Moving away from home can be an incredibly difficult, isolating and stressful process. Moving away from home with depression is even more difficult. Moving away from home with depression when your main trigger is isolation and separation from your friends and family is, in a nutshell, a little bit intense. I’ve always maintained however, that I will not let my mental health dictate the experiences I have in life and the places I go. If I did, I would have spent the past five years in bed with my dog. Admittedly I still do spend a decent amount of time in my bed (I’m here now!), without my dog (Sookie had to stay in England *sobs*) but an acceptable amount of bed time is cool, right? Also I’m in my massive new bed in freaking Saudi Arabia, not in my bed in my dads attic in Sunderland – which is a pretty massive achievement amirite?
My idea is to create a few posts about the more difficult elements of being an expat, and how you can deal with them. Whether you are depressed or not – I think moving away from normality and your friends and family is always going to be a tough step. Unless of course you despise your family, in which case I have no words of advice for you. Be free young bird, enjoy your new family-free adventure! So without further ado, continue on to read my scrambled ramblings about four challenges I’ve faced and how I’ve overcome them. (Or more usually, how I have awkwardly bumbled my way around until someone took pity on me and showed me the way).
- Saying Goodbye.
I hate saying goodbye. I have a completely irrational fear of being left alone and no-one loving me DESPITE THE FACT I HAVE NEVER BEEN LEFT ALONE. Now a psychologist I am not, but that makes very little sense to me. Welcome to my brain. But I do hate saying bye – to the point where I’ve misted up taking my last ever parcel from a postman who was retiring before, I mean seriously.
Saying goodbye to your family and friends sucks. I have a number of tried and tested strategies for dealing with this – please note I am not guiding you to do the same. They are as follows:
- Try and be very late for something every time you are leaving someone. Ain’t no time for emotion when you are frantically throwing suitcases on to a train as its pulling out of the station.
- Tell friends/family members you don’t want to cry so for them to write their emotional stuff in a letter for you to read on the plane. As soon as their back is turned, BURN THE LETTER. Do not read, I repeat, do not read. They’ll never know and you’ll remain tear-free. You can level up on this one by texting them saying ‘OMG your letter was soooo emosh it made me cry *crying face crying face*, gonna miss u soooooo much. bye <3’. You got this.
- Arriving in your new country and CULTURE SHOCK.
Arriving in a country where you speak little to no of the language was always going to be difficult. Jeddah airport is an experience and a half let me tell you. I do believe they have just been awarded #1 worst airport in the entire world for reals and for good reason.
Some tips for your arrival in your new country when you literally have no idea what the hell is going on:
- Look sad and lost. Like a puppy. A helpful man came over and literally wheeled me and my bags on a trolley to the right queue and told me to stay put and not run off, like I was a particularly naughty child. I didn’t even mind that I was being patronized to the nth degree, I had an instruction and I knew how to fulfill it.
- If the process takes forty five thousand years just keep smiling. Don’t get mad, don’t try and lie down on the floor weeping, and DEFINITELY DON’T point at the custom officers phone and suggest that they stop texting for a minute and do their job. They don’t like it and they hold all of the power to get you into the country. If you are a pain (yes this was me) you will end up waiting an hour longer to get through. Bear in mind things will be different in your new country, just stay quiet and polite and eventually you will get there.
- Learn a couple of words of the local language before you arrive. Even if it’s just ‘hello’ (marhaba) and ‘thank you’ (shukran). People appreciate it when you make an effort. This occasionally backfires when you either pronounce it incorrectly and say something obscure/borderline offensive but you can’t please everyone all the time.
- Make sure, if there is a dress code or traditional dress that you are expected to wear when you arrive, that you have read up about it beforehand and are prepared. For instance in Saudi, women should wear an abaya and a headscarf when arriving in the country.
- Have your car or transfer ready booked for your arrival. Try and have your phone open to international calls so you can ring whoever is meeting you and let them know when you have arrived. Then you can ring them again when you have stood in the same queue without moving for 45 minutes and you are starting to panic and they can reassure you that this is ‘normal’ and you’ll be out ‘soon’ – *repeat this step of the process a number of times*.
- Making friends….aka an introverts nightmare
I am lucky enough to have a lot of great friends in England, starting from scratch is absolutely horrifying for me. I HATE SMALL TALK.
Generally speaking I’m quite shy. I get awkward when I have to talk to strangers and inelegantly grasp at straws of conversation to somehow fill any silences that occur. Most of the time (I don’t know why) I end up talking about how sweaty I am. Like anyone wants to know. I’m not exactly painting myself as prime friend material when I’m constantly talking about my damp pits. And I can hear myself doing it; “stop itttt” I’m screaming inside “get a grip and stop being weird” which increases the panic and worsens the situation. I’m cringing typing this because I hate to recognize how awkward I am. Urgh.
