Expat Confession: What is Expat Burnout?

I think being able to label yourself as an expat is a privilege, and a big goal for some people. Being able to move to another country, learn about a new culture and adopt new customs is an experience of a lifetime. Life becomes one big adventure and you meet so many people, learn a new language (if you’re lucky), and see some incredible places.

With this kind of lifestyle, what could possibly go wrong? Once you achieve this goal and live the expat life, it’s all easy cruising from here.. right? That’s exactly what I thought – until I learned a new English phrase.

“Expat Burnout”

What the heck is Expat Burnout? I know these two words, but I had never seen them together. Turns out, Expat Burnout is a real thing and a quick Google search will give you over a million hits on the web. And the more I read, the more I related.

My Expat Life

In early 2017, I left my comfortable property management job in Seattle with nothing but a suitcase and a close friend on a one way ticket to Vietnam. I’ve been here almost two years now as I sit and write this post. My life is full of new friends, Vietnamese house music constantly stuck in my head, and a couple new scars from learning to ride a motorbike in Vietnam’s crazy chaos that is traffic.

My current job is an English Teacher at a learning center in Ho Chi Minh City. I’ve seen so much of the country, and have had the opportunity to see some of Vietnam’s neighbors as well. My high-rise apartment with a view is only $270 a month, and I can take a yoga class for $2. Vietnam has offered such a great lifestyle with it’s low expenses. You can see my reflection on a year in Vietnam here.

What is Expat Burnout?

Burnout is usually categorized as a state of physical or emotional exhaustion. It can occur from a job, a relationship, or financial problems. Long term stress or irritation are likely causes for burnout.

So what is expat burnout? It’s basically when the sense of adventure in your new life abroad is wearing off, and things start becoming irritants or bothersome when they were once an exciting part of your life.

Let’s say you don’t like to eat spicy food, and you go to a restaurant that doesn’t speak the same language as you. You ask for a dish with no spice, but, because of the language barrier, they didn’t understand you and your dish is spicy. When this used to be something to laugh over, it’s now something that annoys the pants off you and you’re irritated you have to eat this spicy food now.

How is Expat Burnout Developed?

So much can contribute to expat burnout. It’s not caused by one particular event or situation. It’s unique to each person and can also come in waves. Some people never even experience it after decades abroad. It also doesn’t mean you’re not cut out for the lifestyle, it just means you need to make some tweaks. It is curable.

Common causes for Expat Burnout are infinite. Prolonged routine with no change can give someone no fulfillment, so expats don’t think they’re progressing in life. Working long and hard hours can cause expat burnout also. This list can go on and on, really.

Signs of Expat Burnout

If a good amount of these apply to you, expat burnout might be a possible explanation.

  • You feel unmotivated to do things that used to excite you. Whether it’s trying new foods, visiting new places, or meeting new people. You stick to your routine and known restaurants.
  • Loss of appetite
  • Home comes to your mind more that it used to. You compare your life with your friend’s lives back home a lot. And compare culture norms in your host country to your home country.
  • You’re overwhelmed.
  • Shorter temper
  • You don’t have the same excitement for things in your host country.
  • Life doesn’t seem that different anymore.
  • You absolutely detest the thought of going to work every day.
  • You have stopped traveling and exploring your host country.

Everyone is impacted differently when it comes to expat burnout, but the above are some common examples. The list is larger for some, and shorter for others.

expat burnout mentor travel

I can’t have Expat Burnout, right?

Vietnam has given me so many meaningful relationships, so many beautiful places to explore, and so many delicious foods to sample. I’m living in such an incredible country, there’s no possible way I’m experiencing expat burnout.. right?

Sure, my job isn’t the most exciting in the world, but at least it’s not the worst. Sure, my paycheck isn’t the biggest it could be, but at least I can pay my bills. But, is that the right attitude?

expat burnout mentor travel

Accepting the Monster

Even with a high rise apartment, a steady paycheck, a good group of friends, and a healthy partner, expat burnout is completely possible. I think the hardest part of dealing with it is admitting that you are experiencing it.

I also want to clarify, expat burnout is an experience, not a condition. So you’re not stuck with it. Just like it came, it can leave you without any notice. You can also change your environment, and voila! It’s gone. But there are somethings you can do to combat this experience.

expat burnout mentor travel

Showing Expat Burnout Who’s Boss

To take control of this time in your life, there are certain options you have to tell expat burnout who the boss really is.

  • Move to a new place: The unfamiliarity might just bring the spark back and give you new joy in your day to day life.
  • Move back home: A comfortable and well known vibe might be just what you need to get back to yourself.
  • Take a vacation: Maybe you just need a break from your routine and to explore the beauty of your host country again.
  • Create a routine: Have daily habits and rituals to help keep you focused.
  • Get a new hobby: Find something that ignites a passion in you. Take up yoga. Buy a beginner’s painting set and start drawing skylines. Try to learn coding and build some websites.
  • Open communication with old and new friends: Start hanging out with your new coworker more often, put an effort in to see that girl you met at a party one time and planned to go hiking with after. Call your old mates and see what’s new with them. Keep in the loop.
  • Learn the local language. Immersing yourself into the culture can give you a deeper understanding and a new perspective. You’ll also be able to form relationships you never would have been able to before.
  • Find a way to get exercise. It’s good for the mind and body. Go rock climbing, do Pilates, take pole dancing classes. It doesn’t have to be mindless gym workouts.

Therefore, if at the end of the day, you decide that going home is the best options, don’t feel like a failure. The fact that you even got the courage to leave your home country is one million times more than some other people have done. And you never know, it could be just want you need and there’s nothing wrong with that.

What am I Doing Now?

Now that I’ve admitted to myself that I’m experiencing expat burnout, I’ve made some minor adjustments to help combat it. I’ve decided to book some trips. I’m going to Taiwan in January to visit a friend, and I have my partner visiting me from the States in February. These two trips have given me something to look forward to.

I’ve also picked up new hobbies and allowed myself to do and buy things that make me feel good. I used to feel bad shopping, buying unnecessary things. But now, I allow myself to do it if it feels good. I’ve redecorated my room to make it more comfortable, and bought some new clothes, even if they’re not the cheapest items.

I also decided to peruse a new hobby or two. I’m trying to teach online as a way to make money and keep busy. Let me know if you want to give this a try too. And I’m also painting. It’s so relaxing to me and really helps me wind down.

Last, but not least, my final attempt to combat expat burnout is to move home. I’ve decided to go home and spend some time with my friends and family after two years in Vietnam. I love Vietnam dearly, but all this research has led me to believe that my time has come to an end. So come May 2020, I’ll be heading back to the States to see those I’ve been missing the most. Who knows? You might see me in another country shortly after.

Let me know what you think about expat burnout in the comments below? Have you experienced it? What did you do to beat it? I’d love to hear more ideas.

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