Upside Down Expat

Stepping into the unknown

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This article takes a step by step look at the risks of moving overseas, and how the real risks are not what we initially see.

The first conscious risk I ever took, I was two.

It was a warm summers’ afternoon and my mum was stood outside, pegging wet clothes onto the washing line. My baby sister, around ten months at the time, slept soundly in her pram, while I played with my toys contentedly inside.

I remember shouting out to my mum. I wanted my dolls pram from my bedroom upstairs. She said she’d get it down when she was done.

I must have been just as impatient as a child, because I got tired of waiting after a while. I stomped upstairs, pulled out the burgundy buggy from my bedroom, pushed it to the top of the stairs and determinedly hauled it down the first step onto the secondary landing. Holding on tight to the handles, I clumsily twisted it around, ready to start the descent down. I remember looking over the edge to the bottom of the steep stairs and suddenly feeling very scared.

The fear I felt in that moment undoubtedly made it my first memory. The sudden realisation that my personal safety was at stake, my exciting plan now potentially, a huge mistake.

It can be the same for those of us that take the plunge to move overseas. In the beginning, we often only think of the opportunities; the long-term risks we seldom see. Yet step by step, the risks become apparent;   

The idea:

All big life changes start similarly; with an idea, a daydream or a lifelong ambition. Yet for many, for whatever reason; fear, commitments, a lack of confidence or chance, it stops here; never becoming more than a distant possibility. Yet for others, once the thought is ignited, it becomes impossible not to light it.

The decision:

Next, perhaps once we’ve received perceived needed approval, we set the intention and decide to go for it. We start to save, apply for visas and look for jobs. This stage can be both exciting and filled with nervous anticipation as we risk failing in our endeavours and, perhaps, one of the reasons some never strive, coming to terms with the possibility that our dream is lost forever.

The move:

The dream begins to become a reality; visas are granted, houses are rented and sold, and employment contracts are signed.  It’s time to leave it all behind. Enthused and excited we start to say our goodbyes. We also, perhaps for the first time, feel the fear. The risks are clear; we are leaving behind friends and family and taking a huge step out of our comfort zone into the unknown. However, the amazing adventure overshadows any discomfort and doubt.

Starting out

We land overseas and start to find our feet.  It feels both fantastic and a little frightening. It’s an exciting adventure yet it requires a lot of energy. For some, exertion exceeds excitement, and the craving of the comforting validation from those we know can mean many return home, back into the arms of their loved ones. They return with a suitcase full of experience; enriched and enlightened, yet largely unaffected.

For others, there’s no question of jumping off the roller-coaster of emotion, filled with new experiences, new people, and discoveries about ourselves. The thrills silence the screams of loneliness, homesickness and threats to our identity. We see that life has many more possibilities that we could have ever seen had we not taken the leap, and we feel an immense sense of gratefulness for the amazing opportunity.

The transition

After a while, the excitement starts to subside. We’re likely now comfortable with our new country, connections and career, and, with less effort now required, can begin to take our new life in our stride.  It can feel like a relief, yet once off the emotional high, we can start to feel a little fragile. Feelings, like loneliness, guilt, homesickness and questions around our identity, there from the start, but before transcended by exhilaration and exploration, arise. This phase can be challenging; and we begin to see how the downsides of moving overseas, over time, could affect us emotionally and mentally.

Settling

Life settles down, yet there’s an unsettling sense of time passing us by.  As, while we still thrive on our new life, missed milestones of both our own and those of our loved ones, frequently afflict us with misgivings and guilt. Some of our own life challenges may have also left us reeling, normal ups and downs of life, yet when we’re faraway only further enhancing our uneasy feelings.  We may wonder at times if it was worth it. Yet without fail something; a moment, a memory or a blissful sunny day, reminds us why we stay. We reflect how much we’ve changed. Our identity is far stronger, no longer caught up in what we believe others see, but one that is ever evolving to whatever we choose ourselves to be. We run less from loneliness and instead find strength in our independence. We’ve become experts at choosing company wisely, only spending time with those we truly value.  We’re more open to new experiences, more appreciative of every moment, more adaptable to life’s changes and more resilient during challenging phases.  Most poignantly, our perception of life has significantly changed, and, where once we felt resigned, it is no longer an option to accept a life that feels mundane.

Moving overseas, like most big life changes, comes with risks we often can’t see. Life becomes more complex than we could have imagined; both amazing and distressing feelings able to exist simultaneously.

Yet when we think about  life and ourselves back home, we remember how much we have overcome, experienced and grown. It becomes clear the real risk would have been to never take that first exciting step into the unknown, to see how rich, mysterious, magical and special life can be.

The risk didn’t work out for the two year old version of me on the stairs that summers’ day. I tripped up, toppled down, hit the deck and had to have stitches in my head. But, while it wasn’t what I planned, I did what I set out to do; I got my pram! And that’s life. Every step we take, there’s a risk we’ll make a mistake, fall and break. Sometimes we will. Mostly though, we’ll walk on, making exciting discoveries as we go. The real risk is to never know.

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