What Do You Wish You Had Known Before Becoming an Expat?

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?

Moving to another country: it's never easy

Moving to another country: it’s never easy

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.

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Tea on the Terrace: expat life in 1950’s Caracas

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.

It may be fun to get involved...but unless you have a vote it's probably best to stay neutral.

It may be fun to get involved…but unless you have a vote it’s probably best to stay neutral.

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.

Finally, two pieces of advice which I really liked, both of which I think hold true for newcomers in particular so perhaps resonate most with me as I settle into my new life here in Pretoria. First of all, from an expat in China:
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.
And the last word from another former expat in South Africa, now in Manila:
Soon, even the most exotic and intimidating place will become just your local neighbourhood 🙂
Great tips all – and if I can sum it up in just a few bullet points here is the best advice from the best set of experts you could ask for:
  • 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?

Photo credits: Tea on the Terrace by A. Davey; Rally by Chieee

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15 thoughts on “What Do You Wish You Had Known Before Becoming an Expat?

  1. Always go with the attitude that you COULD be there for the long haul. If you go with a ‘temporary’ attitude, it’s likely you’ll never feel settled. With your life essentially on pause, you will always be hankering for home and waiting for your ‘real life’ to kick back in. Wherever you are has to be your now, your reality. Whether it’s one long posting or a string of back to back ones if you burn your bridges or don’t put in the effort in to get out the door and invest in friendships in those first few weeks and months you can come horribly unstuck further down the line.

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    • This is such a good piece of advice and something I think about constantly. We are in the throws of trying to get our house as nice as possible, but at the back of my mind all the time is that question – is it worth it when we won’t be here for more than a few years? We are struggling with some issues in the house over a shower that doesn’t work – it would be tempting just to say leave it, but actually were we to be settled here forever we certainly wouldn’t be leaving it….of course it doesn’t help that we are renting a house so it takes so much longer to get everything sorted out….

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  2. In line with your “don’t have expectations”, is that you don’t have to move far to experience culture shock. The worst I had was moving from Canada (Vancouver) to the USA (Houston, Texas). I’ve since been to Singapore and London, UK and both were far easier transitions.

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    • It’s true, you just don’t know in advance which move will be hardest. And I think this can lead to quite bad culture shock for someone thinking moving somewhere more “familiar” will be easier. I also find the harder the posting, the closer the expat community and the more support you are likely to get. Usually anyway!

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    • Thanks for sharing, more great advice. I particularly agree with number 5 – as anyone who follows my writing at all will know, one of the things that annoys me most is people who think expat life is one long holiday. Esepcially when you live in a typical holiday destination. Life happens, wherever you live!

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  3. This one hit home with me the most “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.” This absolutely happened to me on our second move – I thought, “I’ve got this – I’ve done this already”… but no, it’s just not the same. Be patient!

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    • And every time it’s so different as well – I have been luckier this time and found it a lot easier than my previous two experiences as an accompanying partner. Partly I think because I have brought a part-time remote-working job with me. As well as this blog and marketing my book. What a difference having something to get up for makes!

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      • I’ve had a job that travels with me as well and it was still hard! But I’m also at a point where I’m thinking of a change in career and trying to figure out how to do that remotely and when it seems like the kids are in school about 5 min per day!

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  5. Great blog post! It is all so very through! I am from The Netherlands and have been living abroad as an expat partner for the last 30 years. We just moved for the 10th time to our 5th continent Africa, Ghana, and it still not getting any easier.
    When the kids are small there is plenty to do and easy to meet people. When they grow up and move out of the house, they will be living in different countries so you don’t get to see them as much as you would like to. In the meantime you have to make it work for yourself and find a new way of meeting new people and make new friends.
    If you still have your parents, they are getting older too and so you find yourself more or less trapped between your husband who wants you to be home and your parents who need your help more and more. Don’t ask me how I will feel when my kids will have babies, it will be very tough to be far away…
    It is constant challenge of discovering the new you and finding a balance between what is in it for you and be happy where you are. Right now I have mixed emotions but I know I’ll be fine!

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    • Hilde thank you so much for this perspective, it is a very interesting one. I am reminded of my own mother, who went through every stage of expat life – from being part of a newly married couple without children, parenting four kids, watching us all grow up and move on, then being just the two of them again….I know she found it very hard when we first left and she had to rediscover herself and how she could occupy herself, but she did and she managed to reinvent herself several times over! I am sure you will be fine too – I hope you stick around on the blog, I would love to hear more from you and your wisdom.

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  7. I have lived in 6 different countries over the past decade and here are some things I wish someone had told me at the beginning:

    There are things to enjoy in every country, even if they are not the things you usually enjoy. For example if you are living in a big urban area but you love hiking in cool forests, put that aside for the moment and get out there and enjoy the restaurants and culture. You will find new things you enjoy doing.

    Every country is different. Maybe you hated a country you lived in previously. It doesn’t mean you hate expat life in general–maybe you will love your next country.

    Don’t be attached to your possessions. I have sentimental value in everything I own, and it’s exhausting when I’m moving my belongings all over the world. Sometimes things get lost or ruined. Sometimes you have to put them in storage for years. Let go of your attachment and this will be much easier.

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    • Thanks Laurie, more great advice. I was thinking something along similar lines earlier today which was to do with the age of my children when we have been posted to different places. I really did not particularly love our time in St Lucia – but I had a two and a four-year-old. Our lives were quite limited because of their ages. I am loving it here – but they are now an age that we can really get out and do stuff. I know quite a few people which much smaller children and there is so much they have to miss out on because of their children’s ages. Not to say they don’t necessarily still enjoy it (SA is a very easy place to live) but perhaps not as much as I am.

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