The life cycle of an expat

The one year slump

Do the brilliant fall leaves seem dull and gray? Does everything seem harder than it needs to be? Do you feel like no one gets it? Expat readers, you might be in a slump.
By Megan Embry / Animations by René Lapoutre

I was warned.

Seasoned expats told me, when I arrived in Groningen with two small kids in tow, that I might not feel at home for a long time. ‘You won’t know how you really feel until well over a year has passed’, my neighbour warned. ‘Around that time you’ll think you’ve adjusted, but then you’ll hit the slump. Don’t make any major decisions until you’re through it.’

I brushed them off. My move from Texas to Toronto years before had been a real shock. But this move was easier in almost every respect, thanks in part to the surprisingly functional machinery of Dutch government and the sheer charm of life in Groningen. Plus, it hardly snows here. How bad could it be?

But a year and some months later – well into a new job I liked, my kids settled into Dutch school and rapidly becoming bilingual, my trusty second-hand bike a pleasure to ride through streets that continue to strike me as actually a movie set for a romantic comedy – I was surprised that I couldn’t enjoy any of it. I was always sick. I longed for my people. I longed to belong. I was no longer optimistic that I would ever learn Dutch. And I felt guilty about all of it.

I’d hit the slump.

Adjustment curve

Research tells us that the adjustment curve of an expat is like a rollercoaster. The highs are high: in the ‘honeymoon’ stage, life feels like an extended vacation. Everything is instagrammable. You even take pictures of the cobblestones.

I longed for my people. I longed to belong

But from there most people take a swift nosedive into culture shock, where the lows are really low: everything feels hostile and small setbacks seem like catastrophes. Why is it so hard to find an apartment? How do I convince my new doctor to give me an actual prescription? Why does this salad have cold potatoes in it? Why is everyone so goddam direct?

When you finally climb out of it and rediscover your sense of humour, it’s tempting to think that your adjustment trajectory will be a steady upward climb. But experienced RUG expats say the rollercoaster isn’t over yet. The slump can still sneak up on you.

Not Predictable

That’s because long-term adjustment is not a predictable curve, explains Beth Yoder, a senior intercultural trainer at the RUG who recently moved here from Dubai. ‘There are two aspects to it. They both predict happiness: the cultural learning phase, which is more predictable and the bulk of which happens in the first year, and the psychological phase, which varies from person to person and involves a complete reassessment of one’s identity in light of a new culture.’

The stress of expat life compounds the stress of normal life and can manifest in many different ways: a weakened immune system, forgetfulness, anxiety, insomnia, depression. ‘All classic symptoms of long-term culture shock.’

When Italian PhD student Aurora Signorazzi first lived in Groningen as an exchange student, she ‘got addicted to the fact that everything was new and exciting.’ She assumed life would be the same when she returned for her PhD.


It wasn’t. After the initial busyness of ‘learning everything from scratch: how to be alone, how to learn a new language, how to buy groceries’, she found herself deep in the slump. ‘All those new hard things became normal hard things; I wasn’t expecting that transition to be so hard. You think, I have made my life so difficult. And for what? Was it worth it?’

I have made my life so difficult. And for what?

For Tyas Dyah, a PhD student in health psychology from Indonesia, stress turned into depression. In the second year of her Master’s program, she was already worried about her thesis, money, and finding a job. She was also trying to learn Dutch and save up for a residence permit. On top of everything she was very, very lonely.  ‘There were a couple of times I just wanted to leave it all behind and go home.’

She hoped getting a PhD position would help. ‘But the slump just persisted. I just wanted to stay in bed all day. Every day I came home from work and just wanted to die.’ It took Tyas two years to climb out of her slump. ‘But it finally passed. Later I found out I wasn’t the only one. It’s normal to feel a bit horrible.’

