5 considerations for those wanting to pack up and move — to a new country
I live in a community where, on a good day, I can understand 45% of what is being said. If I happen to see another white person, they look lost. “Michelle” confuses most people, so I’m known as “Misha” by the kids on the street.
My friends in the United States have formed two groups: those who think I’m a saint and send me really really really nice emails, and those who think I’m on an extended vacation and ask when I’m coming home.
Expat life is hardly a vacation. So for those whose dreamy eyes are filled with wanderlust, consider the following before you pick-up-and-move:
1. You can’t compare.
This has been a huge mistake of mine. Thrown into a new environment, it’s completely natural to search for a horizon line. We’re humans, we like signposts, we want to know if we’re going the right way. If you’re buried in an avalanche they tell you to spit on your hand so you can tell which way is up.
As an expat, of course it’s tempting to look around and ask, “Am I doing this right?” Everything is new, everything is foreign, you’re alone and you can’t understand most of it.
The problem with comparison: within a given country, one expat can look entirely different from another. Some people relocate with cushy salaries and padded company packages; others find themselves caught in complicated tangles of love and bureaucratic paperwork; others scrape by on odd jobs and illegal visas.
It goes without saying, when you move abroad the rules change. You can’t measure success by benchmarks from your former country. You’ll need to observe your new surroundings to gain cultural appropriation and understand the customs and traditions of the land. But ultimately, what other people are doing doesn’t matter as much. You have to bumble around and find your own way.
This leads me to Point Number 2.
2. Learn the language.
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” — Nelson Mandela
To connect with your new home and make friends (you need them, see #5), learn some basic phrases. If you’re like me, it takes practice and embarrassment before words and correct pronunciations sink in. Hit the books, find a teacher, sit in the local market, download tapes online. Learning the native dialect will make shopping trips much easier, and you’ll reduce reliance on translators and guides. With independence comes confidence, and you’ll need an excess of it.
3. Monitor social media.
Facebook is great for keeping in touch with old friends. It’s also an easy way to weave new friends into your circle of trust, especially if you’re not sure how to pronounce their names. Messenger can save money by replacing phone calls and SMS. But there’s a damaging side to it, and you have to be careful.
Time online means time away from your new country. Seeing old friends’ photos in luxurious settings and fancy outfits or really anything vastly different than your own environment might not be the most uplifting scenario for those moments you wonder if you’ve made a huge mistake (you’ll have these, don’t worry, everyone does). Roots don’t grow overnight.
Before you know it, weddings and promotions and baby pictures that sprinkle your Facebook feed suddenly become replaced by your new language and guide books.
4. Watch alcohol.
A go-to among the expat community. Excessive alcohol intake, however, can be symptom of deeper problems — most commonly, depression. You’re in a new environment, you’re away from all that is familiar, and suddenly, you are the outsider. This can be a cocktail for dark days if you’re not prudent.
5. Build community.
Notice the word build, not find. Intentionally seek and surround yourself with key personalities: community leaders, established expats (they have the best tips!), upbeat locals, people who make you laugh. Although you’re the newbie, it’s often up to you to make the first move and say hello. Be bold, get out there.
Before you go, know.
Take time to research the country you’re considering and get honest about what you can and cannot handle. Need hot showers? 24/7 wifi? Hate public transport? Want to drink water without boiling it? Certain facilities may limit the places you can comfortably exist in.
Assess yourself, enlist the help of a professional if need be and realize moving rarely solves big life problems. You’ll want to know what makes you happy and what makes you feel at home so you don’t leave these things behind. Pack your favorite toiletries and must-haves, but don’t forget to stash what makes you YOU.
Moving abroad offers the chance to re-create yourself personally and professionally and contribute positively to a new place. Many expats find they are able to achieve goals they would never attempt in their homeland. Foreigners have the unique opportunity to bridge past experiences and meld them with a new environment to come up with some pretty unique and creative ideas.
Creating a new life abroad can be one hell of a challenge, but it’s an experience filled with equally great rewards.