5 Things That Scare Me About Being an Expat

recycled art

When I closed the final page of Daring Greatly by Brené Brown last month, I knew it would be a book that stuck with me. While reading, I came to realize I am wretched at expressing vulnerability. I occasionally become angry or frustrated, but I absolutely dread feeling sad. In fact, I will go to great lengths to avoid feeling sadness.

In mulling over my inability to be vulnerable, I started thinking about life as an expat.

This is a good life, for so many reasons: The ease of saving money. The accessibility of travel. The opportunity to immerse ourselves in new experiences. The ability to live a flexible lifestyle that suits us. Knowing that we won’t ever regret not knowing.

But if I’m going to be completely honest – which is exactly what I’m trying to do – there are aspects of the expatriate life that terrify me. 

And so, bearing my vulnerability for all the world to see, here are five things that scare me about being an expat.

1. Being sick or injured. More specifically, going to the doctor.

Obviously expats go to doctors in their home countries all the time. In fact, I’m told there are a few decent clinics here. But I absolutely dread the day I have to go.

I’m one of those people who habitually makes appointments for routine check-ups. In all instances, I’d like to avoid unexpected issues that could have been managed with early detection. I’m used to going to the dentist every six months even though I hate the dentist. For years, I’ve seen a dermatologist on an annual (or more frequent) basis.

I am absolutely stymied by how to do this now. And, quite frankly, I’m in a state of denial: Fine then, I just won’t go to the doctor ever again.

Cory and I have agreed that, when one of us needs to go to the doctor for the first time, the other will accompany, just so the experience isn’t so scary. Until then, I’ll keep knocking on wood and hope that holds off any things requiring a visit.

2. Fear of missing out.

In saying this, I don’t mean the stereotypical teenage FOMO. I’m not concerned about missing class reunions or political protests or even holiday gatherings, necessarily. But being so far away means it is incredibly hard to be present when it really matters. If there’s a family emergency, we are potentially days away from being with our loved ones. We knew Abby was going to pass away a good 24 hours before it happened, and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do. Our only choice was to watch from afar.

At least a few times a week, I think about how thankful I am that everyone I care about made it through one more week safe and sound. Because if and when something happens to someone, I do not know if I can be there.

3. The uncertainty of the world.

It would be inappropriate not to mention how totally messed up the world feels right now. I know a lot of people fear for our safety because we are living in Ukraine, home to an active war zone. To all those people: You need not fear; things are just fine in Kyiv.

I’m actually more concerned for the safety of people I care about living in the United States. People close to me do not own passports, and I am afraid they won’t be able to leave the U.S. if something truly terrible happens there. I will have no choice but to stand by passively as the world burns down around them.

4. Not speaking the language. 

Believe me when I say I’m trying to learn Russian, but it is a flat-out disaster. I am not joking.

I speak tidbits of a few foreign languages, but Russian is not sticking. I barely know a dozen words, despite doing Duolingo language lessons every morning. I can get around, but I just don’t talk to anyone.

What scares me about not knowing the language is what will happen to me if I need it. What if I am hit by a car? What if I’m hurt and on my own? What if there’s an emergency and no one around me speaks a lick of English? This could happen, and I don’t know how to prepare for it because I can’t anticipate every situation.

This is not a Russian-exclusive problem. Any country with a language barrier will leave me vulnerable and open for uncertainty when unexpected situations arise.

5. Not making friends.

I debated whether to add this to this list. Honestly, I have always struggled with making friends. I am awful at making friends. It does not come easily to me, and it takes such a concerted effort on my behalf it’s often easier not to try.

While living in Las Vegas, there were perhaps three or four people whom I would consider were good friends. These relationships took a long time to create and required effort to maintain. In our last years living there, these friends all moved out of the city or drifted away. By the time we left, I wouldn’t say I had any “close” friends there anymore, so I wasn’t heartbroken to leave.

The international school system is a revolving door, and people will constantly be moving in and out of our lives as long as we stay in. This is both a good and a bad thing. Moving to a new place is, for me, a fresh start to try to be more outgoing, engaging and interesting enough so other people will want to spend time with me. I get a fresh start. I can try again. Maybe this time I will find a real friend who will always be a real friend.

Even if we don’t move on every single year, there will be a new batch of people moving in. This will always provide an opportunity for me to try to make friends.

But, I’ve also come to realize something else about the international school system: I sit in a very weird no man’s land as a trailing spouse. A trailing spouse. Seriously, it’s a horrible name, like I’m being dragged behind my husband.

I am not a teacher, and I am not in the circle of friends that has developed among many of the women working with my husband. I understand and accept this. Because I am not a teacher, I am not around to build those little daily bonds that connect people as friends.

And I am not a parent. Truthfully, I spend more time with the women who are mothers of students at Cory’s school. We all have free time during the day, so we share yoga classes and a book club. But, as a non-parent living at a very different level on the financial scale, there is a definite disconnect.

I’ve also tried to make friends in the expat community beyond the school, but that’s proven to be difficult too.

Which leads me back to the ease of simply not making friends at all. This is the comfortable route for me to take, but am I living my expat life fully if I travel through this journey essentially on my own? Will I regret moving around the world for years to come, pocketing experiences left and right, but never fostering a single relationship with someone I can consider a friend?

Life is inherently filled with the unknown.

We’ve chosen to live ours on the periphery of conventional norms. I don’t regret this. And, in fact, we have no intention of moving back to the U.S. any time soon.

To live fully in this world, we’ve given up comforts and certainties. But for every incredible opportunity we’ve taken as a result of becoming expats – opportunities that those with “safe” lifestyles will never have – there is an equal and opposite fear.

I guess that’s just what happens when you live on the edge of life.

2 Responses to “5 Things That Scare Me About Being an Expat”

  1. Jill

    Interesting insights, Jo. Frankly, most people wouldn’t have a clue how to live your life…and so many people probably envy your ability to travel and see the world. I guess there are trade-offs no matter what someone chooses to do.

    • JoAnna

      There are two sides to every coin. I’m so appreciative of the opportunities I have as an expatriate, but I also know that means I have to accept certain unknowns that come along with it.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *