Living overseas is full of amazing adventures and excitement, but it is not all rosy all the time. The challenges could be generated from tough conditions of life in a host country, inconveniences of having a foreign status, constant and unexpected changes, unfamiliar environment and languages, being away from families and friends and more. I feel that staying happy is a bit more challenged while living overseas since a life abroad comes with more stress factors than life back home. Your life could easily be out of your hand if something loses a balance. Since I am naturally happy overseas (weird?), I get excited about moving to a new foreign country every couple of years. Living abroad is also what I have always dreamed of doing since I was a child. Even for someone like me, there are ups and downs in an expat life. Not to mention, majority of our previous overseas postings are considered hardship and there are many expats who are unhappy there.
I am often asked how I stay positive in tough situations. I would like to share 10 things I do to stay happy overseas. I have practiced these in the past years. Some for a long time, some for the past 5 years. These core 10 tips are based on my own experiences. I love our little family’s nomadic life style. Since I pursue the life that I have always dreamed of, it is probably easier for me to cope with some challenges of life overseas than some others who accidentally ended up living overseas. Everyone is built differently, so by any means I am not stating that my way of thinking works for everyone. I would be delighted if this post can be of any help for others who are wondering how to stay happy overseas.
Endorphin, the chemical that your brain produces when working out, is known to make one feel happy. I try to workout 3 to 4 times a week in the morning. It helps me deal with stresses. I feel better and stronger and thus happier. I only give myself 30 minutes in the morning because I think that I can go through a 30-minute workout even if I don’t feel like it. I usually get on a treadmill for 30 minutes and this is the time for me to process my thoughts. It is very important to me because it helps me see things straight and set me in a right mood for the day. It also gives me more energy to get through a day. When living in Jakarta, I used to swim in the morning on an average of 4 or 5 times a week. Now in Mumbai, as I mentioned above, I get on a treadmill and jog for 30 minutes. I’m not fast, though. I find a cardiovascular exercise suits me the best because I can do it on my own and I sweat a lot in a short period of time. There are many other sports you can do other than jogging or swimming. You can do yoga or zumba for instance. You just need to find a workout that fits in your life style and suits your personality.
2. Make Home A Sanctuary
There is no place like home. Then what do you do if you live away from your home? Here you have to look at “home” in a sense of your domicile. Wherever you are, it is important that you make your home your favorite place to come back to. When we live overseas, home becomes a place where we as a family spend a lot of our time together. Having a home where I feel happy to come back to has helped me cope with some challenges overseas and I think it’s true for my family members as well.
It may not be as easy to create your home overseas as it’s said because you may not have the resource like you do back home. You might not feel inspired if you live in a temporary housing or furnished housing. However, there are creative things you can do to make your home away from home comfortable and lovable without spending a fortune. I usually focus on my favorite colors for our new home. Painting the wall, wall decals, framed photos, posters, favorite decorative items and lamps have quickly made our new home overseas feel like our own. If would like to have a tour of my three homes in Northern Virginia, Jakarta, Indonesia and Mumbai, India, please go to the Interior Design Tab.
3. Learn To Filter Surroundings
Just like many parents develop a filter for their own child’s cry after a couple of years (Have you noticed that many parents with toddlers seem to not be bothered or affected by their toddlers’ cry or scream?), we can develop our own filter to screen our surrounding noises. Noises in this sense is “environmental factors” of living in a foreign country. It took me some time to be able to become unsusceptible to the surroundings and stay unaffected by things that stimulates my senses.
My husband and I lived in Dakar, Senegal many years ago. It was our first experience living in a developing country. It’s not easy to see poverty and litter on a daily basis. It becomes very hard emotionally, too. Over time it accumulates as frustration because you realize that there is not much you can do as an individual to make a change and you feel helpless. My experiences from the time in Senegal have been very helpful, though. Seeing poverty and litter is still not easy for me today, but I seem to have learned to process the visual information in a way that does not bother me as much as they did. One of the things that helps is that I have a home where I can separate myself from the outside world, which goes back to my second point: Create your home to be your sanctuary. Don’t forget to give your mind a break by traveling outside so that you can relax your mind!
4. Find Passion & Pursue It
My passion at the moment is blogging, photography and interior design. Blogging has provided me a place to be myself, explore my interests, engage myself with what I feel passionately about and challenge myself to test my ability. Blogging often becomes an incentive for me to explore the city I live in, to improve my photography and be creative to make our home which all become a content for my blog. My blog has provided me with some wonderful opportunities to be involved with different projects.
Blogging does not have to be the answer to happiness overseas for everyone. When you live overseas, you can take some lessons to learn music instruments, languages or cooking. You can pick up a new sport or train for a race. There are online courses available and in many countries, there are always volunteer opportunities. You can find a new hobby. The options are endless. Listen to what makes your heart bounce and you’ll find your place to be at peace.
5. Find A Silver Lining
Is a glass half empty or half full?
I am a believer of “everything happens for a reason”. All experiences whether positive or negative give something positive to learn from the experiences. Whether you become negative and dwell on it or look at the positives and make efforts to embrace the destiny will change your perspective on life and experiences. It’s hard to practice this when you are going through a tough time. However, I feel that I come out of every tough situation feeling stronger and wiser.
