Personal reflections after two years of living abroad

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And just like that, it’s July. I’ve hit the two-year mark on living in Switzerland, with another two years to go.

I’ve previously reflected on my first year here, as well as written about mini culture shock moments in life (here and here) and at work. I know that having spent only two years here (one of them during an unprecedented global pandemic), I am in no way an expert on anything, and there is so much more I have yet to learn. But I also feel that the way I learn has evolved over time. Instead of encountering small, surprising moments on a daily basis (“wait, you have to weigh the produce before going to the checkout counter?”), I now process the challenges and nuances of life as an expat in a more drawn-out and subtle way, across longer periods of time.

I said the same thing last year, but it’s remarkable how much things have changed in just one year. Although I am still in Geneva, I have changed apartments, changed jobs, probably changed parts of my personality too. I have become a kinder person in the way I act, but I also have less faith in others.

Last fall, for instance, I was caught in a cyclone of panic when I found out that I wasn’t safe in my apartment; that I had been taken advantage of for over a year by a couple that had seemed so kind and sympathetic. Not only did I go through the stressful process of trying to find a new apartment in Geneva, I also learned just how hard it was to get help and advocate for yourself when you don’t speak the local language well enough to be fluent. At my worst, I felt vulnerable, helpless, and invisible.

It didn’t help that I also often felt this way about work. Though I was no newbie to office drama, it still deeply shocked and traumatized me that three women of color were fired or pushed out from our small team in under two years. At the same time, I was tasked with creating a diversity, equity and inclusion strategy for our team — a topic that I had no expertise in, nor capacity to take on the emotional labor. I felt terrible and was sick a lot, and also had to go back into therapy. I was on the verge of giving notice and moving back to the US if I couldn’t find a new job here.

Then, suddenly in April, a job offer landed in my lap. After I served out my notice period, I took a week off and went on holiday near the Swiss-Italian border. I enjoyed some beautiful views and good food, and I thought I was all set to start anew.

But I very quickly realized that emotionally, I am still nursing my wounds. I feel cagey and guarded around new people, regardless of how nice and normal they seem to be. When reading emails, I have to keep reminding myself not to pick up passive-aggressive subtexts that aren’t there. A chronic oversharer, I now tend to fall silent, not knowing if people will gossip or take things the wrong way.

It will take time to heal, and I am allowing myself to take that time.

Of course, many good things have happened as a direct result of the challenging things. I traded my overpriced and ugly sublet for an adorable new apartment that I have since decorated with love and care. I worked with a career coach for three months to map out my next steps. I started talk therapy again with a counsellor that I am coming to trust more and more. I upped my French level from zero to B1. And most of all, I am learning to slowly let go of the anxiety and self-flagellation that years of working in high-stress American office environments have instilled in me, like working on a sick day, feeling guilty for stepping away to run an errand while working from home, and using my own paycheck to cover costs for work projects that my boss said we didn’t have the budget for.

In my personal life, I am developing more hobbies. I’ve taken up painting. In true Swiss fashion, I have come to love hiking and being immersed in mountains and nature. Now that we are out of lockdown, I’m hosting regular meetups in Geneva for extroverted introverts like me. I continue to travel, almost exclusively by train. And I am hyperfocused on getting my French from B1 to B2 by the end of this year, so that I can feel more and more integrated into this vibrant local community, instead of living only in the expat bubble.

Last year, I felt uncertain about my future. This year, the uncertainty is still there, but it’s not so frightening anymore. I know for a fact that I will be in Geneva for two more years. After that, I might be reassigned to another country, or I might find myself staying here in a different post. It is all unknown, and it is kind of exciting.

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