You are different than everyone around you. Perhaps you don’t speak their language so well (or at all). Maybe you miss your friends at home that know all of the inside jokes. Maybe you are just posted in a tiny town where everyone already has friends and doesn’t need new ones. Or an enormous one where you know noone. You are out of your comfort zone so far you can’t even see it anymore. And this isn’t travel, so you could be living alone and likely working all day. The expatriate experience is a wonderful one. Though it can be a isolating and lonely one at times.
Difference between Isolation and Loneliness
It is quite possible to be isolated and not lonely. In the summer I quite happy ride my bike up the valley with no one around and sit under an oak tree for several hours reading a book. This is isolation, but I am not lonely. This is my alone time. In the flip case, it is also possible to be lonely but not isolated. Germany is a country the size of Wisconsin with 80 Million people. It is pretty hard to be totally isolated physically. Loneliness is a feeling of emotional or mental isolation when you would rather not be isolated, so perfectly possible without the physical separation. I have been lonely in the midst of parties.
Isolation doesn’t always have to be a bad thing, though loneliness usually is tinged negative. Being too isolated tends to make the loneliness worse though. The physical separation seeps inward.
As foreigners, we as expats by definition begin as outsiders. We come into to a culture from outside it. This brings with it an aura of isolation. Between hesitation on both sides of the culture barrier, this isolation can be severe. It takes time to get used to a place and feel comfortable enough to act in it. It also takes time for locals to get used to you enough to reach out. This can be better or worse depending on situation and culture. Language barriers add to this isolation, another wall between people.
This isn’t restricted to expats though. Moving town even in the US, it took a while to get used to being in another place and get used to the way things work there. There are far fewer barriers when it comes to moving within your own culture and language, but they are there. I lived in a smaller city during college for a semester of work study and was reminded of it in the first few months of living in Germany. That sense of not knowing where the good pizza place is or having anybody you know to go with you to find a new one.
There is a language component to this too. Stress seems to reduce the ability to understand or speak foreign languages, at least for me. Heck, extreme stress reduces my ability to speak English. So in a foreign place, loneliness makes me seek out my own language. My first few months of not knowing people, I spent an awful lot of time in the Irish Pub just because they spoke English.
I have days where I feel nearly integrated. I feel like I speak very good German and know where to go to get what I need and want for a happy life. I sit in movies with German friends and talk about Star Wars references in hushed tones in the back. I ride my bike just like a local. Everything fits and everything is fine. On other days, I have no desire whatsoever to hear any more German. I just want to be able to drive home in a dry car instead of stand out in the rain. Why can’t I find what I am looking for in the store? I can’t sleep and feel totally out of sync. At these times the cultural differences stand out in stark relief and are nearly blinding in the contrast. Those days I feel lonely. I miss my friends and other life.
The truth is that most days I life somewhere between these two extremes. As I get more or less sleep and have more or less stress in my life, I wander back and forth. One of the things that almost always cheers me up is talking to other expats. We seem to share an understanding of what is going on. This is one of my definitions for the expatriate spirit. That sense of knowing what it is like to live between two worlds and how grating that can be sometimes.
For whatever reason it seems that when I get into a funk of loneliness I just wan to hibernate. This is so totally counter productive. I really should use these feelings to drive myself out of my shell and seek out people to talk to. I think though, the hurt of the loneliness makes me feel more vulnerable and thus less likely to go out in a situation that may be stressful either linguistically or culturally. I don’t want to risk being spurned.
The best choice of course is to go out and talk to people. Practice those language skills, however bad they are. Talk to the bartenders and whoever happens to sit next to you. This is something I can do while traveling, but somehow miss when I am feeling overwhelmed in my own town. It is just a paradox when I am feeling down. I just want to curl up with beer and a movie.
This Too Shall Pass
I alternatively love and hate this phrase. It is such a great thing to remember that any situation can change and probably will given some time. That sense of loneliness will fade when I get my butt up to do something or call a friend and go hang out. Just as physical and cultural isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness, breaking down those barriers will help fix it. Not instantly, but surely over time.
As a traveler I have these feelings of isolation, but the situation of actually traveling has opportunities to get me out of it. In my daily routine I need to get into remembering those things when I feel the isolation closing in and the loneliness coming on.
Expats, do you feel the isolation and loneliness? What do you do when you do? Is it different than culture shock or just one aspect?
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This is a supported post, but the words and sentiments are my own.