The five stages of Expatism

I only use the word ‘expat’ because I don’t have an alternative. This doesn’t really apply to ‘expats’ because they generally come for a term and know when they should be leaving. Certainly they know they will be leaving and did not come here with either an open mind or an idea they would stay. For the most part anyway.

I’ve observed people at various points of their stay here in Poland and it strikes me there are some quite distinct stages involved in settling into a new country. I’ve taken a stab at defining them…….

  1. Shock & Awe – You land. It smells different, it looks different. You get ripped off by the taxi driver on the way into town because you’re a know-nothing newbie. You have no bearings, you have no friends, no family. You get excited when at least one person understands English. It feels like it might be a little bit dangerous. You get your wallet stolen. You tend to do as much as you possibly can via the Sheraton or Marriott. You eat more McDonalds than you used to at home. You get stuck into work. You find a few other foreigners and go drinking with them a little too often. Everything seems cheap so you spend too much because you have no idea what this currency is worth. You get an apartment in what seems like a good place for what seems like a decent rent. Later you realise both were wrong. Your fridge is empty aside from a few beers. You look forward to trips back home and on the return journey your suitcase is full of foodstuffs, books, DVDs, etc. It can get a bit lonely and you sometimes wonder what you’re doing here.
  2. This is easy – You’re more or less settled now. Getting the hang of work and most of the important papers you need to live here have been dealt with. It is still very different to home but you can deal with the basics like ordering a pizza and a taxi. You’ve got some idea how big this city is and which way is north. You’ve got a few new ‘friends’ and you know where the best clubs/bars are. All your old friends from home are visiting you, as are parents and other relations. The girls are interesting. You’ve worked out a few main routes to work and stuff. You’ve been exploring a little at the weekends. You can speak a few words of Polish and you enjoy showing them off. You think you understand the people and you’ve got a very sketchy idea of the history. You still miss fish & chips and warm dark beer. You still look forward to trips home but you’re starting to really appreciate the differences here.  The people are so nice to you. You’re trying all the local food and some of it is good (but not as good as marmite). Everything is exciting and new.
  3. Oh shit!! – Things are starting to annoy you. Work’s not as easy as you thought and you realise just how much you have to learn and adjust to. You’re homesick. Many things don’t go quite as you planned. You finally work out that you’re spending too much money. It dawns on you that is not a virtual reality Polish holiday but actually a real life episode. You have most likely ended old and begun new relationships. Many of those “cute” things are bugging you now. It was definitely easier back home, getting anything done in this country is a nightmare. You are getting increasingly involved in the minutia of everyday bureaucracy and it’s painful. You are seriously questioning whether this was a good idea. How long are you going to be here anyway?
  4. The new status quo – You’re really starting to like the place now. There are now more things that annoy you back home than there are here. You’re not concerned if 12 months pass between trips home in fact your whole concept of where “home” is has shifted or is shifting. The things you bring back from trips abroad are only things that are just not available or far more expensive here, no more packets of Vesta curry or tins of corned beef. You’re starting to find a lot lot of things here that are far better than back home. You have a few genuine friends and are well accepted at work. You don’t worry about how long you’re going to be here. Your financial frame of reference is now zloty and not pounds. You’ve explored a lot of the country now and probably a few neighbouring countries as well. You understand the history and the people far better than before. You’re speaking more Polish and understand quite a lot.
  5. Settled – This is home. You’re never leaving. Comparisons between old and new are pointless, this is your home and the other place is not an alternative. You’re going to die here, you probably even know where you’ll be buried. You are a full and proper part of society. At this stage; some things annoy you more, some things annoy you less but the items in both lists are different to what they used to be because you look at things in a different way, your perspective has changed. There are only two things remaining to be done – become a Polish citizen & really work on improving the language skills. It dawns on you that despite the way you now feel about Poland, the way Poland feels about you will never change – you’re a foreigner and you always will be. You wonder who’s more “Polish” – someone with Polish blood settled in Chicago or someone with English blood settled in Warsaw.

