Packing boxes on lawn outside house.

On why the First Year is the Worst Year for Expats

I can tell the kids are tired and ready for a break.  For the last couple of weeks, getting them up for school has been increasingly tricky.  At the weekend it felt like herding slugs just convincing them to get dressed head out to the supermarket.  I know I’m ready for a break.  I’m feeling antisocial and crabby. Yes, indeed, we have a severe case of First-Year-Frustrations adding to the annual bout of Expat End-of-year-itus .

Last year was bad because we were leaving South Africa, decluttering and packing up our lives with a slew of bittersweet farewells.  Surprisingly, this year feels worse, I think year one in a new country is always the toughest as the learning curve is so steep. Finding somewhere to live, trying to round up a few friends and just pulling together those first few meals is exhausting.


End-of-year-itus suffered by families the world over.  Cases soar at the end of the academic year when in addition to all their normal routine things like clean school uniform, completed school work and packed lunches, they also have to squeeze in school trips, concerts, galas, socials, dress up days, exam stress etc etc.

As parents you may be required to bake, volunteer to join school trips or head up school fair stalls, sign permission forms, create costumes, attend endless events and clap and cheer at the appropriate moment.  Meanwhile school uniforms are looking a bit tight and tatty and need to last just a few more weeks or days.  It all gets a bit too much.


Expat-End-of-year-itus is more severe than the common garden form.  Additional stress may manifest in the form of farewell parties, packing up to move, packing up for a long summer holiday.  There is the anticipation of seeing family and friends and the looming pressure to fit it as much as possible.

First Year Frustrations

Expat-end-of-year-itus is further exacerbated in the year that you leave (that was last year for us) and the year that you arrive (that’s this year for us).  In the first few weeks in Hong Kong, I remember trying to use a flat pan on a wok ring and cobble together palatable meals in a minuscule kitchen.  Before we were sorted with a water filter I was lugging 5 litre bottles of water back from the supermarket every day.

And there was the one day I was stuck on the opposite side of the city to where I needed to be to collect the kids from school.  I was stranded on a highway (long story) and every bus that went past was full.  Meanwhile my phone battery was waning fast.  Eventually after waving frantically at every single passing vehicle (and I mean every vehicle, busses, taxis, trucks and motorbikes), I flagged down a random bus heading to a mystery destination and somehow managed to get where I needed to be on time.  I arrived wild eyed, pulse racing, phone gasping it’s last.

Essentially, when you move to a new country, everyone else already knows how things work.  We’re the last minute invitees arriving mid party, but it was a verbal invitation. Everybody else knew to bring a bottle of wine and a plate of food.  They arrive in smart casual dress.  Instead we were invited via a friend of a friend who gave us a vague run down of what to expect.  We arrive late, with a case of beer, a bag or crisps in fancy dress and feel woefully ridiculous and unprepared.  But by the end of the night, we’re having a blast and we’ll know better next time.

We had so many first year frustrations.  I thought I’d been proactive and organised by setting up a Hong Kong bank account while I was still in the UK.  Three long appointments at the bank and a number of phone calls over the summer break and my account was open before we touched down in Honkers.  However, when I went to collect my card and cheque book in branch, I was told they had accidentally been sent to my parents’ house in the UK.

So they cancelled the card and cheque book and then asked me for the code I should have just received by SMS.

Me: But the SMS will have gone to my UK number.

Bank Clerk: Yes.

Me: But I’m in Hong Kong and I now have a Hong Kong number.

Bank Clerk: Yes, it has gone to your UK number.  Maybe you can check the message when you are in the UK?

Me: I won’t be in the UK until December, it’s August and I need to use the account now. 

Bank Clerk:  Okay, no problem.  We will now spend two hours together jumping through hoops to get replacement ones sent out, during which time your children will become hungry and behave like feral beasts.  

