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Acknowledging this thing we call expat anxiety.

Author: Mimi Ruivah
5 Minutes

Acknowledging this thing we call expat anxiety.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

It is a grey and gloomy day. Outside, on my terrace, I can see the wind slowly picking up, and before I knew it, my empty water cans were flying away. It was a little stressful for a second, but I was able to save all of them, and then it became a joke between me and my friend. These days, sitting and working in the comforts of my home has turned out to be a blessing and a curse. While having the need to remind myself every day that I am not on a holiday and that I still have so much work to do, I am also enjoying the fact that I do not need to make small talks. It is not something I particularly enjoy. I dislike it so much that it often triggers my anxiety. On the way back to the office from a meeting, an Indian colleague once asked me, “Mimi, are you seeing anyone?” and the other colleague added, “Yes, do you have no plans of getting married?” I am not lying when I say I wanted to jump out of the car. However, I noticed that whenever conversations like these popped out outside of my work life, with non-Indian acquaintances, I do not really mind it. In fact, I am often an open book!

On the way back to the office from a meeting, an Indian colleague once asked me, “Mimi, are you seeing anyone?” and the other colleague added, “Yes, do you have no plans of getting married?” I am not lying when I say I wanted to jump out of the car. However, I noticed that whenever conversations like these popped out outside of my work life, with non-Indian acquaintances, I do not really mind it. In fact, I am often an open book!

I was speaking to a friend from Thailand when I realized this— she pointed it out. We then spent the next few minutes talking about expat life and the anxiety that comes with it. We met in Thailand when I was working there since then she’s moved too and has been living in Australia. Though expat anxiety is not a new idea, I never really thought of my behaviour as a sign of it.

Growing up, my family was in Thailand almost every other summer holiday. We had relatives who were settled there and would visit them often, hence Thailand felt like home as well. It still does. Nonetheless, moving there was a whole different story. Between Thai language classes, teaching English, and trying to have conversations with the locals, I would always be worn out at the end of the day. I missed talking to people in English, and for a few months, I really struggled. My relatives were no longer living there, and the people I knew lived towards the outskirts of Bangkok, which was far from where I was. To add up to that, I was not aware of InterNations at that time. In a few months’ time, I had a rhythm. Wake up, grab coffee and breakfast on the way to work, leave work, grab dinner, and an English language movie before I went to sleep. I had become oblivious to what was happening around me. The state of obliviousness, now that I think of it, was my defence mechanism to expat anxiety. To be honest, this is also how I deal with living in India. I can already feel my friends shaking their heads because they want me to be more aware of my surroundings, for my own safety. However, as someone who struggled with anxiety from a very young age, I have learned to create a safe bubble for myself. I cannot even begin thinking about stepping out of it. Maybe this is why, after living in India for over a decade, India still feels as foreign to me as those of you who have just arrived. The thing is, it does not matter how well-travelled you are, culture shock at work and outside of work will happen at some point of your expat life in India.

The thing is, it does not matter how well-travelled you are, culture shock at work and outside of work will happen at some point of your expat life in India.

Expat anxiety is something we’ve all experienced as expatriates. It is almost impossible to be living in a foreign country and not encounter it. While it could be a tool to push us to meet deadlines and do better with work, when experienced with so much intensity, it shuts us down. This is where it becomes an issue. I reached out to a couple some of my classmates from college who are now certified therapists, to get their perspective on this issue. They all started with this phrase, “Well, it depends on the level of anxiety.” They also gave me tips on how to manage anxiety as expats, which I will share with you today.

Moving to a new environment.

Moving to a new country means new language, new cuisine, new cultural norms, new work ethics, and new people. This can be nerve-racking for a lot of us. The Indian culture and way of life is different from everyone else, there is something unique about it. Many a time, adjusting and adapting to it can be difficult. Let’s take the culture of staring, for example, it is not true that people will stare at you based on what you wear. I could be wearing a kurta and I will still be stared at! Though I have gotten used to this now, it was an aspect that scared my siblings and me during our initial years in India. I will not even start with the language!

Here is the key to dealing with this, take things one day at a time. I know, it is a cliché. It works though! When we try to learn or do everything at one go, it can become too overwhelming. After the honeymoon period in India is over and the delhi-belly, the heat, the stress of working with the locals, or some unpleasant incident sets in altogether, remember to deal with it one at a time.

Expat anxiety is something we’ve all experienced as expatriates. It is almost impossible to be living in a foreign country and not encounter it. While it could be a tool to push us to meet deadlines and do better with work, when experienced with so much intensity, it shuts us down.

Loneliness and isolation.

This is something we talk about a lot at We The Expats; we feel that it is a crucial aspect of expat life. While I was completely against the expat bubble, originally, I now understand why it exists. As a matter of fact, I think it is important that it exists! In situations like these though, it is important to put things in perspective— your life as an expat in India is temporary. Nevertheless, be active. Meet people. If you struggling to befriend a local, go to expat events! If you’re a spouse, get involved with a school project, or volunteer with an NGO! These are great ways to meet people!

There are several triggers for anxiety, and though it will be different for everyone, these are two more common ones an expat experiences while living abroad.

Photography by: Laurice Manaligod and Katsia Jazwinska

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