and knew to expect siestas, tapas, and friendly people. James, however, had a period in the first two months where he missed his family and friends and the comforts of home, and he shut down. He couldn’t even call them without scheduling a time to talk because of the six-hour time difference. He wasn’t used to having such a limited social life that consisted mainly of only me.

For about two weeks, he wouldn’t get out of bed and just watched an Entourage marathon. He didn’t want to explore our new town, go shopping for food, or go out to dinner. I worried about his mental health and knew I had to increase my level of support to get him out of his funk.

< Ancient Arab castle >
Climbing the ancient Arab castle

I got him up and out to see the town’s ancient Arab castle from the days of Moorish rule, the Saturday market, and the best little café in town. After that, he decided the town wasn’t so bad. We even met up with some of my teachers in town who showed us the Spanish custom of getting free shots at the end of a group hangout as the restaurant’s way of saying thanks for your business! From then on, we had friends, knowledge, and a sense of adventure and we were off to great places.

Moral of the story: It’s common to fall into a slump when you give up everything you’re used to, but if you accept your new environment and get yourself out there, your mental health will improve.

Personal Support Network and Making Friends

< Celebrating Thanksgiving in Spain >
When friends celebrate your holidays with you, you never feel alone
< Co-teachers >
My co-teachers

James and I went to Spain not knowing a soul except each other. This was really going to test our relationship and if things didn’t work out, who did we have to support us? The first few weeks, we didn’t venture out much because we didn’t know where to go or what to do. We didn’t have a car at first so we had to walk or take public transportation. James worked in Setenil, 20 minutes away from Olvera, so he got a ride to his school with two of his co-teachers every day.

< Thanksgiving turkey in Spain >
The art teacher made me a Thanksgiving turkey

As the days went on, we started to get friendlier with the other teachers in our school. We also met more of the British expats in town who we could communicate easily with. We started making friends and gaining a professional and personal support network at our schools. Our new friends were so helpful and supportive. They drove us to the grocery store two miles away, took us out to dinner, and joined a gym with us. They even came over our house to celebrate Thanksgiving with us to make us feel at home for the holiday.

Moral of the story: If you get yourself out there, you will make friends! Especially at a job, new friends will grow your professional network as well as your personal support system.


< Finances >
Sometimes the expenses win, sometimes the income wins

No matter where you’re living, worrying about finances is typical. You have to make sure you can pay your bills, buy food, and still have a life. Living in another country is no exception; if anything, it’s harder. Especially for someone like me who doesn’t follow foreign economics, I had no idea if Spain’s government was stable and if I was going to get paid every month.

Many reviews I read about the Language & Culture Assistant Program said schools in certain regions rarely pay on time, and sometimes auxiliares had to fight for their money. Since I’m uncomfortable asking anyone for money, this made me nervous. Luckily, my school paid me like clockwork on the first day of every month.

If you don’t have a job and you’re hoping to find one when you get to your new home, of course you’ll worry about your future finances. If you’re not sure if your job is steady, you’ll worry. Even with a stable, secure job, you’ll probably worry. Will it be enough? Will I be able to pay my rent? Can I open a bank account in a foreign country, and how?

My advice: Don’t stress. Make sure you have to enough savings to let you live comfortably for about three to six months and you’ll be okay while you job search or wait for your first pay check. With some padding, you’ll feel more comfortable and focus on what really matters. Without stressing about money, you’ll find other ways to make or save money abroad!

Keeping Your Partner Happy

< Staying happy >
Keep that fresh, happy feeling for as long as you’re living abroad!

I’ve seen many people ask well-traveled expats how to keep your partner happy if they’re uncomfortable or unsatisfied with such a big move. This is a hard question. It’s important to keep the conversation positive yet supportive. Help your partner see the up-side of what you’re doing and make sure he or she knows how important it is to you. Help your partner get settled and form a support network, form a social network, and feel needed in his or her own way.

Moral of the story: Make sure you’re aware of your partner’s needs and wants and don’t forget to compromise!

Have you lived abroad? What were some of your biggest challenges? Let me know in the comments below!

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Biggest Challenges of Being an Expat

P.S. You might also love 6 Best Travel Mistakes and 9 Best Travel Moments of 2015

2 thoughts on “Biggest Challenges for an Expat

    1. It sure is, but it’s well worth it! I’m sure Bratislava was a very unique, interesting, and wonderful place to live. The benefits of living abroad really outweigh the challenges 🙂

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