The time each stage is reached will depend on the person but if I had to guess a range I’d say

  1. 0 to 12 months
  2. 6 – 18 months
  3. 12 months – 3 years
  4. 18 months – 5 years
  5. 3 – 10 years

Alternative views are welcome!

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10 thoughts on “The five stages of Expatism

  1. I live in England for 3 years, I can call it my home, but, I think, it will take me a few more years to feel like a real home. Number 4 or 5 will be about right for me.

  2. Scatts scratches his goatee. Let’s see, can I get expateek riled up first thing Sunday morning? Perhaps even before the end of my first paragraph?

    Oh, what the heck. *Waves red flag at bull*

    Let’s see if “did not come here with (…) an open mind” does the trick. And then I’ll put in the disclaimer “For the most part anyway,” so I can say I didn’t really mean it. Hah!

    What fun! And they say Poland is dull. Who knew?

    Actually, Scatts, great article. I especially love the near-to-last sentence, “It dawns on you that despite the way you now feel about Poland, the way Poland feels about you will never change – you’re a foreigner and you always will be.” Too true in almost any country, for expats, with perhaps the exception being the USA.

    As usual, a thoughtful and perceptive piece.

  3. 3yrs is a shot period of time.

    I live 21yrs abroad. The 1st 2yrs i was exited and happy, in the next 15yrs i settled, but in the last couple of yrs i am in the o shit phase :D

    I think Poland is (now) a much better country to live in, than western europe. Western europe is for me like an old “fossilized” guy and Poland like a teenager.

  4. I’m a level 4 I think. I can see myself settling here, but am prepared to leave if an interesting opportunity arises elsewhere.

    The transition between stages 4 and 5 is definately helped by a Polish girlfriend / wife.

    “This is home. You’re never leaving.” It rings a bell, but I don’t think I said it! :)

    And what was that last bit about “become a Polish citizen & really work on improving the language skills”??? 1pm Wednesday. See you there.

  5. Gmorek – give it another 3 years or so and you’ll be okay. By the way, can we swap voting rights please?!

    Eeek – yeah, I know how you feel about all that expat stuff. Sorry!

    guest – 21 years and then the Oh Shit! Noooo, not good!

    yeller – :)

  6. Yellerbelly mentioned having a girlfriend wife helps you move to the advanced stages. But I would add having children and buying property to live in. That’s when you really invest your whole life in the country, and start worrying about the economy, property prices, politics. If you know your children are going to go to school in this country, and live there after you die, that’s when you become a local.

  7. 3 more years…? Ohhh. I will see. I think I will stay here for good, my (almost) other half is English.

    If you want to vote, no problem, I can send you my ID, draw something on my picture and it should be ok… But i think you would need to go to Sopot to vote so I don’t know if it’s worth it.

  8. Thoughtful post..

    You wonder who’s more “Polish” – someone with Polish blood settled in TORONTO or someone with English blood settled in Warsaw

    I wonder about this too. The purpose of my trip this summer is to set the wheels in motion to claim my Polish citizenship.

  9. haha. You could always use “immigrant” or “migrant” my friend.

    I know, it’s only reserved for the Polish in the UK, not for the high on their horses English.

  10. Hey pp – Excellent observation! Let’s get the Daily Mail writing about Polish expats in Britain and English migrants in Poland!

    British class distinction at work. “I’m an expat, he’s a migrant”. I’ve been working with words in this particular area and this smart distinction never dawned on me. Thank you so much!

    Note the word ‘migrant’. Pakistanis in the UK are ‘immigrants’ (ie, there to stay). Poles are only ‘migrants’ (ie back and forth on EasyJet).

    Much like in the 1930s, Okies fleeing the dustbowls of the Midwest and moving to California were ‘migrants’, while Japanese workers were clearly ‘immigrants’.

    The term ‘migrants’ suggests that subconsciously Brits are beginning to see themselves integrated into Europe.

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