What Expat Life is Really Like…First Year Challenges

It’s hard to believe that we have been in Singapore for eight months! We are not the newbie expats anymore, with new expats hitting Singapore all the time. I’m actually able to help others settle in now.

It’s a fun stage. We have been here long enough to feel largely secure and aren’t staring down a looming relocation on the horizon. It’s a sweet spot for expats or a terrible waiting period, depending on your perspective.

For those back home wondering how we are doing or those curious about expat life, here are my thoughts on this stage and how our family is faring.

What You’d Expect

Potential expats understand that it is a big deal to uproot your family and move around the world. We anticipate the drastic life changes, experience preparation stress and survive the move. Check, check and check.

Was it stressful? Incredibly. Within the realm of our past experience? Yes, with some extra logistics and intensity mixed in. But all expected.

Likewise, unless you have never moved before, you expect the resulting homesickness, relationship shifts, and adaptation time. They are all there. And like other relocations, you have to walk through those pains and griefs to embrace the new life ahead of you.

Finally, you anticipate the culture shock. You might have been well-prepared by cross-cultural training, visits to your host country or connections to your new home. You may be a cosmopolitan jet-setter. But you will still have culture shock. Most expats understand this will happen and prepare the best we can.

Those are the generalized things we know and prepare for. But what is it really like on the other side and what catches expats by surprise?

What You Don’t See Coming

  • Loss of identity/purpose: Many expats and dependents struggle with this. Why? Well, it turns out that when you restructure every element of your life, you can feel unanchored. Our relationships, work, schools, and even geography give us crucial elements of identity. Change them all up and it’s easy to feel adrift.
  • How much time it takes to do EVERYTHING: Back home we joked about long lines at the DMV or any other government office. You knew you were in for the long haul if you had to visit those places. But as an expat, even the simplest, daily tasks take longer to accomplish because they are new or because you are not a citizen of your host country.
  • Relationships: How you meet people, the ways you socialize, discussion topics, and experiences all change. Parts of your personality that have been unseen or neglected often emerge and catch you off guard. You will interact differently than you do at home and may be surprised by how your family responds too.
  • The great benefits: If you made the decision to move, you likely did so in part for the perks expat life offers. Travel, financial benefits, and excellent schooling options are wonderful when available, but they aren’t the greatest benefits of cross-cultural living: The growth and changes in your family are. Our family is developing deeper empathy for minority cultures, understanding of global issues, flexibility, and love for people from other cultures.

The Robbins’ Nest

Our family has experienced all of the things above in our first year. For all of us, being removed from our loved ones remains the toughest challenge. There are days that we wonder if we should have stayed home or come another time. Our kids struggle with aspects of school and life in ways that can rend my heart.

BUT, every week has more graces than the last. When we look around us, we see evidences that we are where we need to be. We have learned more about the world and ourselves than staying in our home culture could have taught us. Our experiences have shaped us for the better. And I don’t know anywhere in the world where raising a family comes without challenges!

The Lord is bringing good, beautiful gifts to us even on our darkest days. I trust that with more time, we will find He has done immeasurably more than we could think to ask. We will share that with you too.

In the meantime, if you have questions or comments, reach out to us…we love hearing from you!


Caveat: I cannot possibly represent the unique complexities of every expat situation. Those who have read this blog know we are in a first-world country and other relocations vary greatly from ours. So I am sticking to things I think expats face wherever they are….if you think I’m missing something, share it with us!

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