Expat Burnout: Time to Go Home? My Advice After 17 Years

Meet Gregory, a writer and the brains behind Face Dragons. He's the go-to guy for getting things done.

Gregory's been living the digital nomad life in Asia for as long as anyone can remember, helping clients smash their goals. He writes on topics like software, personal knowledge management (PKM), and personal development. When he's not writing, you'll catch him at the local MMA gym, nose buried in a book, or just chilling with the family.

After living in Asia for 17 years, I’ve often thought about moving back home. Sometimes, it’s because I miss family or my possessions (still boxed up in storage,) and sometimes, it’s through pure expat burnout. I’m sure there is a psychologist somewhere who will tell you the theory behind expat burnout, but when it hits you, you need to hear from someone who’s gone through it and come out the other end. That’s me.

Expat in China

I love the digital nomad lifestyle, and traveling to different countries but living thousands of miles away, dealing with everything that life throws at you while also navigating unknown languages, cultures, and expectations, will kick your butt. Some days, you just wish things were more straightforward, like back home.

The truth is, however, that life was a challenge there, too. So don’t give up on your expat or life abroad dream too soon. Get through this bout of expat burnout, then decide if it is time to throw in the towel and book those plane tickets home.

In this post, I want to answer a few questions and examine how I’ve dealt with expat burnout over the years

What Is Expat Burnout?

Burnout is a form of exhaustion caused by constantly feeling swamped. It’s a result of excessive and prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress.

WebMD

Like regular burnout, expat burnout is characterized by mental and emotional exhaustion, which leads to an inability to act creatively or productively or sometimes to do regular daily tasks. It affects people who have lived as an expat for several years, causing them to want to go home or feel helpless.

These are the symptoms you can expect if you’re experiencing expat burnout.

You Don’t Want to Be “Away” Anymore

This is how it starts.

You don’t need a terrible thing to happen to make you feel this way, like getting robbed or losing your passport. All it takes is to feel that you don’t want to be away from home anymore.

Expats dealing with expat burnout tell me they feel like they can’t settle down.

  • They can’t buy a house.
  • They don’t know where they will be next year.
  • Their future feels uncertain.

It doesn’t mean that you don’t enjoy being in the country you’re in or that you’re miserable or depressed necessarily. Many expats love living abroad but, at the same time, want to go home.

The Cultural Differences You Used to Love Now Frustrate You

This health code practically ruled my life during covid.

Tianjin Health Code

Walking into a restaurant and being unable to read anything on the menu can be exciting when you first arrive. And learning the different ways people interact or expect you to behave is fun.

After years and years of it, you may find it’s no longer appealing.

You want to eat your favorite snack from back home. You want to understand what people are saying around you. You just want things to be like they are back home.

My first Chinese New Year in China was exhilarating; fireworks went on every street for almost a week. While driving around in the back of a taxi, sparks would fly at the window as the driver swerved to avoid someone who had lit a big box of fireworks in the middle of the road.

It was crazy, it was carnage, it was incredible.

Fast forward a decade, and the fireworks at Chinese New Year were just a nuisance. They meant a week of waking up at 5 am due to the noise. They meant the city was blanketed by thick smoke, and burnt-out fireworks littered the floor.

You Find Yourself Wishing You Were Home All the Time

Sometimes it’s missing family and friends, sometimes it’s missing places, but it’s always missing the general sense of being back home.

You head to the bank to do something simple like open a savings account or exchange money. Still, after an hour and filling in what seems like hundreds of forms – not to mention getting your passport copied – the teller tells you, “I’m sorry you’ll have to find another bank or a local friend to help you with this.”

You know that every other bank will say the same thing. You’ve wasted your only morning off, have nothing to show for, and still can’t pay your damn rent (or whatever you needed the bank for.)

Then the words come as you leave the bank, still trying to stuff all the paperwork into your bag, “What am I doing here? Back home, I could walk into a bank anywhere and get this done in a minute. I wouldn’t need to deal with anything like this.”

What makes it worse is that it’s true: some things would be easier back home.

It Isn’t Expat Burnout When

If you’ve only been away for six months, you might be exhausted and feel homesick, but you don’t have expat burnout. Most people wouldn’t even call you a real expat if you haven’t been away for at least a year; until then, you’re just a tourist.

Tourists can get burnout from constantly moving around, struggling to understand what people are saying, living out of a suitcase, etc. But that’s different from expat burnout.

You Feel Homesick Sometimes

It’s natural to feel homesick occasionally. Missing your family and friends back home is natural and something that all expats will go through. These feelings may be stronger or weaker depending on what other things are going on in your life. But while homesickness will come and go, expat burnout clings to you.

