The 4 Stages of Expat Island Life

Life as an island expat consists of a few stages that you will inevitably go through in your personal journey on a rock. You may go through each stage in the order they’re presented or you may find that you bounce from one back to the other in a cyclical fashion. Expat life can be a roller coaster of emotions and experiences. One minute, you are happy as a tourist arriving at a stylish hotel with a welcome drink in your hands, a warm tropical breeze caressing your neck, and the scent of fragrant flowers tantalizing your senses. The next minute, you feel the urge to act like a toddler in the midst of a full-on temper tantrum, laying on the floor, kicking, screaming, and crying. This does not work in the local shops. Trust me. There’s security footage somewhere to back this up.

From my own island expat experience, I can tell you that there’s no hard and fast rule how long each stage will last, but I have found that getting to the final stage can take a few years, at least. You can arm yourself with the best travel guides, pore over every expat website and forum, quote every review on Trip Advisor for your new host country, but that it is only a small part of the groundwork. Nothing can quite prepare you for living as an expat on a rock; you’re going to be surprised by the smallest things that will be problematic for you and the things that will bring you the most unexpected joy.

THE HONEYMOON / TOURIST STAGE

The first stage is by far the most fun, and the longer it lasts, the better. This is the Honeymoon/Tourist Stage. You will occasionally return to this stage whilst in the other stages when you find something new or when something unexpected delights you. As you explore your new host island’s attractions and enjoy the beautiful scenery and sunsets, you will experience a sense of contentment and glee at your new home. Comparing small things you notice and cultural customs to your home country seems quaint and delightful. Sipping cocktails and exploring bars and restaurants gives you a sense of excitement that you are living in a place where others only get to holiday. You actually seek out tourists just so that you can utter those three little words: I live here. A slight smugness may even settle in. Everything seems fabulous in your expat island life. You can’t wait to find out more about this new culture and to hopefully make a host of new friends. Unpacking is even fun, and it feels like the world of opportunity and adventure has never shone so brightly for you.

THE FRUSTRATION STAGE

The main problem with this second stage is that you come to the realization that the first stage (aka The Honeymoon) is now over – and it didn’t last nearly as long as you wanted it to. There will be a brief moment of denial as you reach the Frustration Stage when you start to deal with the daily routine of living in another country and a few cracks start to appear. You immediately try to spackle over them with a fresh coat of hope, but those cracks will reappear down the line again in Stage 3 too. You come to find that living on an island and holidaying on an island are two entirely separate things. Remember those small points of comparison to your home country that you thought were so charming? They may start to irritate you now. Keeping a positive outlook is a key survival strategy of this stage, as it helps to stop every little frustration from developing into something larger than it actually is. The cheap rum helps. Get to the beach, enjoy another sunset, take a large sip, and breathe. This is paradise, after all, right?

THE ACCEPTANCE STAGE

The turning point is this third stage when you become more comfortable with the culture and your surroundings. Welcome to the Acceptance Stage. Many of the cracks that you tried to cover in the second stage are back, but this time you accept them fully as simply a part of the island living experience. You are more familiar with your rock, you’ve met a few people, and the local news does not seem so alien to you anymore. You start to understand the culture better and appreciate (or at least respect) its unique qualities. Local phrases will start to enter your vocabulary, and by now, you will have a few favourite restaurants and bars that you frequent and are perhaps even getting to be known as a “regular” at. You know the short cuts around the country and may even have a favourite gecko in your kitchen.

THE INTEGRATED STAGE

The fourth stage is the Integrated Stage and will not be reached until you have lived in your host rock for at least a couple of years. Maybe a year, if you are lucky. Consider this the black belt of expat island living. Although you may never be accepted as a true local, you now feel as though this is your home and nothing seems too strange to you. You feel at ease and roll with the punches (especially the rum punches). This stage also may help you to realize your unique perspective as an integrated outsider allows you to appreciate this place in different ways than those “bahn here.”

The different stages require different coping mechanisms to see you through them. Personally, I take a deep breath and apply my life coaching techniques to myself. Although as a client, I’m a bit feisty and argumentative. Walks on the beach and a large glass of rum help too. For me, the most useful advice has been to never miss an opportunity to find enjoyment out of the smallest things; this has the power to counteract even the largest of frustrations. Island expat life teaches you not only about a new country, but a lot about yourself. Sit back, let the frustrations slide off your shoulders, and enjoy the opportunity you have to live, at least for the time being, where others only holiday.

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Have these stages proven to be true for you? If so, where are you on your expat island journey?

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Angela Coleby

About Angela Coleby

Barbados is the second expat experience for Angela, as she had previously lived in Dubai for 5 years. Although she is more than acclimatized to the heat of Barbados after the heat of the desert, she is still in a state of shock over the lack of shopping malls. After becoming used to skating, watching skiers whilst sipping a cocktail, looking at a massive aquarium, or visiting the state of the art cinema in a super-sized Dubai mall, she has had to retire her shopping "diva", only allowing her back out for annual visits to the UK when an extra suitcase is mandatory.

