So many of us dream of changing our lives; of moving to sunnier climes and enjoying better food, nicer people and cleaner air. Moving countries is portrayed as a panacea, a balm to soothe life’s ills.
According to the results of our ongoing expat survey, 85% of expats feel they made the right decision when they moved abroad*, indicating that the expat life is indeed all it’s cracked up to be.
However, there are several things many expats wish they knew before they flew. Here’s a roundup of expat tips for anyone thinking of leaving home.
1. Even if you’re in an English-speaking country, communication will be difficult
We all understand and accept that moving to a country with a foreign language will be difficult. What we’re less aware of is that communication is hard even when we do speak the language. Strong accents, localised lingo and different customs can be confusing.
An American in Scotland may find themselves nodding and smiling in utter confusion just as often as a Brit in Burma. Don’t expect it to be easy just because you speak the language.
2. Everything will take much longer than you expect
Tracy, a medical student from Baltimore, told us: “When I moved to Oxford in the UK, everything was so hard. I couldn’t get a phone contract because I didn’t have an address but I couldn’t get an address because I didn’t have a phone. This sort of scenario happened again and again.”
Conversely, Stefano, a Brit living in LA, found it hard moving westward across the pond: “For the first few months, I had a British credit card so every time I wanted to fill up my car, I would have to pre-pay at the counter and just guess how much gas I needed. Sometimes, I’d be short and have to go back in. Sometimes, I paid too much. The first time, I had to get a refund of $15.”
Expect illogical bureaucracy and grindingly slow progress for at least the first few months.
3. You’ll lose good friends from back home
You may have known each other for 10 years and gone through a dozen breakups and make-ups together, but sometimes an ocean or continent is just too large an obstacle.
Kerry, a British expat in Australia, told us: “When I left, Sarah and I swore we would have weekly catchups and be a part of each other’s lives. When she had her first daughter, I sent her some flowers and an invitation to Skype. We tried to set something up but things just kept getting in the way. A year later, I still haven’t met her daughter.”
Accept that some friendships will wither and stall, but don’t let that stop you making new ones. There are hundreds of location-based expat groups on Facebook and LinkedIn as well as curated lists of people to follow on Twitter. In addition, there are numerous online forums and organisations that cater to new arrivals. The free to join InterNations has the biggest global membership with 1.9 million members across 390 cities and hosts over 4,000 events throughout the year.
4. You may feel guilty
You’ve started a bright new life in a sunny country and left behind your parents and siblings. What you quickly realise is that they still have problems but, now, you can’t be there for them. Sure, you can send words of support but you’re not really there. That knowledge fills many an expat with a sense of guilt.
Patrick, a freelance tour guide in Ecuador told us: “My parents are pensioners and my father has started having problems with his knees. My mother is a nervous driver but has had to take the wheel to drive him to his appointments. Knowing I’m not there for them keeps me awake at night.”
5. There will be sexism
It won’t always be as flagrant as a driving ban in Saudi Arabia; more often, it will be casual sexism that catches you by surprise. One expat we spoke to said her boss in South Korea told her that “women shouldn’t smoke in public.” Another said her school principal told her that she was “so beautiful” – not quite appropriate in the circumstances. Another expat she was excluded from after-school sports in her Qatari workplace because she was a woman (“they were quite open about the reason and saw nothing wrong with telling me that”).
It’s difficult to just shut up and accept this but it may be helpful to remember that every country is still evolving. Women have been able to vote in the UK for a century but there is still a sizeable gender pay gap. No country is perfect but every country is evolving even if it’s painfully slowly.
6. You will get the mean reds
The mean reds – Holly Golightly describes them as “horrible… suddenly you’re afraid, and you don’t know what you’re afraid of.”
The mean reds make you question your decisions, they goad you for feeling lonely and frustrated, they ask why 10 degrees of extra heat haven’t eliminated your problems and neuroses. They point out that you still haven’t figured things out and make you doubt you ever will.
Go out, say yes, take a class, make friends and try things. The mean reds will happen regardless – but they will also pass.
7. A cute rural village may not actually be right for you
Small rural villages are small and charming for a reason: expats don’t move to them. This reason may also explain why you won’t fit in there. Sure, you want to experience local culture, but local culture may not want to (or know how to) experience you. There is so much to adjust to in a new country, you may be better off starting in a big city with its conveniences, opportunities and support systems. Once you are au fait with local customs and the language, and have found your stride, you can consider moving to a small village. The transition will be far less overwhelming this way.
8. You may never be accepted
Canadian expat Keith loved his seven years in South Korea but left after realising that he would never be accepted as a local: “I spoke the language, I had a Korean girlfriend, I understood the culture but I was always going to be a foreigner.”
Keith told us that salespeople would argue over who would help him because they were worried he would make them speak English; that he wouldn’t be allowed to try on clothes because he may stretch them; that waitresses would automatically bring him forks instead of chopsticks. On top of this, Koreans of a certain age harboured a visible sense of resentment.
“The elder generation’s experience of foreigners isn’t great and so they can often be outwardly hostile. I got tired of smiling like it didn’t bother me.”
* Breakdown of answers
I am certain I made the right decision: 64%
I think I made the right decision: 21%
I am not yet sure if I made the right or wrong decision: 11%
I think I made the wrong decision: 3%
I am certain I made the wrong decision: 1%