Restlessness Amidst Expats - Is the Grass Really Greener Elsewhere?

I grew up moving from one house to another, and to tell the truth I didn’t enjoy it very much then. After all, how can any of us take pleasure uprooting our lives and having to start all over again in a new location?

Research points out that change in living conditions is considered a major stressful life event. Moving homes ranks close to losing someone to death or going through a divorce from a stress level perspective. So, how does this apply to expatriates’ lives? Is there a shift that occurs after we start living abroad? Somehow, it seems that many of us develop a constant need to seek out opportunities to move, to yet, another location.

There is a restlessness amidst expatriates– an inability to put down roots.

To get answers to the veracity of this statement, I did some research and relied on my personal experience.

Here is what I found:

The Three Year Syndrome – Typically, companies send employees on a 3-5 year assignments abroad,  which might explain how the Three Year Syndrome concept began. It coincides with another common occurrence at the 3 years mark – expatriates’ desire to change. They feel bored, somehow stuck and without a positive outlook for their current situation. Many end up deciding that the solution is to move again. The unfortunate truth is that moving may not be doable nor advantageous at that time.

Curiously, even the ancient Japanese culture has a wise saying related to the three-year period – 石の上にも三年 –  sit patiently for three years even on a rock , which means that perseverance brings success. Japanese companies tend to move their executives around on a three-year cycle often quoting this phrase to  justify the interval abroad.

This feeling of wanting to move every three or so years has hit me several times. And, what’s important to note is that this behavior started naturally due to my constant moves and got incorporated as a habit now. To this day, I approach our family’s schedule and even the way I organize our homes accordingly to this internal clock that says – we will move away in a few years.

The benefit is that I’m always ready for change.  As for disadvantages, there are many – from harmless ones such as planting only fast growing plants, preferably in vases, to more serious ones such as postponing making strong ties to new friends.

Expat Addiction – Be aware – being an expatriate can be addictive.

Our identities may become so intertwined with being a foreigner; we may start to enjoy standing out and NOT understanding our surroundings, surprisingly make us happy.

According to an interesting article on Wall Street Journal last year, the expat lifestyle is indeed habit-forming. In this text, a long time expat, Natalia Timmerman Blotskaya states that “the moment people become expats, they enter a whole new state of mind.” By observing expatriates over the years, I sense some truth in Blotskaya’s description.

Some of us get a shot of adrenaline from everyday must-dos while living in a foreign country. Learning a new language, being able to navigate through traffic in the developing world, understanding our doctor by the means of sign language, or surviving a trip to the local grocery store, are all activities that make us feel accomplished, and rightfully so.

So, what is wrong with feeling special while accomplishing so much?

Dependency. 

Unconsciously we may want to perpetuate situations to feed the need to be different. Being a successful person despite of all the adversities of living abroad may also seem admirable to us. It’s critical, however, to pay attention to what really incentivizes you. Observe if your actions are indeed helping or if they are reactions to some part of your expat ego.

The Grass is Always Greener Elsewhere– Once you get to live abroad, you may really enjoy your international experience. By talking to other expatriates you find out that there are other places around the globe where it’s possible to duplicate the same, or even create a better lifestyle for yourself.

When you’ve moved a few times too many, it’s easy to decide to move again, right?

In contrast, you may dislike living away from your home country, and constantly remind yourself, and those around you, that things back home are much better.

 

The myth of – the grass is always greener elsewhere – can make us feel unfulfilled in the present and longing for an uncertain future. This mind-set is usually rooted on lack of commitment to our ongoing lives. It causes us to believe that there is something better out there, and rather than enjoying what we have now, we wonder what else could be. As you may have guessed, this type of behavior is ineffective and should be avoided if your goal is to lead a happy life.

Now, ask yourself the following questions:

  •  Do I frequently experience the desire to move due to boredom or because I long for change?
  • Are some of my behaviors motivated by my expat ego? For example, do I seek events where I’m the foreigner and because of that I feel special?
  • How invested am I in my current friendship relations? Are you holding back because you may move again soon?
  • Am I constantly saying that things are better at home? Observe if you say this to other people, and most importantly, if you say to yourself on a regular basis.
  • How happy am I with my answers to these questions?

Certainly, there aren’t correct answers here. But, it pays to remember that you are the one in charge of the quality of life you have. If you think some of your behaviors aren’t serving you, you are the ONLY one who can choose to take another path.