Angela's expat jaunts are a result of being a "trailing spouse" and being dragged from one lovely location to another. How she copes is still a mystery to her friends and there is talk amongst them of setting up a charity to support her hard life. She soldiers on in true British fashion, with a stiff upper lip as she sips another rum whilst watching the sunset or walking on the beach. She is truly a brave soldier.

She is an avid food blogger which keeps her busy and stops the full on crazy from settling in. If you hear a loud British swear in the vegetable section of a local supermarket, it will be her, gasping at the cost of cauliflower. As a creator of low carb and gluten-free recipes, she had an initial struggle to find all the ingredients she needed for her cooking. This resulted in her setting up the Barbados Gluten Free website ( www.barbadosglutenfree.com/)as a guide for all those living on and visiting the island. She did the 6 hour drive in research just for you! When a geeky girl is bored, she sets up a website.

The best thing about living on the island is that she finally has the opportunity to have a couple of dogs. Although she already had two cats (which came out with her), she could never really have dogs back in London or Dubai, as she was working full time. Now that she "works from home", she has adopted two dogs from the Ark Animal Shelter and a cat she found scavenging in her bins. A lovely long beach walk with her girls is the best start and end to the day! For more of Angela's island adventures, check out her blog, www.anotherrumpunch.com/.

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22 thoughts on “The 4 Stages of Expat Island Life

    • Definitely currently in stage 4 and more. Especially when traveling back to my home country and I find myself in the middle of the mass population and/or rush hour traffic which makes me feel anxious and home sick for my small “slow” island life community! And this second overwhelming feeling happens very quickly after the first few of hours of “Googoo eyed” shopping when I’ve been overwhelmed by soooo many choices. During this overstimulation period I think to myself ” I need rum to continue” is why I can definitely say I’m in Stage 4 and More.

    • After almost 4 years, we’re in stage 4 most of the time. However, we’ve returned to stage 2 occasionally. (Love your name for it, BTW!). Especially when having to deal with island bureaucracy!

    • After almost 4 years, we’re in stage 4 most of the time. However, we’ve returned to stage 2 occasionally. (Love your name for it, BTW!). Especially when having to deal with island bureaucracy!

  1. A bit off topic as I am a married guy and not a single woman living in the tropics. I have lived in the tropics as a yacht skipper. That said, we live on a sand bar, Cape Cod.

    The four phases are as true for here. The Cape features two months as a resort for the first world and then become a vacant space with questionable services. Getting to integration is really hard and it will eventually occur. It may take a while!

  2. Having lived as an expat on several rocks (BVI, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos, Isle of Wight, St Helena) I found the occasional trip away when I became a little too ‘rock happy’ worked wonders. But St Helena, so remote in South Atlantic with no airport and ship only every six weeks, took the longest to adjust to….. but like you say I learned a lot about myself!

  3. I like your sense of humor –an attribute that makes life easier wherever one lives!
    I have lived on our island half the year for 12 years, though stayed at our house on vacations before that and at my brother’s house since 1989.

    I would add one important ingredient that will get anyone to stage 4 faster and enrich it . That ingredient is to volunteer or find a way to give to the community where you live. You will meet other people who are involved in all that is happening of interest in addition to your continued partaking of food, drinks and the joy of beaches and boats. You will imbibe lots of gossip which is a rich trading commodity in the islands. To further your deeper, delightful immersion in “real” island life, you might start or join a book group. The discussions at your meetings will ignite your gracefully slumbering mind and fill it with even more gossip, making you a non-pareil and alert part of the larger community

    • I agree about the volunteer work and thoroughly enjoyed the work I did in Barbados. I miss book clubs though (was in 3 when I was in Dubai!). My favourite one was the group where we read Middle Eastern authors. Opened a new world of writers for me. Sadly there are no book clubs in English on my current rock. So it’s just me and the Kindle on the beach!

  4. Well said! Raising two daughters as a single mom on my rock didn’t leave much time for the first three stages; if working two, sometimes three, jobs and keeping up with school activities doesn’t get you integrated, nothing will. Coming up on my 41st anniversary of moving to St. Croix, and nothing surprises me anymore. Beach More, Worry Less.

  5. Hi, not a woman, but a Guy on a rock! I loved to read this story, and reconized a lot. Thank you for sharing!

  6. I love this article. Thank you for putting it together. Although it’s not another country, I am prepping to move to the west side of Puerto Rico in November from Pennsylvania!! Incredibly excited, but also nervous. I started a gratitude journal and plan to maintain that once I’m relocated, I agree that being grateful for what you have and I think taking it moment by moment is going to be my key.
    Xo

  7. Love your story. It’s so true. We have lived on island for two years now and wouldn’t even
    consider going back. And yes rum helps. Lol.

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