So when we moved here, Paul who knew about this undercurrent of awkwardness gave me a pep talk. “you need to immerse yourself” he said “go and join clubs and talk to people”. Sounds easy enough right? Wrong. There is never anyone anywhere here, it is so quiet that every time I tried to immerse as instructed I was the only one there. I don’t know if you can be immersed in an empty gym, or coffee shop. I did make one friend in my first week – it was a stray cat and I’m suspicious its friendship was heavily reliant on the treats I was providing.
You probably don’t want to follow these ‘tips’ – but maybe view this as a what-not-to-do guide.
- Think up some new safe conversation topics to break out when the awkward silences get too much. Know your audience; don’t talk about anything offensive or too weird. Don’t slag off their home country. Don’t accidentally call Canadians American. Don’t emulate their accent after speaking to them for three seconds, they will assume you are mocking them even if its actually unintentional. Don’t talk about sweat.
- I hate to say this – but Paul is right, you need to immerse yourself. Go to classes, the gym, the library, coffee mornings – whatever – as much as you can so you can talk to people. If people aren’t there try going back at a different time of the day, maybe evenings or weekends. Immerse your socks off. Force people to talk to you (refer to point above) however pick your moment wisely. Don’t march up to someone you’ve met once, singing happy birthday (you saw it on facebook) to be told it’s ALSO the anniversary of her mother’s death and she doesn’t celebrate it.
- Accept every single invitation you get given to anything. Particularly in a compound, everyone is in the same boat and has been the ‘newbie’ at some point. People are nice and they will invite you over and you must go (even if they are weird). You are the expat equivalent of that Z-list celebrity that will turn up to the opening of an envelope. At least you know people will be there – talk to them. Go to organized nights. Don’t however go to the trick or treating event by yourself when you don’t have any kids. It looks weird apparently.
- If you stay at home it is going to be almost impossible to meet people. You have to meet people at the office and you can talk about work! Which is a safe topic! Feel free to bribe these people with cakes and biscuits.
- Battling Homesickness.
As you might have gathered I’m not exactly drowning in new friendships in my new home, but I have managed to make mates with a few nice people so we usually have the chance to socialize every week in one way or another. It might be going for a bbq at the beach or going to dinner, or the cinema and all of these are appreciated HUGELY as it means I’m not in the house re-watching Pretty Little Liars on Netflix every night. Of course it is not the same as having your friends from home and family around you and in all seriousness sometimes it SUCKS when you miss home.
- Use modern technology. I had to leave my dog, Sookie, in the UK with my dad when I left and I miss her an indescribable amount. I miss how she smells (yeah weird I know shut up) and for some reason Skype have not included a smell functionality in their software. Yes, I skype my dog, probably an unhealthy amount, and yes – she has absolutely no idea I’m there and just looks around puzzled at the sound of my disembodied, distorted voice sobbing her name over and over again. But whatevs.My two best friends are in England and Australia so we do a three way skype and I watch enviously as they drink a wine, I make them describe the taste to me in minute detail and then we have a skype dance party. Pretty wild huh?Whatsapp means you can text people around the world for free and my family has a group chat on it so we can keep in touch. It’s mainly used as an emergency channel of communication when we are trying to skype and inevitably my mother can’t make it work. EVERY SINGLE TIME.Instagram and Facebook are great told for sharing pictures and experiences of your new country so your friends and family can ‘see’ your life. Use all of these, they will keep you connected and make you feel you are still relevant in your friends lives.
- Plan your trips home in advance, if you know you are going to see your family or friends in X amount of months it gives you something to look forward to and work towards. I know I am going home in February which is just 3 ½ months away – easy!
- I have a lot of photos in my house of the people that I’m close to (yes and my dog as well) which means I have memories around me if I’m feeling a bit homesick. The flip side of this is that they can make you feel homesick when you’re sat at home minding your own business but in that instance you can skype them. Or cry into a pillow.
- Read the letters your friends or family wrote you when you left. AHA! Caught red handed. YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO BURN THEM GO AND THROW THEM ON A FIRE IMMEDIATELY.
Moving away from everything and everyone is tough, theres no doubt about that. But I honestly felt like I would regret it if I didn’t at least try Saudi for a while. And despite my limited friend list, occasional crippling homesickness and the fact that truly, I really am sweaty a high percentage of the time; I’m very glad I came. Its an amazing country and an amazing experience and I can’t wait to find out more.