Lifestyle & Culture

Jackie Harding: Family and friends you leave behind will never understand the expat lifestyle

We “expats,” or internationals, spend a lot of time making sense of our lives in foreign countries, but family members and friends who have never experienced life abroad perceive our lives very differently.

Many expats have had that moment when they become aware of the envy of someone who sees only the upside of life in a foreign country. That slightly mean comment when someone thinks you are just “living the life,” especially if you are a spouse who either doesn’t need to work, or who can’t because of visa or language.

Rather, we’re using the opportunity to embrace the overseas experience by travelling and exploring our new surroundings.

The downside of social media is that we only post the “ups,” the photos of fun trips and exciting new experiences. They don’t show the loneliness we all experience at first, or the homesickness that can rear its ugly head occasionally.

Friends and family can have a skewed view of the expat lifestyle, and I have certainly become aware of that over the years.



Comparisons can be a minefield when chatting with a friend from home, as I realized recently when I laughed at the United Kingdom’s response to snow. As I scoffed at the airports’ responses to less than an inch of snow, I could see a patriotic fervor begin to burn in the eyes of a fellow Brit.

It’s tough to talk about contrasts between countries without sounding dismissive or patronizing. So, if you have disparities to share, then be careful …remember you used to think that way too.

Travel in Europe is a benefit that many Americans find incredible. In their eyes, Europe is a far-flung destination that involves expensive flights. For those of us living here it is an adventure opportunity involving a cheap flight or a road trip.

Often my friends in the United States comment on the fact that I travel so much not realizing that, for example, a trip to Paris is the same as a trip from Boston to New York … just more exotic! Travel within Europe is easy with few borders and short flights that cost less than a dinner for two, so why wouldn’t you?

Travel envy can sometimes rear its head but I just counter that with an invitation to come and visit me.



Many of my ex-expat friends have commented on how difficult it is when returning home permanently. We miss the lifestyle, the adventure, so we find ourselves constantly saying, “When we lived in….” After a while, it becomes apparent people don’t want to hear about an experience or people they cannot relate to.

Their eyes glaze over as they listen to your story about learning a new language or being with friends you made whilst away. We all enjoy a good travel story, but the people who enjoy them most are those who have lived their own.

So, find an expat group back home and meet up with fellow internationals that will all love to listen and share their own tales.

Friendships abroad can be intense, as you are going through the same gamut of feelings, experiences and emotions. A friend you only know for a short time in your new “home” can become as intimate as a family member, and this can cause jealousy with old friends left behind.

Don’t expect old friends to be interested in your new friends. They will probably never meet and don’t want to hear about how funny or dear to you the other is. Focus on the friend whose company you are in and think how you would feel if they were comparing you to a new or better model.


Of course, understanding our unusual lives helps, and sharing the odd things we do to cope can bring a moment of realization. On a recent trip home I was chatting with a friend about having an e-reader. “Oh I would never have one of those,” he said dismissively.

When I explained that living in a foreign country limited your opportunities to buy or borrow English language books, he was amazed! “Wow! I had never thought of that,” he responded.

I told him of the delight I felt when I find a local library or bookstore with English language books and the thrill of being home and being able to just wander around a bookstore looking at hundreds of options. I am literally “like a kid in a candy store” when this occasion arises!

One of the things my friends and family find very amusing is the list of inexplicable items I fill my luggage with each time I return home. My family used to find very odd my stipulation that UK teabags be brought to the US each time they visited.

Now I load my luggage with not only British foods I miss but also U.S. essentials (after living there for 12 years) such as Tide stain removal pens, Tom’s Of Maine toothpaste and large bags of chocolate chips.

“Surely you can buy chocolate chips in the Netherlands?” US friends ask in amazement. Of course I can. But the size of the bags are so small they barely make a batch of choc-chip cookies! I often wonder if airport security giggles at the odd items to be found in my luggage.

When they comment I just smile and say, “We expats need to bring some of the old ‘home’ with us when we travel back to the new ‘home.’ ”

About the author:

Jackie Harding was born in the United Kingdom. As a longtime expat, she’s lived in Boston for 12 years, and in the Netherlands for the past seven years.

Trained as a nurse in the U.K., she worked for nine years in the United States for as a special education teacher’s assistant. Since moving to the Netherlands, she has discovered writing. Writing for Dispatches since 2016, Jackie has written about her travels around Europe as well as about expat issues.

She also covered Women’s March Amsterdam.

She’s married to British businessman Martin Harding and is the mother of two international adult children.

You can read more of Jackie’s work for Dispatches here.


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