The feeling of isolation, loneliness and anxiety while also facing culture and language barriers during a relocation are known challenges when living as an expat.
What happens when you heighten those challenges with a global pandemic?
In essence, it requires more effort and mental strength to cope and the risk of failure, burn out and unhappiness is alarming.
We are past the pandemic – you may say. And yes, we are, but the short- and long-term effects are hanging around. So are the lessons to learn from it.
I will get back to that.
MY OWN EXPAT EXPERIENCE DURING COVID
I had been living in Provence, France for about 7 months. Just barely into routines and everyday life. Despite the number of times we have moved, it still takes time to settle, and 7 months is not much. I had a new network and friendship circle but not yet on a “family away from home” level.
My children were slowly settling in. They were coping well with the huge change it is, coming from an ultra-international environment in the Middle East, to a local and less flexible environment.
In short, we were at the stage where you still try to get out and meet people. Where you try to get to know the people you have meet, even better. You know where the baker is. You do not know where and how to get a prescription for the annual mammography.
I had at the time just registered my company in France, started French lessons and were balancing my normal high pace towards meeting the pace of Provence.
Then came Covid and then came lock down.
Home schooling began. Working from home began. Looking at my inventory and business with frustration began. Spending time with my husband and two children 24/7 began.
We received all Covid related information in French, rolled up our sleeves and tried to make the most of it.
EXPATS ARE USED TO CHANGE AND ADAPTATION
Being used to changes and adaptation would seem like an advantage. It was not. At all. The additional Covid rules, on top of all the other changes had a huge impact on our family dynamics. We are tied really close together, because of our expat lifestyle. However, we are also depending a lot on external input and socializing to feel connected to where we are and indeed to be able to bring the right energy back to the dinner table at night.
Expats are depending a lot on the external input and socializing to feel connected and integrated.
Normally my husband travels a lot. This allows him to do his thing and me to do my thing. Without having to align with each other. All of the sudden we were inside a house getting frustrated with each other, interfering in our individual roadmaps. Helping the kids with their home schooling at the same time (a lot of it in French), left no air for me to at least try to get some external input.
SOUNDS SIMILAR TO OTHER FAMILIES IN LOCKDOWN?
It is. And then not at all.
The difference is big and are to be found in the simple, yet easy to miss, thing that in order to integrate and get out of the long-stretched period of loneliness and stress during a transition – > human connection is crucial.
It was hard and turned me into a withering version of myself.
It is similar to the need for drinking water. When your glass has been close to empty for 6-9 weeks (The transition time, where you find yourself in no-mans-land) you are really dehydrated and need watering. Throwing Covid and lockdown, in an already close to empty glass, makes you struggle to find a way to make the last bit of water last. Without knowing when to refill.
That was hard and turned me into a withering version of myself. I was gasping for external input, the energy you get from others and the need for an identity. Seeing that I had also lost the opportunity to push my small business in France was no help.
WHAT IF WE HAD ALREADY BEEN FULLY INTEGRATED?
I guess it would have been somewhat different.
Had we been fully integrated in France at the time of lockdown and Covid restrictions it would have been easier. I am guessing. More water would have been in the glass and surplus bigger.
However – an expat lifestyle does come with the need to know that you are able to go and see your family and friends back home, or in other countries you have lived, when needed and in emergencies.
The physical distance can be translated into a ditto mental distance.
BUT, THE REST OF THE WORLD WERE ALSO PROHIBITED FROM SEEING FAMILY AND FRIENDS
That is correct. But the physical distance makes a difference. You are all of the sudden not in the same boat as your family and friends back home, while experiencing the uncertainties of a global crisis.
You do not follow the same restrictions and cannot endure this calibrated – side by side. That difference (distance) wraps you in a duvet of vulnerability and a feeling of being very much alone and kinda left out of the family. More importantly you feel even more unable to step in and help.
I am too far away.
To explain it better, try to imagine that you dad got Covid, and you were living 30 min. drive from him. Now try to imagine that you are 12 hours flight away and that you cannot leave the country. Despite being able to enter “his”.
Regardless of whether you can go and see him, as per law, the distance and the uneven restrictions creates deep uncertainty and anxiety.
Not to mention that you cannot necessarily call you family when you are in a dark hole, because of time zones.
The importance of seeing and being there for your family is key. In the common acknowledgement of this, return tickets to your home country is often included in the benefit and compensation plan for an expatriate.
EXPATS IN GENEREAL DURING COVID
Seeing, listening, and talking to my expat network I can certainly say that expats with a “lone wolf” personality have suffered a lot. It seems that the absence of the usual, self-chosen limited social interaction they used to get from colleagues, have made them close even more in on themselves. Resulting in loneliness and frustration.
The extroverted chatterbox has been deprived of the physical interaction and connection but seems to have been managing a bit better as (s)he is good at reaching out and establishing contact. However, the slim odds of seeing someone and having social interactions has a great effect on them too.
Not only do they become frustrated and non-energized, they also tend to lose some of their their creative and innovative pace. Ultimately resulting is poor performance – > leading to frustration and guilt.
The same as everyone else? No. Distance is a factor.
Surely there are more nuances to notice based on whether the expat lives alone or with his/her family. The access to physical touches, like a hug, holding hands etc. is also a factor. The physical touching releases oxytocin which has an impact on wellbeing.
To wrap this up I have decided to dig a bit deeper into this subject, as data is currently limited.
Therefore, as promised in the intro, I will get back to you with more specifics on the Expat-Covid-effects once I have finished my survey on this.
So, stay with me to get the results.
Kia Holm Reimer