Here’s an example from my experience. Both in Jakarta and Mumbai, we had to wait for 6 months to get our own car. In Mumbai, I used a rickshaw, taxi and rental car for the first 6 months. During those months, I learned the roads in Mumbai because otherwise I would not get to my destination especially by a rickshaw. I look at this experience as a benefit of not having a car. I was miserable some times, but one day I looked outside from a taxi window and saw local people walking. Then I thought, they are not complaining because they don’t have their own car. I can afford a taxi with an AC. I should be grateful. It’s always a perspective, isn’t it?
6. Do Not Compare Yourself With Others
We all naturally seek a point of reference. It’s very normal that we compare ourselves with others. However, if comparing yourself with others makes you feel worse about yourself or makes you feel down or jealous, then I don’t think you are doing a favor to yourself or your mind. When you live overseas, it is very easy to compare yourself with other fellow expats. People pick to compare their housing, cars, their children, vacations, jobs, benefits, you name it.
My oldest daughter asked me last year why we didn’t travel when everyone else did. To this question I replied “We all come from different financial situations and values.” If we stayed home in the U.S., our friends would not travel during every single school break and holidays, but because we live overseas and live in a hardship post, our friends go on a vacation to some lovely places quite often while we always seem to be the one to stay. I’m fine with it. Since I want to be able to go to both the U.S. and Japan every summer to visit our families, I happily stay and save money for that.
7. Prioritize Relationship With Partner
If you go overseas with your partner, the relationship you have with him/her becomes a very significant part of your happiness. I’m not saying that it isn’t when you are back home. Even having a small fight with your partner impacts you more emotionally when you are overseas because you are more vulnerable. Why? When you go overseas, your partner is your best friend, family, adviser and supporter. You don’t necessarily have the same support system around you compared to when you are back home. Thus, I find the mutual understanding of each others’ needs and challenges and being considerate to your partner when living overseas holds a key to happiness.
While employed spouses are often under a lot of pressure to be successful overseas for their jobs, their accompanying spouses are also under a big amount of stress for being exposed to the local environment, managing a family especially if they have kids and having to learn everything on their own. The kids who accompany their parents also go through the same stress in a new environment. They seem to become extra sensitive to their surroundings. Focusing the relationship with your partner by trying to understand and be compassionate will have a trickle-down effect on the children. Thus, I focus on my relationship with my husband first. Inevitably my kids benefit from it.
8. Invest In Friends
When you live overseas, having friends who can understand you, empathize with you and share fun experiences with you can enrich your experiences overseas and help you go through tough time if you do encounter such situations. You really appreciate friends who extend such help overseas. I notice that my mood swing is affected by people around me, too. When someone does something sweet to me, it makes me very happy. A little goes a long way especially when someone does a nice thing to you right after you first moved to a new country and you feel lonely and overwhelmed.
You meet an ample of people throughout living overseas. However, only a handful of them stay as your friends. Once you have kids, though, you tend to be drawn more towards those people whose kids also become friends with yours. It’s interesting how the process of making friends changes after being a parent. Anyways, I make extra efforts to expand my horizon right after I arrive in a new country because that is when you have the most free time. I do keep making efforts to maintain friendship because friendship is like an investment. The more you invest in them, the more you get out of it. Do you agree?
9. Learn Local Language
It sounds very cliche, doesn’t it? Learning a host country’s local language can be very hard even if you think you will be showered by the language once you live there. Learning a new language in adulthood doesn’t come easy, but even trying a bit would make a difference. I find it helpful for me to deepen the understanding of the local culture by learning the local language even for a bit. You also appreciate more of local people’s efforts to communicate with you in English if English is not widely spoken in your host country.
When living overseas, it is surprising how much you can survive in English and without learning the local language. Still being able to recognize the scripts on streets or understanding some logic of how sentences are structured make a difference in adjusting to your host country’s environment. If you become proficient in the local language, it gives you so much power to manage your life in the way you want. In my case, it really helped me that I spoke French and Indonesian when I lived in Dakar, Senegal and Jakarta, Indonesia. Unfortunately my ability to speak Hindu is close to nil, but I did learn the scripts and can understand Hindi a bit.
10. Change Your Frame Of Reference
Our concept of happiness is relative because the measurement of satisfaction and happiness is based on individual’s frame of reference. Some might consider a certain situation unsatisfying while others would consider the same situation fortunate. We all create our happiness in our head.
When living overseas, you have to remove your spectacles from home. What I mean by this is that you have to stop analyzing and judging based on what you know from home and view with a fresh set of eyes. What is normal in your home country would not necessarily be a norm in your host country. That does not mean that one or the other is right or wrong. It’s just the differences in values, cultures and ways of living. Whether you agree or not, keeping your mind open to foreign cultures will help you see things more positively.
Sometimes we are caught up in details that we forget to appreciate the nitty gritty of life. After all wherever we live, to be able to have good health, be with my loved ones, witness my children grow up and visit our families back home once a year are the core of my happiness. The rest of the details in life is like added spices.
I have been working on this post for quite a while. I wasn’t sure when to post this, but I decided to post this sooner than later. The reason is because I feel that in a couple of years, my opinion on this topic might change as yoga has been introduced into my life.
If some of you find my “10 things I do to stay happy overseas” helpful and see a life overseas (or back home) in a different light, it would make me very happy.
Thank you for reading!