Then you can collect your replacement card from this branch next week and then you can go to a completely different branch in a different part of the city to collect your cheque book.  And I note that you have requested a left-handed cheque book.  I will smile and nod at you, giving you a sliver of false hope, but in actual fact you will just receive a standard cheque book like everyone else.  

Additionally you no doubt think that one card and one cheque book means one account. It does not.  There is a checking account and a savings account.  The card will work for both accounts, but you will have to discover by trial and error which of the two accounts your money is in and how to access it.

In the meantime while you are still clueless and can’t get your card to work because you’re trying to pay from the account that has no money in it, the first time you go shopping you will have to put half your shopping back and buy the bare essentials with whatever cash you have on your person.  Your children will wail “but mummy, you promised we could have a treat today, you said that we had been really superbly well behaved because we moved 10,000 miles and just started a new school and we have to wear ties and we’re sweaty and we’re soooooo hungry….”.  One of them begins to cry. Meanwhile an impatient and ever lengthening queue passive aggressively observes this precious family tableau at the check-out.

Just when you’ve worked out how to use your card, somebody will ask you for a cheque. As an extra surprise, the check book will only work for one of the accounts. Consequently, you have a 50% chance that you’re first cheque will bounce.  

Me:  Oh that’s wonderful.  Thank you so much.

See, first year frustrations.   Next year will surely be a doddle and we will experience a far milder case of end-of-year-itus.

Are you suffering from end of year its or expat-end-of-year-itus?  Keep going, you’re nearly through it.  See you on the other side.

23 thoughts on “On why the First Year is the Worst Year for Expats”

    1. Ha ha, thanks 2Summers. Yes it’s the same, but different. Here is more about reading the instructions and following the rules (problem being that they’re in another language). In SA it’s more like write your own instructions and make a plan. Both systems have their merits, although I was never one for reading the instructions and much more of a fly by the seat of my pants type, so I’m struggling with that a little bit.. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. That post made me and my husband laugh a lot!! Thank you for that. It’s always hard to explain to people about the moving continent/first-year hassles and blues but your party analogy is spot on. And the bank story – sounds all too familiar. We are in Joburg at the moment and looking to move on next year so we’re already looking forward to the Personal Hell that is visa/medicals/job search…followed by bank and shopping fun. Why do we do it? Because the weather stinks in Scotland, that’s why. Have a great summer.


    1. SO pleased it made you guys laugh – a lot. It took me until yesterday to pluck up the patience (not courage, just hours of patience) to make the trek to apply for my driving licence, but hopefully that’s another box ticked. Then I had another trip to the bank about a different matter – let’s see how that turns out. Good luck with your final year. I both do and don’t envy you. Do you know where you’ll end up or will it be one of those last minute surprises that makes the learning curve even steeper yet? Same to you Ali, enjoy the summer break – even if you’re heading to Scotland and the weather is rubbish. 🙂


  2. Hilarious! Brings back “fond” memories of installing and maintaining our (joint) bank accounts in Beijing and Shanghai… and how I could have my own credit card but not my own debit card …and how the two branches of China Merchants Bank in Beijing and Shanghai had absolutely nothing to do with each other and would not communicate with each other,
    … and how my first year there, everything was cash only so we would always carry a huge wad of cash with us but were warned not to…. Sorry about your end- of-year-itis 😦 We are repatriated, retired, without kids in school, and that brings up a whole other set of -itis, which are no less fun…..


    1. Sibylla, that sounds so incredibly frustrating. You despair at the time don’t you, but oh it makes for a great story. And oh my goodness – CASH. We carry it less and less, but everything was done by cash when we lived in Lagos (the west African one, not the Portuguese one). I remember going to buy a television with an actual sackful. And the notes were just filthy and then it would take forever to count it out in the shop and then they’d recount to check it. I always say to my husband that one day when we’re repatriated and the kids have flown at least we’ll have some pretty amazing tales to keep us warm in our dotage. Hopefully it will help with the other set of -itus. Good luck with your current set of -ituses. 🙂


  3. Sending you good vibes and wishing you a speedy recovery. Have been through this sort of thing in multiple countries, and yes, it does get better. And then looking back you have a ‘fun’ memory or at least can write it up with a sense of humor. Good luck!


