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Blog // Travel
August 27, 2012

Year Two Defines Your Expat Experience

I’m now well and truly into the second year of my Singapore adventure. Last week, when I wrote about moving from Hong Kong to Singapore I made a little oberservation on my previous expat experiences, “I’ve never moved somewhere and instantly fallen in love with a place. Even London took a few months to win […]

I’m now well and truly into the second year of my Singapore adventure. Last week, when I wrote about moving from Hong Kong to Singapore I made a little oberservation on my previous expat experiences,

“I’ve never moved somewhere and instantly fallen in love with a place. Even London took a few months to win me over.”

It’s probably in our nature to want to settle in quickly, feel like a local as soon as possible and just get on with life. But, I’ve found that for myself (and quite a few other expats I’ve met), it’s really the second year in a new city that defines the experience, sometimes the whole experience, of that place.

Four Cities – Four Stories

There’s no city I’ve enjoyed more, or felt more comfortable in, than London. But, the first year was a real mixed bag. It took a while to get used to the place. Everything seemed so expensive and making friends wasn’t easy. It took about six months to settle into any sort of routine of work and play.

But, my second year was golden; easily the most satisfying and productive of the season I spent in academia. I felt plugged into the rhythm of the city and even my football team was doing well (I was there to cheer Chelsea onto victory in the last FA Cup Final in the old Wembley stadium).

Delhi was a very different experience. My first year was disastrous, for personal and professional reasons. I started my second year still convalescing and getting back into golf, which turned out to be central to my experience of India. That same year I started this blog and returned to music full-time.

Hong Kong was, at first, a very comfortable experience. I made some friends, but they were expats on their way out of the city. My second year was right at the height of the pre-financial crisis bubble and I was just a lowly stay at home dad, spending much of my time around other people’s hired help at birthday parties, school pickups and after school activities. It was easily the loneliest year of my life.

Your Second Year Defines Your Experience

In each of these cities, the second year became a template for the way I felt about a place. My second year in London still holds many of my best memories of living there. My second year in Delhi was a time of slow recovery and coming to not just accept, but enjoy a different way of life. My second year in Hong Kong was a rich source of stories and anecdotes, but also a desperately companionless term.

Revisit Your Map

All of us carry a mental map in our heads, of the place we live in. Often that map has big chunks of the real world missing from it. At the end of my first year in London, my mental map was a small triangle, with Putney in the South, Kensington High Street in the North and The Strand at the Far East. That’s all I knew. Part of what made the second year so much fun was expanding that circle at every opportunity.

I also remember, at the start of my second year, trying to draw a map, from memory, of all the cafes and pubs in my local neighbourhood. It was a way to test how well I knew the place where I lived. As it turned out, there were still plenty of streets left to explore.

This past week I went for a very long walk around my local neighbourhood here in Singapore; intentionally turning down sidestreets I had not explored. It helped that the day was relatively mild and inviting. I found a number of places – parks, shops and cafes – I had no idea existed. All close to my place and destined to become part of my expanded (and ultimately more satisfying) mental map of Singapore.

And Revisit Your Expectations

In many ways, your second year in a city is really it. If you aren’t having fun yet, there’s a chance you never will, not unless you change your outlook, or revisit your expectations. The second year is the time to accept what your new home can offer as much as what it can’t offer.

It is also the time to be brutally frank about what you hope to achieve, the time to seize the day. I’ve seen plenty of expats settle into a comfortable routine in their second year, only to feel like time has run out on them a few years later, when their assignment finishes or they feel the urge to move on. Then there is a rushed, almost manic race to finish everything they had hoped to do in this place, or enjoy every experience they had parked for “another day.”

My Second Year Regrets

London, Delhi and Hong Kong were very different experiences. But, in each place, if I had my time over again, I would more fully commit to the reality I was facing, rather than wishing things were different. This was especially true in my last two locations.

In Delhi I was really struggling with changing career in mid-life and like many people who face such situations I was full of doubt. But, I wish I had been more decisive in that change. And, I wish I had embraced the opportunity to play golf regulary with more vigour. Sure, it felt weird, but at the time, it was a fantastic way to get back into shape, physically and mentally.

Equally, I wish I had been more accepting of my situation in Hong Kong. That time as a stay at home dad was so odd I wrestled for years to explain it. But, in struggling to find those words I became a better writer and even landed an occasional column with the South China Morning Post. And, it was all those lonely moments that forced me to look at my world in a new way and grew in me the urge to take up photography.

So, whatever is the reality in your location, accept it and make your move.

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Responses
Archie 9 years ago

Nice article. I’ve been a newcomer 4 times as well and this time (Shanghai) has been 7 years: year 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 all have different characteristics.

Interested to hear how year 2 Singapore works out…

Paul Yu (@pahtz) 9 years ago

“I would more fully commit to the reality I was facing, rather than wishing things were different.”

This is most true. I started in Melbourne trying to reconcile being Australian but with strangers telling me I’m Asian, and went to HK aged 7 thinking I was Australian, left for Sydney aged 16 thinking I was HKese, returned to HK aged 33 thinking my whole world was in Sydney.

I absolutely agree with this; it took my wife and I about 6 months to adjust to life in Australia and it really was in our second year that we hit our stride. Excellent advice.

By the way, this post and a thread on LinkedIn inspired me to write a similar post — http://goodmigrationshelps.com/blog/2012/10/should-you-write-off-the-first-6-months-of-your-expat-life/

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