The Challenge of Being an Expat

Expat Corner: The Challenge of Being an ExpatIsn’t it interesting what we consider to be a challenge, especially as inhabitants of a strange land? My first challenge upon moving here was to work out how to buy fruit and how to get said fruit to the checkout without being scowled at by the checkout lady and the entire queue (yes, I had forgotten to weigh the plums again…). Later it became strange paperwork and impenetrable phone calls that sounded like speaking with someone with a major throat infection.

My question is this: are these situations challenges? For the purposes of this column, I looked up the dictionary meaning of “challenge”:

a call to someone to participate in a competitive situation or fight to decide who is superior in terms of ability or strength (noun) (from Google Dictionary)

Doesn’t that make a challenge seem like a fight? And doesn’t life sometimes feel like a fight? Now I am going to whisper a question to you: After a while of being an expat, have you felt sneaky little thoughts that perhaps – just maybe – you are trapped in a fight of “me versus them”: expats and locals? It’s OK – we have all had those thoughts. But aren’t they interesting and funky thoughts? They set us up as competing and fighting against another bunch of people. Consequently we feel stressed, righteous and full of indignation.

When I was a student, I found myself in the Nepalese Himalayas, researching the impacts of tourism (as you do). I became fascinated by anthropological research in the harder-to-reach communities. Researchers had found tiny communities that held fast to their village identities and dialects. These villagers considered themselves superior to all other villages: “those others” up the hillside were not to be trusted and “those others” down in the valley were angry, violent people (and let’s not even speak about “those others” in the next valley!). Yet when under threat, all the villages would come together to challenge a new set of “others.” I will be honest, I find human beings (myself included) absolutely hilarious! Can you see how we do this all the time? We create a set of thinking about another “tribe” of people, classify them, judge them, and complain about them. We make ourselves superior. Every time we come into contact with “them” in the world, we see the interaction as a challenge, as a stressful event.

Looking at the dictionary again, we see that “challenge” is also a verb:

dispute the truth or validity of (verb)

So I invite you, whenever you feel yourself to be in a challenging situation (wrestling with the recycling for example, or having a staring competition with the old lady on the bus as she “tuts” at your child) dispute the truth of that challenge! Is it truly a challenge, or has your thinking innocently set this up as an “us versus them” situation? The thinking itself is challenging, not the situation. So why have such stress in your life? Let the old lady be a weird old lady and let the recycling be a bunch of chaotic papers on your hallway floor. Let life be kind, not a challenge!

By Tammy Furey

Tammy is a coach, writer and blogger who lives in St. Gallen, Switzerland with her husband and daughter whilst attempting (badly) to speak German and fold her paper recycling in the correct manner. Visit her at and (with videos and audios for you to enjoy).

Illustration by Albina Nogueira

Albina Nogueira has been a primary school teacher since 1992, and a writer and illustrator since 2006. She currently lives in Switzerland, but her homeland is Portugal. She is also the author of Letters to Grandparents  and Hairdresser. To find out more, like her on Facebook or see her books on

2 thoughts on “The Challenge of Being an Expat

  • October 26, 2015 at 9:16 am

    I have a new challenge: learning Spanish. I am here in Spain wrestling with irregular verbs and seemingly impossible pronunciation. I am tempted to give up sometimes. But then I remember my days of battling with German. The tenses and pronunciation seemed so hard at the time (they still do at times) but I managed to get by. I am hoping for the same outcome and I have challenged myself in a lighthearted way. Good article, Tammy!

    • November 2, 2015 at 8:06 pm

      I used to speak Spanish when I worked in Guatemala, but the German has kicked it right out of my head!!!
      I love that you are taking it in a light hearted way………if we become confused that the “struggle” is somehow part of who we are, it really becomes tricky! Just think about how we talk: “I am struggling” which is to say that “i” am the essence of struggle, that struggle is who I am! Golly! No wonder it seems hard!!!!
      Enjoy the Spanish!!!


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