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?