What do you wish you had known before you first moved overseas? This is basically the question I asked myself – and others – when I first started writing the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. The book expanded and expanded as more and more people responded to my requests for help, and eventually I had chapters spanning subjects as diverse as finding a school, managing domestic staff and looking after your personal security.
But what if you could boil it down to one little nugget of information? What would you tell your pre-expat self if you could go back in time? What one thing do you think would have made your expat life, in particular the early days, just that little bit easier?
This was the question I decided to ask one very knowledgeable group of expats (members of the I Am A Triangle group for expats and repats) and then try and distill it into one blog post. Of course this wasn’t an easy task as everyone has something different to say. But actually there were a few themes that ran throughout. It seems that in the end, most of us do experience very similar issues when we move abroad.
The answers came in from all around the world – from Europe, the Middle East, from the US, from South America, and from south east Asia. From people who had previously lived in South Africa, in Egypt, in Thailand, in Mexico….I think amongst my answers I pretty well had the whole world covered so I knew these were true experts who were giving their opinions. So, listen up people, if you are a new expat or if you are soon to be one, or even if you are a long-term expat but still wondering how to do things (aren’t we all?), here is some great advice:
For a start IT WILL BE NOTHING LIKE YOU EXPECTED, says one respondent who has lived in countries on all five main continents of the world. This, I think, is so true – I have actually stopped having expectations when I move somewhere new as it never is what I think it will be. Instead, I see my coming life as a blank space that slowly gets fiilled in with new friends, experiences, the children’s friends and school-life, gossip from my husband’s workplace, catastrophes small and large, new food and weather….
Along the same lines, another told me: “Leave your “old” self at the door, this adventure is definitely going to change you. Roll with it!”. More great advice – life will take you in directions you have no idea about, and I suspect even those who have a job lined up and think they know what they are headed for will be surpised how some things will turn out.
Next, quite a few people recommended getting out there and meeting people as soon as you can. “Attend cooking classes,” said one. “Try to make new friends so you don’t get isolated”, said another. And “join expat groups at the beginning – it will help tremendously”, said a third.
I think this is really good advice as actually many of us find “getting out there” incredibly difficult and almost against instinct when we first arrive somewhere new. This was backed up by one of the survey respondents, originally from the Netherlands but now living in Manila, who said: “It really is hard sometimes but get out and make friends”. I would agree with her as I am not a great fan of those early days making small talk and shuffling around each other trying to work out if you are going to get on or not. But hearing from the experts how necessary it is makes it perhaps a little easier to push yourself out of your comfort zone and maybe accept that invitation, go to that party or event. After all, what is the worse that can happen? You can always leave if you hate it (and I have, more than once!).
Once you have made a few friends and feel a little more settled, the advice was to “embrace the culture“. According to one respondent who is currently living in the UK but spent 3.5 years in Mexico:
Get involved….as much as you can – working, or volunteering, studying the language and really “experience” where you are – travel, see things, absorb everything, make notes and take photos. It is the best experience of your life
However one note of caution about getting too involved in the local community struck a cord – according to one respondent who, like me, has lived in South Africa as well as other African countries but is now in Thailand: “Do not make political comments about the country. People are patriotic about their country no matter how bad/beaureaucratic it is”.
This is sound guidance – unless you are very heavily invested in a country (eg marry a local, have a family there, possibly set up your own business), it’s worth remembering you are just a guest there. You may struggle with the way things are done and the local politics but if in doubt it’s usually best to keep opinions to yourself.
More advice revolves around doing your research before you leave. “Prepare, prepare, prepare,” said one (and what better way than to read the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide 😉 ). “Do your research and reading, ” said another, adding: “don’t expect to find specialized products”. This was echoed by another commenter who added: “Do not look for home country comforts.” In other words, if you know what you are getting yourself into you know you can be at least a little bit ready for it – whether that’s by bringing with you a few things from home to make the early days that little bit easier or realising that you may just have to do without them altogether.
Preparation of another kind was recommended by a respondent who lives in Dubai but is on her way to Nigeria: “Get a fitness qualification: Yoga, PT, Swimming coach, Zumba, anything you could use to take classes for other expats.”. I have always thought this sort of portable career is a great idea, although it does of course depend on where you are moving and what is – or isn’t – already available there. And on the question of work, here’s some suggestions with eventual repatriation in mind:
If you’re giving up paid work in order to relocate, connect with an expat career coach and have regular (maybe annual) check-ins to discuss what you’re doing to stay current and your future plans (because they will change the longer you’re away). I had no idea until I repatriated that career coaches for expats even existed and I wish I’d done more to prepare myself for an eventual return to the workforce.
Don’t think you won’t experience the expat cycle symptoms this time because you already moved to other countries before… You will and it will take months for you to feel finally ok. It´s normal, don’t be hard on yourself.
Soon, even the most exotic and intimidating place will become just your local neighbourhood 🙂
- Prepare as well as you can in advance – but don’t have expectations about what life will be like
- Get out there and try and meet people as soon as you can. Be creative in finding ways to do this.
- Have one eye on the future when it comes to work
- Don’t be surpised if settling in takes longer than you expected (although of course you shouldn’t have any expectations 🙂 ) – even if it is not your first time living overseas. Be patient!
What would you add to these points? Is there anything you wish you had known before you first became an expat?