    1. I think it would be worse if I didn’t know it will get better, just ready for a bit of a break. I was briefly on the brink of sense-of-humour-failure yesterday, but a good friend popped over and we vented over a glass or two of wine and ended up crying with laughter, so my sanity clings on for another day. Thanks so much Miss Fooloose, good vibes are always welcome.


  4. Oh my goodness, yes. I don’t think I could’ve handled anything to do with setting up a bank account in Finland on my own. (Why is every country so different when it comes to banking?!) Even with an agency to help, my husband has an account that I don’t have access to, while the other account is joint. Checks are not even a thing here, most branches don’t handle cash, and if you don’t have an appointment, you’ll easily spend an hour waiting in line.
    Whew, I can’t wait to move to the UK. It sounds simple now (at least there won’t be a language barrier), but I’m sure I’ll be surprised by random things.
    Here’s hoping your second year is easier!


    1. Oh wow, are you moving to the UK Emily?How exciting. I’m sure you’ll find it easier than Finland and yet still utterly baffling in ways you can’t yet imagine. Having been away so long, we sometimes find it baffling too. Re banking, I wasn’t allowed my own account in South Africa and then discovered that every time I spent money on my secondary user card my husband would get a notification. I used to call it his tracking device because he knew where I was and how much I was spending. Crazy. It’s very nice to have my own account again.


      1. Yes, sometime next year! I’m so looking forward to being able to get around in English without worrying about putting people off.
        That’s crazy about the banking. We’ve had a joint account (and ONLY a joint account) since we got married. I had no idea a lot of Europeans find that odd, but it’s a lot easier for us. Although, we’ve never had a tracking system attached to it. 😂


      2. Well any UK questions, give me a shout. Unless it’s about banking, that’s a headache in every country and I won’t know the answer. Everybody speaks English, but I’ll be interested to know what you think of some of our regional accents, which are sometimes impenetrable and baffling to non-Brits.


      3. Thanks! I rather look forward to hearing those accents. I always thought I’d stand out so much with my American accent, but it turns out there are so many accents, that a lot of people don’t pick up on the fact it’s American. I think they will in England though…

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I knew it! If it weren’t for the accent, I think I could blend in at this point. That being said, I do usually play Spot the Brit when I’m doing touristy things. (They’re always so obvious.)


      5. It does work out rather nicely. I’ll probably be that crazy person who’s so excited to hear English that I strike up a conversation with random people. 😂


      6. I’ve been that person many times. It’s been a surprisingly effective way to make friends over the years. First person I met in Istanbul, I accosted in a supermarket, I finished my outing with a party invitation and a new friend. First person I met in Hong Kong was a woman I befriended (stalked) in the school uniform shop – she’s the one who came over and put the world to rights with a glass of wine on Monday just gone.


      7. Well then, lesson learned! Don’t be afraid to stalk people. I think that’s honestly how I made a few friends here. I hope you enjoyed the wine and company!


  5. I had a severe case of “the burn outs” while living abroad in UAE last year. Took a toll on my mental health! Do you have any suggestions on how to practice self-care as an expat? I’d love to read a full blog on this topic! I’ll be leaving to Dalian, China this September and I don’t want to risk burning out, like I almost did in UAE. Thanks!


    1. Hi Addie – In the first 6 months my advice is always to ‘Say YES to everything’, I wrote a whole post about that here; But after that it’s a good idea to pare things back a bit. It’s easy to overcommit socially, so say no sometimes. Saying no was something I used to find difficult, but after spreading myself way too thin, I learned to do so and I feel much more relaxed. Hope that helps and good luck in China.


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