The secret life of immigrants

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On the 25th June 2013, I took a one-way flight to London to start a new life with my husband, and today marks my fifth anniversary of being an immigrant.

It has been a bumpy but an interesting road, and I wanted to sum up my experience in a post about all the highs, and all the lows and all the challenges and all the positives that living abroad brings. But then I wondered if my experience could be different from what my foreign friends went through. So I asked them five questions:

  1. what are the best and worst things about living abroad?
  2. what are the biggest lessons you’ve learnt about living abroad?
  3. what are the biggest difficulties and challenges you’ve had?
  4. what advice would you give to someone who thinks of moving abroad?
  5. how do you think living abroad has changed you, if at all?

The answers that came surprised me – it turned out, our experiences and thoughts were very similar. Maybe it’s because we all are at similar stages in our lives and are quite like-minded. Or maybe it’s because the secret life of immigrants is not as secretive as it seems from afar? I’ll let you decide.

Before all is revealed, I want to say huge thanks to all who responded – your answers gave so many more details and so much more depth to the topic than I alone could ever come up with based on my own experience. Oh, and thanks for writing the most of this post yourselves too!

Without further due, ladies and gentlemen, let me open up the secret life of immigrants in five Q&As. This is a long post so pour yourself a cup of tea or glass of wine and enjoy. Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 14.22.19

ONE: WHAT ARE THE BEST AND THE WORST THINGS ABOUT LIVING ABROAD?

Nicky – a Dutch who’s lived in London for about five years now.

Best things: to experience a new country, a new culture, a new city. Meeting new and interesting people and consider them as my family abroad.

Worst thing: not having your family close on the moments you really want/need them.

Albert – a Brit who studied in France and Spain and then lived in Italy for nearly 8 years. He returned to his hometown of London six years ago. 

Best things: you get to live in a place that you choose and not where you were born, so it’s your choice. You get to escape the mentality of the country you’re from (and pretend that the new country doesn’t have a mentality of its own). But it all depends on where you come from and where you are.

Worst thing: you still feel some sort of obligation to your home country and people in it – like, when you say you’re going on holiday, they expect you to come to visit them.

Sylvia – half-Italian and half-Greek, she spent a few years in London where she met her Australian husband. Three years ago, they moved to Sydney.

It depends on where you end up and what age you are. We look for different things at different stages of our lives.

For the time I spent in London, the best thing was the opportunity to meet and make friends with like-minded people, escaping the narrow horizons of my little country and having the opportunity to travel and immerse myself in cultures across Europe. I would not have had those experiences had I not left Greece.

The worst part about it? Maybe how impersonal that vast city can be and how lonely and exhausted it can make you feel.

For the time I spent so far in Sydney, the best part is the quality of life and the food. Both resemble what I could have in my home country, which at the ripe old age of 35 I miss more and more, but with much better pay and the opportunity to have a lot of disposable income which is something I would not get back home.

The worst part about Australia is how much it makes me feel like an immigrant, which I never experienced before.

Dasha – a former Russian colleague of mine who now lives in Israel.

The best thing about living abroad is experiencing something new every day, understanding your real capabilities, not related to your background, and your real limitations. It’s the opportunity to learn and accept challenges every day. It’s realising the true meaning of the word “diversity”.

The worst thing is the feeling of loneliness. But it is also the source of energy to continue.

Tanya – my Russian ex-boss who’s now lived in Italy for over 1.5 years.

Best:

You relax, slow down and, as a result, start to understand better (or rather: understand at all) what is happening to you.

You become a lot more attentive and you often find yourself in the moment, because everything is different, everything is new (more so in the beginning, but there’s always something new later on anyway).

You get used to a calmer, less aggressive and friendlier (or at least more neutral) society.

You can walk in flats in February, you forget you used to have to clean your trousers from knees down after every walk outside.

Men treat women and families better.

It’s beautiful everywhere.

You can travel fast and cheap.

And I also stopped swearing!

Worst:

You’re always “not one of us”: finding new friends is not easy and not quick, there are limitations and prejudice when you look for jobs. In fact, it is difficult to find any job at all. Salaries are lower and career achievements like the ones you can have in Moscow are very rare.

Italian bureaucracy is even worse than Russian: a lot of things are still done on paper, there’s no such thing as ‘online application for state services’. Those services are much worse and much slower than in Russia. You just can’t have someone come and fix your Internet tomorrow – you can be calling for two weeks, then wait two more weeks, kick all the doors and demand speedy service, but it’ll all be useless.

And all the beauty services are very average.

Teodora – a colleague of mine whom I struggle to describe in a short caption. Born in Bulgaria, but quintessentially French and with an Italian boyfriend, she has lived and worked in Russia for over several years.