Wobbly stuff

Canadian psychologist Jeremy Burman, on the other hand, thought he was well prepared for life abroad. When he arrived in Groningen months ahead of his wife, he already knew the drill. ‘I had lived in Geneva for two years – and that experience was really hard. I thought of it as training wheels for Groningen: all of that wobbly stuff that happens when you’re first learning a new life, I’d been through it.’

He knew the first step to long-term well-being was making friends. He wanted to pave the way for his wife by providing a built-in community for her when she arrived. ‘So I started collecting people who sounded like home. I went out looking for people with Canadian accents.’

It was good he had done the work to find friends. He was going to need them a year later, when he returned to Toronto to fetch his wife and she told him their marriage was over.


Burman thinks trailing spouses probably get the worst of the slump. ‘You know that saying – “it takes a village to raise a child?” – well, it takes a faculty to raise an international hire. We have been the subject of great investment by a department that has a continued interest in making us feel at home. Spouses don’t get nearly so much support.’

Every part of his life collapsed except for work, he says. ‘I did have the ideal job – in that respect, I won the lottery. But the cost was my life.’

You think if you can just pull yourself together, things will be okay

As expats reflect on the slump, the same refrain comes up again and again: ‘But I know it’s wonderful here. I’m grateful for (fill in the blank: my job; the healthcare; the work-life balance; bike-riding; whatever). I know I’m very lucky.’


Guilt might be the hardest thing about this stage. ‘I was just really surprised to feel so bad’, says Signorazzi. ‘You’re bewildered: why am I sad? I should be enjoying everything.’

Internationals tend to suffer silently because being miserable seems like a personal failure, as if doing better is just a matter of being tougher, more adaptable, more grateful. ‘It’s really hard to feel like no one around you ‘gets it’ and that you’re the problem’, says American Jamie Snow, who works at the faculty of economics and business. ‘You think if you can just pull yourself together, things will be okay.’

‘It’s really hard to talk about’, agrees Signorazzi. ‘No one wants to bring it up at a party or something. No one wants to say: “Oh, I was really sad last year.”’

The Slump, explained

Un-slumping yourself

‘And when you’re in the slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.’  – Dr. Suess

The slump is super common, says senior intercultural trainer at the RUG Beth Yoder. In fact, it’s the whole reason her job exists. ‘The malaise you’re experiencing is normal. It’s not you! The good news is, you can get through it.’

Yoder warns against unhealthy coping mechanisms like drinking too much, working too much, or isolating yourself. Those are poor fixes that can become serious problems. ‘You have to start by giving yourself some grace’, she says.

So, what can you do?

1. Talk about it

Find another expat who speaks your language who you can talk to honestly. But expats leave, warns Aurora Signorazzi, ‘and that cycle of always saying goodbye can really wear you down. So also try to integrate with a community that isn’t just expats. That’s when you begin to feel this isn’t just a foreign place – it’s home, too.’

2. Escape

Stories can be a good way to escape the slump for a bit, says Jamie Snow. ‘Sometimes I bury myself in books or tv shows and live through other people. The danger is that afterward you can feel even more lonely and untethered than before.’

That’s when she gets out of the house and literally runs away from her feelings. ‘I go on long runs; I go to yoga; I call a friend. I distract myself. I wait it out.’

3. Get a pet

Burman’s slump ended when he moved his cat from Toronto to Groningen. Suddenly his empty apartment became a home. ‘I’m not saying everyone should rush out and get a cat, but it worked for me. Having someone who is unconditionally happy to see you when you get home is really nice. We just had a great summer together.’

4. Don’t give up

A lot of expats get discouraged when they realise learning Dutch is going to take way longer than they thought. ‘After two years, I can order coffee’, laughs Burman.

It can be especially hard if you work in a Dutch-speaking space, where you are faced with your own incompetence over and over every day. ‘Being in another culture raises so many questions about ourselves’, explains Yoder. ‘It can challenge your identity as a capable person. But don’t give up. If possible, stay somewhere for at least two years before you choose to leave.’


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