​​6 Tips for Self Care While Living Abroad

When we move abroad we all hope—at least I did—that we will be the kind of people who integrate seamlessly into the local culture. We’ll tell jokes in the local language over ​cassava fries and warm beer (or whatever the local snack happens to be) and move fluidly between our compatriots and our cross-cultural friends. We’ll be perfect expats.

​It turns out I am not one of those people. And during my eight years living mostly in East Africa I never met anyone who was. Some people came closer to it than I did, but no one lived up to this ideal.

Living cross-culturally is hard. Differences between where you’re from and where you are—differences in language, socio-economic status, cultural expectations, even ​things as silly as clothing styles—add a layer of challenge to nearly every task and nearly every relationship, from buying produce at the local market to joining a friend’s wedding party.
It’s okay to get tired. It’s okay to need a break. It’s even okay to burn out. And importantly—even in the face of war and poverty and suffering—it’s okay to take care of yourself. In fact, I ​’d ​ argue that no matter where you live, that’s job number one ​. Taking care of yourself allows you to sustainably ​ ​care for others.

Here are a few practices that were helpful for me, and might help you care for yourself while living abroad.

1. Invest in expat friendships. It can feel wrong to focus on people from your own country while living abroad. But you are sharing a profound experience, and we need that mutual understanding to soften our pains and fill out our understandings. I had a group of expat friends in Uganda that met every week for dinner and discussion, and a smaller group of close expat friends that got together often. This community allowed me to process some of the tougher parts of living abroad and shared with me their cultural insights—things I had missed that went on to enrich my relationships with Ugandan friends and coworkers.

2. Say no a lot. The world is rife with inequality. If you moved to a different country to do aid or development work, you are not only an agent of solving that problem, you’re also one of the clearest examples of it. You are a piece of the rich world fallen right smack in the middle of the poor one. This will make you the target of a lot of asks—for school fees, hospital bills, food money, all-expense-paid trips back to your home country. Get good at, and comfortable with, saying no. Not because handouts are bad, etc., etc. But because it’s not your job to fill everyone’s needs and desires. It’s your job to do your job. And you get to decide what kind of generosity works for you.

3. Indulge a little. When you move to a place where poverty is the norm, it can feel pretty insensitive to indulge in even small luxuries. But flying to a new place doesn’t change where you’re from, and if you’re from a highly-developed country then you’re used to having all sorts of wonderful things at your fingertips—from your favorite snacks to high speed wifi. Losing them all at once—by moving and swearing them off—can cause a sort a deprivation whiplash. It might not be flattering to realize that you need a meal at a nice restaurant or a tub of peanut butter to stay balanced, but regardless, it’s important to recognize your needs and take care of yourself. For me it was sipping cappuccinos and reading books in a fancy Ugandan cafe. Don’t worry, your peanut butter isn’t going to hurt anyone.

4. Take time off. Living abroad is exhausting. The amount of mental, physical, and emotional energy required to leave where you’re from, move your life across the world, and learn to navigate a new language, culture, geography, currency, etc. is enormous. You are going to need a break. You’re going to need breaks during the day. You’re going to need breaks on weekends. Sometimes you’re going to need a week or two or more off. Take them. Not because you’ve earned them or deserve them more than others, but because you need them, and taking care of yourself is job number one. Near the end of my time in Uganda I was introduced to a beautiful, secluded little hostel by the Nile that was only a couple hours from where I lived. They served burritos and cold beer. The minibus there cost two dollars. I went at least one weekend a month, and it was transcendent.

5. Take care of your body. When you move across the world you suddenly lose all of your food and exercise habits. But when living abroad it’s as important as ever—and maybe more than ever—to take good care of your body. Invest the time and effort to find the local food options that fit your needs, and to figure out how you can get enough movement and exercise into your days to stay healthy and happy. In Uganda I ran my first marathon, and despite the jeers of bemused Ugandans, the long training runs were among my favorite experiences in the country. And remember to get lots of sleep. Your brain will be on overdrive processing new places, languages, customs, etc. You’ll need extra sleep to consolidate it all. Also beware of unhealthy habits like smoking and drinking too much. In the stress of cross-cultural living it’s easy to turn to these diversions, but their impact on your health will only erode your ability to sustainably do the work that’s important to you.

6. Leave when you need to leave. The truth is you might get burnt out. Or you might just find yourself ready to be home. Or you might find that your priorities in life have shifted away from this kind of work and you want the opportunities of your home country. It’s okay. Be attentive to these shifts in your thoughts and feelings. It’s easy to feel a sense of responsibility or obligation to tough it out. And it’s common to cling to the expat identity and be a little scared to move back and just be “normal” again. But trust me, the last thing you want to be, and the last thing your cross-cultural home needs, is a burnt out expat who’d rather not be there any more. Be honest with yourself about what’s best for you and let that be a top priority in your decisions.

It’s okay that you’re not the perfect expat. No one is. Remember that, even in the midst of poverty or suffering, it’s okay for you to have needs, it’s okay to need a break, and it’s okay—in fact it is critical—to take care of yourself, whatever that looks like for you.


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