Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Taking a look at the unexpected challenges of the expat experience

To an outsider, expat life is filled with weekend train trips to European capitals, a social circle of international adventurers, and photographs of castles and cobblestoned streets. The darker side of expat life doesn’t show up in Facebook feeds. It’s often unspoken, mundane, and isolating.

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Conventional wisdom says to stick it out – push through the dark times and things will get easier. But when do the cons start to outweigh the pros? When is homesickness actually a sign that you don’t belong?

We asked expats, both current and former, to talk about what gets them down, coping strategies, and how to know when it’s time to go. Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.

Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?

Many expats worry about the limited long-term opportunities in popular professions, such as teaching English or proofreading. Working as a foreign national under an independent business license can limit access to employment benefits such as holiday pay or retirement benefits. And of course, the Czech crown doesn’t stretch far beyond the borders.

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After more than ten years teaching abroad, Harper, an Englishman, decided to return to the UK. “I’m relieved to be earning some money for my pension,” he said. “If I’d left it any later, I was worried I would be too old to get a job here.”

However, many expats manage to carve out professional success by building a steady roster of students or clientele and treating Živnostenský income like a small business, with investments and personal savings. For expats in the Czech Republic, when all else fails, networking can be your saving grace.

The Unbearable Transience of Friendships

Those networking efforts require some forethought when building a support system in a new country. A social life limited to the ever-changing stream of English teachers and Erasmus students can leave you pining for stability.

After three years of getting to know fellow teachers only to watch them leave, UK native Catherine changed her approach. “I’ve been spending more time with locals this year. I meet people for coffee, or go swimming or for walks, instead of just going drinking in big groups. I’ve also been working on my Czech!”

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Kendra, an American who left the Czech Republic to complete a Masters thesis on cultural integration seconds this approach. “Invest in relationships in a new place and eventually it doesn’t hurt as much when you miss out on parties, birthdays, baby showers, weddings, and funerals [in your home country]. It’s very much a grieving process.”

Is the Paperwork Worth It?

Another regularly cited grievance of non-EU citizens is the stress and anxiety of the visa process. Rules and regulations in your native language are hard to find, but practicing Czech in a situation where a mistake could mean deportation imposes a harsh learning curve. Asking friends or hired help to regularly accompany you to bureaucratic offices can drain your sense of independence as well as your bank account.

Ryan, an American expat, weighed these factors after leaving her job at an established Czech language school. She decided to take a teaching position in Vietnam instead of pursuing a freelance lifestyle in the Czech Republic. “I was pretty terrified of facing the visa renewal process without any support,” she admits.

Dustin, also from the US, survived the process but echoes the sentiment. “Once, I was misinformed that I was going to be deported,” he recalls, “but luckily it got sorted out. Now I only have a minor panic attack while waiting in the foreign police hallway.”

Thankfully, help is available. Many organizations exist to assist the growing international community.

When You Know, You Know

For some lucky expats, the choice is obvious. “I’ve never felt homesick,” says Matt, an American who returned to the Czech Republic after spending one year in Asia. “When I went to China I didn’t miss the USA, but I did miss the Czech Republic.”

And Kendra was equally confident about her decision to leave. “I listened closely to what made me happy and fulfilled and, as cheesy as it sounds, I had to follow my heart. That’s no different for an expat than it is for anyone else.”

Which segments of expat life do you struggle with? How do you cope with the darker moments?  

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