What is the hardest thing about living abroad?

Girl getting knocked out by boxing glove.

Girl getting knocked out by boxing glove. Photo: B. Garrett / Flickr

To your friends and family back home, it might seem like you’re living an endless vacation. Especially if you only share cool photos on Facebook (I’ve been guilty of that). But long-term expats know better. The challenges of residing in a foreign country are very real. There was a discussion thread on Quora titled, What is the hardest thing about living abroad?

Looking back on that made me reflect. Here are some things from my list:

Career/Personal Stagnation — There’s nothing wrong with drifting for a while; I have friends who are still happily directionless up to now. But for me, at around the 5-year mark I felt like I’d hit the limit of living in Asia. My biggest fear was that I’d end up still being an ESL English teacher in Taiwan at age 50. At a certain point, that kind of expat life felt like less of an escape and more like a trap.

— Although I made loads of acquaintances among the locals in China and Taiwan, there were only a few I truly considered friends. I noticed that many locals would meet me separately from their same-race friends. This kind of segregation saddened me. Meanwhile, foreign friends I grew close to would leave, and it was hard to maintain the bond once they were gone. On the flip side, I felt disconnected from family and friends back home.

Immigration problems — There is not enough time or space for me to rant properly on how much I hated dealing with visas. Worrying about my legal status and getting deported was a humbling experience. Always the foreigner, never the citizen.

On a related note, there was an article in The Economist titled, Foreigners in China: To flee or not to flee? The burden is multiplied if you living in a country with murky legal environment and non-democratic government.

None of this should take away from the experience. Getting to live outside my own culture had an overall positive effect on my life.

What were your biggest obstacles when living abroad? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


Posted by | Comments (7)  | November 5, 2012
Category: Expat Life, Notes from the collective travel mind

7 Responses to “What is the hardest thing about living abroad?”

  1. Greg Lexiphanic Says:

    My biggest obstacle has been visa related. I have a job in my home country that I perform from a laptop while travelling. I am not entitled to a working visa anywhere, which limits me to three-month visas in most places. The downside to that is that I want to spend six months in most places, not three.

    I tried the “leave, wait three days, re-enter” trick in Hong Kong but was pulled aside and questioned. I was allowed back in for another three months but the experience left me cautious. Something similar happened when I arrived in Canada for the first time, too.

    I’m off to Europe in January and expect things to get even more complicated then.

  2. Sally Says:

    It’s really hard living in abroad. That home-sick can really kill, I mean, can someone sick. I tried living away from my family for couple of months. I know the feeling. 🙁

  3. Coco Marie Says:

    I relate to a lot of the stuff in this post. Living abroad is no easy feat! I never really got home sick but it was difficult being away from my family. But I think the hardest thing by far are the immigration issues. Getting a work visa in France was probably the hardest thing I have ever done. I am so happy it is over and as much as I love living abroad, I am not sure I will have the energy to do it again!

  4. rubin pham Says:

    i notice a group of expats in saigon who are all white american.
    they could easily hang out with the local but chose not to do so.
    living abroad is easier if you truly try to blend in with the local.

  5. K-eM Says:

    The other side of this fence is the kid who grew up abroad and is now stuck in the passport country. I would happily endure the visa question if I could just go home. Living in my passport culture is like living in a foreign country except without the visa. Dealing with people who think that because you were born there and look like them, that you should be just like them, and that your differences are intolerable is eternally difficult. While as an adult expat you have visa issues, fitting in issues, and homesickness, as a someone who grew up a child expat trying to live in your passport culture you deal with fitting in issues, homesickness, and a being trapped in a country where I have no visa issues but don’t belong.

  6. Edna V Says:

    That happens to be me in that photo up there, kind of disturbing to find it on a random website. :/

  7. Andy Pac Says:

    I lived in China for a year and loved it. The people were friendly, kind, generous and treated me very well. The only problems were Internet connection at my school-provided accommodation and dirty toilets. Otherwise it was wonderful. I’m now in Saudi and I love it here too. There’s never bee a problem with visas in either country (do it properly and there shouldn’t be) and I look forward to another year here next school year. There are drawbacks to Saudi, but once you get your head around dealing with them, it’s easy. The money is always a huge bonus here too. No tax, petrol at less than 8pence per litre and accommodation thrown in too. Then there are cheap flights to all of the Emirates, so travelling is easy as well. Can’t be bad.