This year, I entered a new stage in my life: I became an expat for the first time. As a Brit in New York City, I became a stranger in an eerily familiar place. Thanks to the sheer amount of television shows and movies featuring New York, I already felt well acquainted with Central Park, skyscrapers and yellow taxis. At the same time, the real-world version of the city is quite different. (Most romantic comedies set here gloss over the cockroaches and bedbugs.)
I’ve since come to a few conclusions about expat life. The first is that it’s hugely rewarding; even small tasks like going to the drugstore become fascinating lessons in social anthropology. But expat life can also be trying. It takes a while to really feel comfortable.
So for any of you thinking of taking up that relocation offer or just upping sticks and heading overseas, here’s a quick guide to the three emotional stages you’ll go through in the first six months.
When I first stepped off the plane in New York as a resident, rather than a visitor, everything was different. This was now home. This sense of belonging altered my relationship with every aspect of the city. This was my subway line, my falafel cart, my bodega cat. (All right, technically it was the bodega owner’s cat, but I still felt connected to it.) When I passed tourists pointing their cameras at the sights of the city, I’d feel grateful that I got to see these same views every day.
The first couple of months of expat life are a blur of activity. Finding a place to live, getting a Social Security number, buying furniture and generally getting set up in a new land consumes practically every minute of the day. At the same time, everything is an adventure. At the supermarket, I marveled over the huge range of peanut butter textures and all the unfamiliar brands.
During the honeymoon period, life feels vaguely surreal. At any point you expect to snap back to the banal reality of what your days used to be like. By magic, you don’t. You cram yourself into a subway car so full of people the doors barely close, take your place next to a man throwing peanut shells on the floor, and smile.
One day, the subway doesn’t make you smile anymore. It’s no longer a classic New York experience. It’s a bit run-down, actually. Little things started to frustrate you. Why doesn’t the US include the tax in sticker prices, like literally every other country on earth?
I’d always assumed being a Brit in New York would be like being a part of some secret club. But soon I started to feel like my experience was pretty unremarkable. It seemed as if everyone else had found out about the club and joined too. I could swear I heard more British accents in Soho than American ones.
For a couple of months, the thin veneer of adventure that had once coated my every experience began to chip away. There’s only so many times that you can explain to someone that you are not, in fact, Australian.
The best cure to the expat hangover is to make a trip back home. When I made a visit to England, I thought about how nothing much seemed to have changed there. Meanwhile, I felt as if my life had accelerated to 200 miles per hour. For the first time in ages, no one was trying to refill my coffee and I didn’t walk past a single film crew all weekend. It felt weird. I was ready to go back.
Between the highs and lows, life as an expat begins to feel normal. Now when I see a rat pulling a bagel down the subway tracks or when my cab hits an enormous pothole, I’m filled with a strange kind of pride. Just getting everyday tasks done in New York can be a trial—and that’s what makes it my city.
When you assimilate, you make new friends—real friends that you actually like spending time with, not the somewhat random people you socialized with during the first four months because they happened to be around.
These days, I’ve accepted that all prescription medicines bear the risk of death or chronic heart failure. And it seems only natural that the news stations here should spend more time covering a mugging in Brooklyn than discussing the economic and social crises rocking the world. This is all how it should be.
The nice thing about being an expat is that no matter how familiar your new home becomes, it’s always going to be a little more exciting than the place you came from. It’s going to smell weirder and taste better. And it will be one of the most satisfying experiences of your life.