Just to give a bit of background, I was born in Bulgaria and raised in France from the age of 4, then lived in Bulgaria again, then in Italy and I am now in Russia (for 5 years).

The best things about living aboard:

  • Start something new
  • Broaden your knowledge with new culture and new traditions
  • Improve your flexibility
  • Be less of a materialistic person- I arrived to Russia with 2 pieces luggage
  • Live “in the “moment”
  • Meet lots of new people who will each enrich your personal life. In my case, it was meeting my boyfriend with whom I have been for 5 years now when I used to live in Italy
  • Learning new languages
  • Career booster, since a foreign experience on a CV is always highly valued
  • Freedom
  • We feel more exotic and interesting for other people since we are “foreigners”
  • You become the person you want to be since you feel less social pressure from your hometown to accomplish the clichéd scenario of life with “ a house, a dog, a kid and Sunday cinema with family” …

The worst things about living abroad

  • Missing your best old friends and family
  • Occasional difficulties to fully integrate inside a culture
  • Feeling as a nomad your entire life and not having grounds anywhere

Myself – I often describe myself as a Russian, married to a Brit and living in London and working on Spanish brands with a French company. A couple of weeks ago I became a British national after 5 years of living in the UK.

Best thing: an opportunity to move on and start some things anew. I’m not talking about running away from your past but putting yourself in a position to build a distance between yourself and some places, people and events that didn’t make you too happy. For example, I hate the London property rental market but I’m glad I left my Moscow home with all its memories and built a new and happy family life with my husband.

Worst thing: I don’t think you’re ever fully accepted abroad. You may be very welcome, and people may treat you well, but you’re always a foreigner. You’re often voiceless: I have an obligation to pay thousands of pounds in taxes but I had no right to vote for 5 years. Sometimes, when I share my opinion about the state of the country and where it’s going, I get funny looks like “but you’re not British so what do you know?”, even though I live here and it affects me personally.

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TWO: WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST LESSONS YOU’VE LEARNT ABOUT LIVING ABROAD?

Albert (France & Italy)

If you want it enough, you can do it. And it’s easy to tell yourself you can’t.

Dasha (Israel)

You should always rely on yourself only and be ready to support your closest people. You should never stop evolving, and if you do you can achieve much more than you’ve ever expected and more than others expect from you. Connections are essential.

Sylvia (UK & Australia)

People come and go fast, and you have to work hard to build real friendships. They are your family abroad and you have to make sure you are there for each other. Otherwise, you can find yourself in a very lonely place.

You have to let go of your culture just a little bit (expectations on food, cleanliness, social norms, etc.) and avoid making friends only with the people from your country for you to be able to enjoy living abroad. Otherwise, you will dislike “them” (the natives) and they will dislike you. I’ve never had such issues, but everyone who I saw failing in finding a place abroad and moving right back home, had these same attachments and they were never able to assimilate.

Nicky (UK)

This is probably a more personal thing but no matter where I am or what will happen in the future, I have accomplished building a whole new life for myself abroad – I can be proud of myself and know that no matter what life will throw at me, I will be just fine!

Teodora (Russia)

That’s a good question, quite tough to reply since there are many lessons I learnt through my several years abroad.

But the biggest one is: I do think that people who are “immigrants” and live abroad away from their home country are the people who love a challenge and to surpass themselves! The ones staying in their home country feel less of this need for a challenge since everything is just suiting them perfectly where they live right now. People living abroad are like always thriving to get more and to search for new experience.

I also am an achiever, always targeting the next big goal in my life. But what I learnt during those years abroad, is not how many countries or years you are living abroad that are important, neither how many promotions you’ve had at work, but to remain your true self, make choices that are meaningful and authentic for you.

Tanya (Italy)

Don’t idealise anything, there are pros and cons everywhere. I’ve become a lot more neutral about Russia now that I see the negatives here too.

I’ve expanded my understanding of how I can live, how I can treat various things, how I can communicate with people.

Myself (UK)

Three lessons.

One: living abroad is different from what you think it will be. I thought I knew London quite well enough before moving here. You know nothing, Jon Snow. Routine and bureaucratic stuff aside that is a bore everywhere, London has shown its dark sides in all their glory. Goodness knows I love the city with all my heart but living here has made me realise that there’s no such thing as an ‘ideal place’. Some countries and cities are better than others, but every country and city has its problems, so – do not expect an easy life anywhere.

Two: the country you move to may be a very different country very soon. Fuck Brexit.

Three: you don’t change when you change countries. Banal as it is, you always take yourself with you so if you think moving countries will help you solve your inner issues or inspire you to finally do something you’ve been postponing for years, think again because it won’t.

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THREE: WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST DIFFICULTIES AND CHALLENGES HAVE YOU HAD?

Dasha (Israel)

Studying a new language and the first 2 years of feeling totally helpless in daily activities.