What Should You Do About Your Expat Burnout?

Before you give up on your expat lifestyle, figure out if you can manage your feelings of expat burnout. Here are some suggestions that worked for me.

Remember Why You Moved Away

I find this hard. I was 21 when I left and moved to China, and now I’m nearly 40. Remembering who I was or what I was thinking back then isn’t easy. But I’ll give it a go; maybe it will help you do the same.

I lived in a small village and schooled in a small town my whole life. I wanted something different, something more than what everyone around me had. I wanted an adventure. I spent my time practicing martial arts and watching my favorite kung fu films, imagining that one day I’d find some master on a mountainside to take me as his student and teach me some ancient secret techniques.

Moving to China seemed a reasonable first step.

I’d learn to speak Chinese, practice authentic kung fu, and have the adventure I longed for.

A decade later, I spoke fluent Chinese. I had stopped practicing martial arts and spent most of my time in an apartment in a mega city. One day, it occurred to me that while I was in China, I wasn’t in the China I wanted.

I moved to the mountains and started training again and loved it. Here’s a video of me from that time.

Talking to Someone Will Help You Cope

The first thing you must do as soon as you start feeling the pangs of expat burnout is find some expats who will understand.

You must talk to someone, and while talking to friends and family back home might make you feel good for a few minutes, ultimately, their only advice will be to come back home; they don’t have the experience to give any other advice to help you get through what you’re feeling.

On the other hand, someone who knows what you’re going through will understand.

When I lived in Beijing, I met a friend every Wednesday in a brewery/bar. It was a long journey there, but it was like therapy for me; he felt the same way.

We’d spend most of the time moaning about our problems living in China. But when we’d finished moaning (and drinking), we’d go out and appreciate the things we still loved about being there.

There are still things you love about where you are, and there are huge benefits that come with being a digital nomad or an expat. They are just hidden behind a smokescreen of stuff you don’t. By talking those things through, the smoke will clear, and you’ll see clearly again.

You will find expat groups, meetups, and bars everywhere in the world; I’m sure you already know some; go talk to people there about how you’re feeling; you’ll be surprised to find that most people have gone through it and will help you get through it, too.

Slow Down & Prioritize Self Care

When feeling the stress of expat burnout, you must love yourself a little more. That means two things:

  • Forgive yourself when things go wrong
  • Give yourself a treat

Self-care means different things to different people. For some, it may mean a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and watching some trashy movie. For others, it may mean going to get your nails done and having a facial.

For me, it was massages. I was in China, and the massage place down the street costs about $4 for an hour. Some days, I’d stay there for three hours and fall asleep. Say what you want, but it’s hard to feel stressed out after three hours of sleepy massage!

Take a Trip Back Home

Over the years, I’ve gone back home several times for holidays or just to visit family. Returning to your home country after years away is a fantastic feeling at first.

You get to see all your family and friends that you’ve missed, feel like you blend into the crowd, speak to people in your own language, and understand what’s going on (most of the time.)

If you’re looking for a quick fix or just to get an instant hit of feel-good, going back home for a few weeks will give you that.

But, every time I went back home, I found that after about three weeks, I was ready to leave again.

Think back to when you left to become an expat in the first place. Was it only for the job, or were there other reasons you wanted to leave your home country? Perhaps you found it dull or oppressive or wanted more excitement. One year, I found myself sitting around my parent’s dining table, looking out at an empty street in a small village. I’d already been there over a month and didn’t want to continue renting an expensive car, but I was stuck in a village that didn’t even have a store.

I realized that although I didn’t feel great as an expat, I didn’t want to move back home either. That morning, I booked a flight back to China.

Here’s What It Came Down to for Me

There are a few things that exacerbated my expat burnout:

  • Busy days out in the city center
  • Drinking too much
  • Eating junk food
  • Feeling like I wasn’t making the most of my time

The busy days out in the center of Beijing just exhausted me, but the other three points above made my burnout symptoms much worse. It wasn’t only the effect of the alcohol or the junk food; it was the guilt that came along with it.

I never drank that much and always kept more or less in shape. But when I drank a few days in a row, I’d start feeling guilty. But it was worse when I felt I was wasting my time overseas.

I don’t know how many expats I spoke to over the years who told me, “I’ve been here for x number of years but still don’t speak much Chinese, I really should start learning.”

The guilt of wasting the opportunities in front of you is a fundamental cause of expat burnout, and the answer is simple.

  • Remember why you’re there
  • Take care of yourself
  • Talk to someone
  • Take a trip back home