I used to think that the term expat was some sort of official title given to people who moved abroad with an embassy or government posting. It took me a while to realise when I first moved overseas that I had joined this particular circle, a foreign network of sorts, no more or less official than when the “other gal” moved to London to study in college. I think because I went in with so much familiarity, I didn’t stop to think about a framework for survival that at some point in time anyone living overseas needs. When you arrive in a new country it may feel like one of the hardest things you’ve ever done. But like many expats we know, they’ll tell you the hardest part is actually leaving. If you have the chance to go, take it. Your passport and your heart will never be the same!
Make friends quickly
A bit like the trick to making it at High School, it helps to connect and make friends as quickly as you can. When you meet others in the same situation there’s a familiarity that borders on relief. You’ll be there to offer support, give advice, share local tips and simply be there for each other. And that’s why we need our expat friends so much and build friendships that I’m told can be measured in dog years for the intensity and weight that they carry; because who else is going to get it, who else is going to understand the level of anguish it can cause you to plan 3 things in a day and know that none of them will be accomplished for another month, or to understand that out of body feeling of being in two places at once and belonging somewhere in between.
Know how to say hi
It almost goes without saying that it helps to speak a little of the local language but it’s easier said than done. It can be really tricky to master another language, especially if you’ve had little exposure to it before. I remember once asking for a pomegranate juice in Hindi and the kind lady making it for me asked me again and again if I was sure. Of course! Just a tall glass of fresh crimson juice please. It took me about 15 minutes to work out why she was laughing and refused to make it for me; apparently there’s nothing refreshing about garlic, no matter how you try and juice it. Not only will it help you get around, but learning a few conversational words will help you gain acceptance and inclusion.
Dive in the deep end
One of the reasons most expats take up the challenge to resettle in another country is because we’re drawn in by the curiosity of a foreign culture. It’s probably the most exciting aspect of the journey and a treasure completely uncovered if you don’t dive in the deep end. Through significant festivities and celebrations, or the way the culture marries, raises children or simply welcomes in a new year can be wonderful and enriching ways to peel back the layers of a countries’ cultural heritage.
Know that some days suck
There’s no denying it, some days you’ll be caught in a quagmire of challenges where you’ll feel you’re drowning, cultural nuances you don’t understand, language barriers, struggles in getting things done with the ease you’re used to because nothing is the same, nothing is familiar and on some days simply nothing makes sense. But suck it up anyway, because the sooner you can accept the difficulties, the sooner they’ll pass. I still want to make one of those memes that says “what my friends & family back home think I do as an expat” vs “what I really do as an expat” because despite what might look like one long holiday it’s in equal measure a process of huge adjustment to resettle, rethink and regroup.
Pop the expat bubble
Once you find yourself a member of this expat tribe, it’s very easy to get drawn into a cycle of coffee mornings, shopping expeditions, weekends away and as you get accustomed to life in a new country these are wonderfully helpful and important rituals. You can float along from one brunch to another and it’s all lovely…but don’t be afraid to pop the bubble at some point. It’s the difference between living an extensive 5 star holiday and feeling the grit of life between your toes, both are necessary, both are fun and doing a little of each will keep you grounded.
Live like a local
Like renting in the area before you buy, researching and visiting your expat country of choice before you call the Removalists might seem like quite an effort, but one well worth it. When you’re there, as much as you can, try and immerse yourself in the local way of life. Going to a developing country and staying in luxury hotels is really going in with rose coloured glasses. Taste the local cuisine, check out the schools and healthcare services, understand the religious undertones and If you can see yourself living, functioning and soaking up the local vibe then you may have found your next home.
Take little, live a lot
It’s tempting when you move that you’ll take your household with you, I’d recommend at least having some of your sentimental pieces with you, it does help to feel that you’re recreating a home. But if you don’t have to, let it go! The lighter and more minimalist you can travel the more of a fresh start you’ll create and you’ll have plenty of space to pick up local pieces that will be with you always. I remember once someone saying that it’s wonderful to have a house full of pieces you’ve collected from your travels. Of course this depends where you go, but I’ve seen plenty of expats from across Asia choosing, copying or even designing fabulous and eclectic furniture pieces. Back home, these pieces are unique, these are the treasures from your journey and have wonderful stories to tell, just as you will.
“I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.” Bill Bryson