Embarrassment about speaking new language poorly.

Switching between 3 languages every day.

The need to build your connections network from scratch.

Tanya (Italy)

Bureaucracy.

All the processes are slow.

Finding work.

Nicky (Dutch in the UK)

Being by myself in a different country without feeling lonely. Now that I’m settled in, I appreciate the moments by myself without thinking that I’m this sad and lonely person – but in the beginning, I found this hard.

Albert (France & Italy)

Entering social circles that have been established long before you arrived.

Teodora (Russia)

1st challenge: Living away from the people I love the most. You have the feeling you are living a parallel life and not there for their most important moments. For example, I already have a 5-year-long distance relationship with my current boyfriend on purpose ( to both build our own careers). This sacrifice is one of the most beautiful and most difficult I have ever made in my life. I do it since I know that working for my current company has always been a dream so I never regretted my choice. But distance could be really tricky sometimes. Same goes for close family ( my sister studying at medical school, grandparents etc …)

2nd challenge: the fear of the unknown. When in your home country, everything could be very predictable, you have your comfort zones well settled. When you live abroad, you always have the same fear of the unknown. The future is so fast-changing and uncertain that your life seems less “organised” and more chaotic. But this is a feeling that at the same time makes me feel alive. There is room for surprises and I really like this idea.

3rd challenge: I will always be “Mrs Foreigner”. No matter how much I try to fit inside a culture, hang out with locals, I will always be considered as a foreigner.

4th  challenge:  You won’t be the same person you used to be: when you live abroad you change as a person, much faster and differently than from people who remain in their country. I sometimes do feel the mind gap when I come back to France or Bulgaria with people living in their hometown their entire life. Centres of interests, values might change a lot between us.

Sylvia (UK & Australia)

When I think about my move to London in my early 20s, I was literally plucked out of Greece and dropped in London in the space of 3 days, and I never looked back. Never missed Greece, the food or the beautiful weather because my life was so full and exciting, and everything was terrific! Little-oh-me was in London, who would believe it!!!

Being half Greek, half Italian meant that growing up I was never quite at home in either country. Greek friends made my Italian qualities to be something “exotic”, so I was always a bit “special” whereas foes suffered from inferiority complex and treated me badly. And in Italy I was never treated as an Italian, more like a wannabe, my accent was odd, my vocabulary not up to date and my knowledge of Italian pop culture was lacking.

So going to London was like finding my place in the world because no one cared where I was from. I was not special anymore, we were all from somewhere else, so the focus was on the person behind the ethnicity and any cultural talk was about learning and discovering, not judging.

Whereas in Sydney, I felt as a guest from day 1 and still do so 2 years later. I know that despite the great quality of life and natural beauty surrounding me, this is not where I want to grow old.

Maybe it’s because this continent/country is so cut-off from the rest of the world and so shielded, that as a result society is maturing at a slow pace. Or maybe it is because the “casual” racism instilled in most native Aussies (“immigrants will take the jobs away from hard-working, deserving Aussies”) combined with a lack of culture and low tolerance to what is different, makes up an invisible barrier. It feels like unless you shed your heritage and become fully “Anglo”, you will never be part of the family. It is very odd, considering the long history of immigration in this country… but you can tell it’s true by the 2nd and 3rd generations of Greeks, Armenians, Italians etc. who don’t even speak their native languages. So it’s more the attitude you would get in an all-white tiny British country village, where the people that voted Brexit live.

Or maybe I feel like this because in my mid-30s, I am missing “home” more and more, I worry more about my potential future children growing up close to their roots and family and I think about my parents and being closer to them much more frequently.

Myself (UK)

I’ve not really had any big difficulties when I moved. My husband helped a lot with settling down, like opening a bank account or signing up with a GP and finding our first flat to rent. I also had a job offer and didn’t have to look for jobs (which I think would have been soul destroying).

So my biggest challenge was: after about three years after moving to London, I struggled with my self-identity. I realised that I’ll never be British, and I felt like a foreigner in Russia. So if I were neither, what was I? Nationality used to be a big part of my identity, and when I lost it I felt like I’d lost a part of myself. I spoke with fellow immigrants, and all then said that it would pass.

And it did. Two more years later, I am just me and I don’t need a nationality to (help) define me in any way. I am a Russian national and I am a British national – meaning I have two passports which prove my place of birth (Russia) and my long residency abroad (UK). But I’m neither Russian nor British. Nationality, I’ve realised, is something we choose ourselves because we want to belong with and share some set of values, traditions and expectations specific to a particular place on the planet. But I don’t have that sense of belonging to any place – or any need to have one if it comes to that.

Once I let go of identity through nationality, I’ve become myself.

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FOUR: WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE THINKING ABOUT MOVING ABROAD?

