lessons learned as an expat_

As we pack up and prepare to move from Eindhoven to Amsterdam this weekend, a little self-reflection has been inevitable. Lately, I’ve been feeling a wave of emotions – mostly anxiety and excitement – the same that I felt prior to moving from Boston to the Netherlands a little over 1 year ago. I don’t think Bill shares this mix of emotions. He’s ready to bid Eindhoven farewell and trade her in for the more vivacious and provocative city of Amsterdam.

Yet I’m a little more hesitant about saying goodbye to Eindhoven and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. I, like Bill, am also psyched to be leaving a fairly small city and moving to one of my most favorite cities in the world. However, Eindhoven has been really good to me. For someone who has never lived for a long period of time outside of my home country and home state, Eindhoven offered the perfect environment for a novice Expat. It’s a small city that is becoming a more international every day. Most local people speak English and the food and culture in the Netherlands are not drastically different from those of America. Sure, there are definitely some cultural differences. There are Dutch customs that drive me crazy and some I am very fond of.

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I’ve really enjoyed my time living as an expat in the Netherlands and while expat-life so far has been an amazing journey,  it is not always smooth sailing. Adjusting to life abroad has been a learning process and even better, a personal growth experience. I think I’ve done many things right and other times I’ve had to learn and adjust along the way. This is common. I’ve met many other expats in my city who have had struggles adjusting to life outside of their home country. It can be pretty exhausting starting over in a new country and new city. You have to invest a lot of energy into learning, networking, and settling in. Maybe this is what I’m most hesitant about with the move to Amsterdam. Though I am staying in the Netherlands, I will have to start this process all over again in a new city. Bill reminds me that I’ve done it once already and I can do it again. Of course I know this is true, but what if Amsterdam is not as good to me as Eindhoven has been? Reflecting back on my experience so far, there are lessons that I will remember as I start anew in the Dam.

lessons learned as an expat_

1. it’s okay to feel like an outsider_

As an international, you have to accept that you will always feel a bit different from the locals. When I first moved to the Netherlands, I was embarrassed that I did not speak Dutch and therefore hesitant to ask questions, in English, in the grocery store for example. I had a lot of questions about everyday life in Eindhoven (where does my trash go, where can I buy certain items, etc.) that for some reason, I felt stupid asking. I had to suck it up and get over this hesitancy. I came to the realization that it’s OK to be an outsider and sometimes playing the “dumb foreigner” card actually makes things easier. Being an “outsider” shouldn’t be viewed as negative but instead embraced. I’ve found that many Dutch in Eindhoven are welcoming and accepting of the international community and they are very willing to help. Still, there are times, like when I am with a group of locals who are all speaking Dutch around me that of course I feel strange, left out, and a bit out of place. The important part is that I accept these are typical experiences of a foreigner.

Accept and embrace that you are different from the locals, being an outsider has its benefits, too

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2. step outside of your bubble_

A Dutch man told me once, “If you never step outside of your bubble into your new surroundings, then you will only ever see it through the eyes of a guest.” There is a difference between living as an expat and being a tourist. Understandably, our bubbles are our comfort zone.  While its nice to have comforts from our home country, it can be detrimental to your adjustment into expat-life if you don’t go out and experience the culture of where you are living. For example, it was great to meet other Americans in Eindhoven. This group gave me the comfort of home during times when I needed it most. I was able to celebrate Thanksgiving and other American holidays when I was most prone to home-sickness. However, if I limited myself to this bubble, I never would have met some of my best friends who are also internationals from Italy, Brazil, Taiwan, Greece, Portugal etc. I also joined a local running group of mostly Dutch people. This group welcomed me and has felt like the closest thing to “family” that I have here. I also invested time into learning Dutch, rode my bike everywhere and celebrated Dutch holidays and traditions (Sinterklaas, Carnival etc.).

Get out and experience your new surroundings. Go to local events. Try to learn the local language if it’s different from your mother tongue. Talk to the owners of a shop or restaurant. Meet your neighbors. Make it a goal to try something new every week or month.

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Experiencing our first GLOW Eindhoven 11/2016

3. be yourself_

I remember the first few people I met in Eindhoven. I worried what they thought of me, if I would make friends in this new country, and would they be anything like the close friends I have in the U.S. Reflecting back, maybe I was a duller version of myself in the beginning, trying to tone down my outgoing, loud American personality in order to make any new friend. Yet in the end, the people who you want to surround yourself with are those who connect with who you really are. I am no longer in contact with some of the first people I met in Eindhoven, and that’s OK. They weren’t my people. I found my people. It just took some time. How did I find them? I was myself. Bill was himself. I joined events and groups that I was interested in. I shared my views and opinions.

If you stay true to who you are, you will attract people with similar interests and values.

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4. build your network_

I grew up in Massachusetts, went to college/university in Massachusetts and lived in Boston for 10+ years. My network in the U.S. was established. I was already connected through a network of family and friends. Therefore, I never truly understood the power of networking until I moved to the Netherlands. I have networked more in Eindhoven than I ever have in my life and I’ve witnessed first-hand why having a network is so important. There’s no specific blueprint or “how-to” on building a network as an expat. It also takes time and energy. I know that I will have to re-build my network once I move to Amsterdam and I am already tired just thinking about it. Yet it is also very exciting.

Networking means establishing relationships with people, personally and/or professionally. If you live in a city with a large international community, there is already a network out there waiting for you. However, you can’t start to build your network if you stay at home in your bubble.

Go to events. Join a group or club. Take a class. Join an expat Facebook page. Get to know people on a personal level. What are their interests? Tell them about your interests, passions and goals. You never know where it will lead to in the future.

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Through building my network, I met another international who started his own language school and I started teaching English to other expats!

5. allow yourself to grow_

Moving somewhere new and living in a foreign country is no easy feat. It will challenge you on a personal level – socially, emotionally, mentally etc. I’ve learned a lot about myself in this last year. How well do I deal with change? Stress? How easily can I make friends? What are my interests, passions, goals in life? When you start a “new life” abroad, you have a chance to reflect on who you were prior to your move and you can make a conscious decision about who you want to be going forward.

Reflect on your experiences as an expat, both positive and negative. Re-invent yourself. Pursue your passions and interests. Allow yourself to grow as a person.

IMG_20160903_184410Thanks for reading! I hope you join me on my next adventure in Amsterdam.

What other advice do you have for expats adjusting to life in their new country?

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