Living abroad is one of the most intense experiences you can have. And if you move to a country that is at the other side of the world you must expect that things will be really different. And let’s face it, you will have to adapt if you want to get most of that opportunity.
I’m originally from the heart of Europe (Czech Republic). I travel quite a bit and visited pretty much all the continents (not counting Antarctica) so I would say that I’m pretty adaptable and not easily surprised. I also spent six months in Australia couple of years ago and recently twelve months in the Philippines. So if you are considering to try a life of an expat let me point out couple of things to keep in mind.
Why do you want to live in a foreign country? In my case it was easy as I was sent by the company to build a new office in Manila. But when this opportunity came up I also planned to use it and do some changes in my life. You are already changing location, social circle, potentially job, so why not to change also some of your habits. Well, as it turns out we are who we are regardless of location. In fact, changing everything around you most likely puts pressure on keeping at least some things familiar.
So if you are thinking about fresh start, getting rid of bad habits, or dream of a better life I would strongly encourage you to first change the way you think and your attitudes and only then move. You should make sure you have the right answers to questions like “Why do I want to move?” “Am I trying to run from problems or do I march towards opportunities?”
I love the quote by Lance Miller (champion of public speaking in 2005) from his winning speech The Ultimate Question “I had changed everything in my life, but nothing had changed.”
Different environment and cultural background breed different habits, ways of thinking and value systems. Moving to a new country means you need to be willing to listen, watch, adapt, and enjoy it. You don’t need to completely throw away your heritage (in fact you probably shouldn’t) but the flexibility and willingness to embrace new way of thinking will be a key to whether you will enjoy the experience or suffer.
So if you plan on keep doing things the way you have always done them and complain that the others around you don’t know how things are supposed to be done you probably shouldn’t even attempt to move.
If you are moving to a new country without a promise of a job you need to expect that you will struggle at the beginning. You should always consider “What is my competitive advantage / disadvantage” on the local job market? Chances are that there will be tons of disadvantages coming from the fact that you don’t know the culture, you don’t know the language, you don’t know anyone. If you are in a position I was, being sent by your company, then your life is thousands times easier. The drawback in that case is that you need to work from day one and that leaves a little room for adapting and you essentially learn by making mistakes as you go.
You are moving to new environment and it can have rather radical impact on your health. If you live your whole life in cold or moderate weather and suddenly move to tropical climate it will take toll on your body. Make sure you account for that when planning the move. If you have any medical conditions you should carefully consider the health system in the target country and whether it will provide you with what you need.
Routine helps to deal with stress. Moving to a new environment is pretty stressful. You don’t really know how things work, you don’t really know anyone to ask for help, and in case you don’t speak the language you are really lost.
Setting up some solid routine can help you to get through the days and limit some of the decisions you need to be making. Adding regular exercise and good eating habits will give you energy to deal with all the unknowns.
We all need help. You cannot really survive in today’s world alone. When I showed up at the Manila airport I was alone and needed to quickly build a circle of people who I could ask for help, who would share pieces of wisdom and who would help me to keep sane.
The good news is that most people understand that you are in a difficult position and they really try to help you so building a network of people you can turn to is actually not that difficult. Specifically, if you are a professional you can turn to LinkedIn or similar service to quickly find couple of names that might be relevant and reach out to them. What always works is to plug into the local expat community as these guys know exactly how you feel, they still remember how difficult the start can be and will help you out. Just make sure you don’t rely on expats too much. If you want to blend in and understand the culture, you need to spend most of your time with the locals to see their way of life, feel their values, and build a really strong relationships. You don’t want to live a gilded cage, do you?
And that leads me to the most important part. When you are moving to a new country you are leaving behind your social circle, your security net. If things go wrong you don’t have anyone to offer a shoulder to cry on. And yes, in the world of internet it is easy to talk to someone back home but since they don’t really understand what you are getting through and have no knowledge of your new environment they won’t be of much help.
You need to quickly find some new friends. If you are extroverted globetrotter it won’t be much of a problem. If you are more introverted like myself, you will need to use some tricks. I mentioned plugging into the expat community is a good start. Assuming you have a job then bonding with your colleagues is another source of contacts you could turn to (though you probably want to be careful which topics to discuss). You may also find some local community around one of your hobbies (if you do some sports or play music it should be relatively easy). In my case the first thing I did was to join a local Toastmasters club. Since this is a global non-profit organization that is open to anyone and since it is all about communication, it helped me quickly make some friends with similar interests yet with different backgrounds.
People you left behind
And last but not least you should think about people you left back home. Especially in case of family you need to understand that your departure will have impact on their lives. So before you leave, make sure that not just you, but also they are ready.
The life of an expat is a great experience and wonderful opportunity to expand your view of the universe. It will help you to understand other cultures, it will make you more resilient to stress, more adaptable to change, more open to new ideas, and most likely more curious and humble.
What are your experiences or worries when it comes to live of an expat?
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