Dasha (Israel)

Learn the language of the new country before you move.

Upgrade your English no matter where you’re heading to.

Have an open mind.

Be ready to study a lot, work a lot, probably prepare yourself to change career if needed.

Make as many friends as you can!

And pay attention to your health, immigration is a huge stress even if we don’t realise that.

Be strict but kind to yourself.

And remember that the easiest path is not always the best.

Nicky (Dutch in the UK)

It won’t be easy, and it will take a lot of time and effort before you feel at home and are settled down – but allow yourself the time to settle in and don’t stress over the bad days because the best days will be coming. It’s all so much worth it in the end, so do it!

Sylvia (UK & Australia)

Think about why you are doing it and ensure it’s the right move for where you are in your life. Living abroad can always sound exciting but does it combine with your needs and values?

Tanya (Italy)

Remove expectations and prepare to change plans. Relax and be open to what’s around you.

Teodora (Russia)

The main advice I would give is: CHASE YOUR DREAMS. Each of us is different and unique! If living abroad is your dream, then just go for it! The experience you get abroad is much more enriching than you get inside your comfort zone. You create lasting memories, you shape your future self, get more freedom to become the person you want to be. I really do believe I will be living abroad my entire life and I never regretted any moment this fantastic choice I have made!

Albert (France & Italy)

Throw yourself into it completely.

Be careful not to spend too much time with the people from the same country as you.

Don’t lose sight of why you’re doing it.

Myself (UK)

Learn the language: English opens many doors around the world but aim to learn the language of your new home as soon and as well as you can.

Save money: moving abroad is not cheap, and many initial relocation costs can be mind-blowing. Be ready financially.

Speak to locals: there’s no better way to understand what life awaits you abroad than to talk to people living there.

Have patience: settling in takes time, so don’t let the first couple of years break you. They will be hard, by the way.

Do it: good opportunities are rare, so if you have an excellent chance to live somewhere for some time, go for it. If it’s something you want, don’t let well-wishers or imaginary difficulties talk you out of it. Remember you can always go back, but you may never have another chance to truly experience the world.

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FIVE: HOW DO YOU THINK LIVING ABROAD HAS CHANGED YOU, IF AT ALL?

Sylvia (UK & Australia)

I feel I have gained a better insight into who I am and what I want. I am more thoughtful of other people and more considerate of what their circumstances may be.

I also have learnt that I am lucky and privileged to have been able to move around at will, choosing what is right for me and my current needs, without being persecuted and without my moves being due to financial hardship. I think about that daily, and I know that it is a gift.

But it has also taught me that the biggest cliché of all is true: there is no place like home. No matter how lowly the place you came from, your heart will always long for an idealised version of it that you know does not exist except in your childhood memories.

Dasha (Israel)

Made me stronger, more independent, more open minded.

Nicky (Dutch in the UK)

I’m more confident as a person because I feel I can accomplish/handle anything that life throws at me. Also, I feel more flexible, relaxed and resilient as a person, because I’ve dealt with situations that other people will never experience in a lifetime. Last but not least I feel richer and more experienced as a person because I’ve met all these interesting international people that have given me new and exciting views of the world and society!

Tanya (Italy)

I’ve become calmer, sometimes slower, more open-minded. I’m not that fussed about clothes anymore. I’ve learnt to enjoy the moment. And I’ve started to say ‘hi’ to people in shops and cafes. I can now be patient when a supermarket cashier discusses the latest news with a customer in front of me. I’ve learnt to cook and to enjoy cooking – the variety of foods and a very different attitude to eating, in general, have helped a lot! I’ve begun to use promo offers more often and not think if of it as something of low quality or shameful.

Teodora (Russia)

I do not want to praise myself too much but I do believe that I became a much more interesting person, full of (funny) stories from my travels and new lifestyle. I became more tolerant and much more self-confident. If I look back 10 years from now, there is a feeling of pride from what I achieved.  I am not comparing myself anymore to other successful people but creating my own path.

Albert (France & Italy)

It’s made me more cynical about the country I come from. It makes me enjoy and appreciate the differences between different backgrounds and nationalities and see them as a positive rather than negative thing.

Myself (UK)

I’ve become a nomad: my home is where I am with my husband and a few belongings of ours. It’s no longer a physical place, but a state of mind.

I’ve become much more confident in my own skin: I’ve dreamt about living in London since I was 13 and here I am. But being here isn’t a dream come true – I’m not here because some stars magically aligned but because I worked my arse off. Knowing that I have achieved something that I wasn’t sure myself was possible gives me a lot of courage to climb even higher mountains.

And I’ve become happier: I am where I want to be and with who I want to be and I am positive about the future. To have this level of control over my own life is a privilege that I don’t take for granted.

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Have you ever lived abroad? If you have, you’re welcome to share your experience in comments!

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