The opportunity of being an expat comes to very few, probably less than 1% of the world. It's an exciting, unique, and rare adventure, but what many fail to tell you are the many challenges you'll undoubtedly face as an expat. Having walked the journey myself, I'm here to tell you what to expect and how to cope with these challenges you'll face.
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1. Culture Shock / Assimilation
No two countries are alike in culture, especially when they're on different continents. Whether you're moving to another English-speaking country or a different continent with a different language entirely, you can expect similar difficulties when moving to any new country.
Other expatriates describe living abroad as exciting and a rare opportunity that you must take as if it's like marrying the love of your life - "you have to do it, no doubt about it". But they fail to tell you that it's actually going to be a very difficult transition into a new life.
It's not just a new life because you've moved homes. It's a new life because of exactly all that daily life entails - community, culture, holidays, assimilation, language, seasons, work life, weekend norms, layout of your home, electronics, health insurance, schooling, and so much more - are all going to be different. Name it, it'll be different.
This can be very exciting and maybe you'll love your new norms, but it won't always be that way. There will be times you'll find it a struggle to have that positive perspective.
I learned from a fellow expatriate blogger, Katharina von Knoblich that there are five stages of culture shock. That's right. Five stages!
Other expatriates describe only the first stage of culture shock: the Honeymoon Phase. It's when everything new is exciting and you enjoy exploring all of the different foods, places, etc. But they fail to tell you that as the name of the stage states, it's a honeymoon phase. And we all know honeymoon phases eventually come to an end. And the next stage waiting or you is the Cultural Crisis.
During the Cultural Crisis stage, you may find yourself misunderstood by those around you as you frantically try to assimilate, and that may lead to feeling annoyed, lonely, and ultimately, homesick. But there are ways to battle this.
After encountering this myself, I reached out to other expats around me for reprieve and guidance including some who had recently moved like myself and some who had lived the expat life for the last several years. .They all said similar things.
For one, it's encouraging to speak to other expats because they can provide you with sincere empathy since they have walked in your shoes at one point. Speaking to them alone was soothing for me because I wasn't fighting to assimilate during our conversation. I felt like I could just be me again. It was like taking a break from the culture shock.
Another great suggestion I was told was to bring into your home the familiar things that remind you of home. That could be recreating your favourite dish from home - maybe one of mom's meals. It could be having a virtual hangout with your usual weekend friends from home, recreating what you used to do together - binge watching Netflix shows, book club, or sharing a meal.
For myself, my tool to recreating the familiar was ironically purchasing a New York City t-shirt while living in London and wearing that t-shirt around the house.
The idea is to make your new home feel a little bit like your familiar old home to give you a little break from the unfamiliarity of your new home country. Sometimes, you just need that emotional reprieve.
Despite feeling dejected from this Cultural Crisis stage, remember to keep an open mind and heart to the newness around you. It's not easy, but when you keep an open mind, you'll regain that sense of awe and wonder to what's around you and begin to accept it - the good and the bad. That's when it truly feels like home. It will get easier soon.
You may have a strong, closely knit community back in your home country. When you left home, you planned to lean on them for community while you're making your new home in a new country. Absolutely do so, but that will not always be enough nor practical especially with timezone differences..
When it comes down to it, the truth is that you are alone in this journey of being an expatriate. No one from home is holding your hand through the process and making your landing softer. Your journey is unique and it will be difficult for others back at home to relate.
It's not like when you went off to University for four years and you had a community amongst thousands of other freshmen who were brand new to University life. When it comes down to becoming an expat, you are physically alone. That's why creating community as soon as you land in your new home is important.
There are ways to get plugged in to communities to make your new country feel more like home. Here are some ideas:
Alumni Association - Reach out to your University's alumni association and ask if there is an alumni presence in your new country. They may have regular networking meetings, giving you a network of others like you who may have a longer experience at being an expat, and those expatriates can help you with a softer landing in your move.
Websites & Applications - Sites and mobile apps that promote meetings amongst people with similar interests can help you feel a little less awkward and anxious about meeting new people in a foreign country.. Since you'll already have one interest in common with this group of people, that may make it easier to engage and develop relationships. I used websites and apps such as meetup.com and Bumble BFF to connect with others and have made some great friends within my first month of relocating.
Volunteer - Volunteer at a local church, library, soup kitchen, hospital, or anywhere else you can serve the community you live in. This way you can learn more of the culture firsthand from the locals and build relationships through your interactions. It's also a great way to focus on helping others as opposed to internally focusing on how frustrated you may be with assimilating in a new country.
Ideally, you want to build a community with the locals of your new country, but if you're brand new to a country, I recommend also creating an expat community initially. It will be refreshing at times to take a break from having to assimilate to the new culture, and just to be able to spend time with a fellow countryman who speaks with the same accent as you, has similar cultural norms and gestures as you, and even the same vocabulary as you.
There is the assumption that with an extroverted, friendly personality, you'll make friends in no time in your new country. But that's not always the case.
If you moved to a new country with a job lined up, you'll be fortunate to have regular interactions with locals through work, but those colleagues might not be the people you spend time with socially since work relationships tend to be more professional.
Most adults will have their usual weekend plans with their set group of friends. That will be the case in any country you move to. So, how can you, a foreigner, fit into their already set and busy plans?
Much like the last point, the best way to battle loneliness is by creating community. Reach out into the community through the three suggestions I made above - alumni associations, socialising websites and apps, and volunteering in the community.
But those options to build community won't work overnight. During those times of loneliness in between, what do you do?
Reach out to your community back at home. Despite timezone differences and busy lives, the loved ones you left behind want to know how you're doing in all aspects of your life. Use them as your lifeline and reach out to give them your latest update, however small or big, and vent to them your frustrations if you need to. Others will understand how difficult and vulnerable you feel during this time and won't judge.
You're reaching a milestone. It's not easy getting there and they'll understand and want to be there for you as much as possible.
4. Work Culture
You may find that the work culture in your new country is very different from the work culture back at home. This took a while to learn for myself.
I can't speak for every country, of course. But in America, you sprinted towards any career goals and as long as there were no obstacles, you could reach those goals. The sky's the limit.
For example, to reach the next level of promotion, often you just need to work hard and that diligence will be visible and acknowledged by your superiors. Then, that promotion is yours, assuming there is no political corruption.
In comparison, the work culture is very different in the United Kingdom, so I've learned. Using the same example as above, working diligently in your area of expertise is not enough to grant you that promotion.
You have to develop strong interpersonal relationships within the firm, not merely be likeable and outstanding at your job, to be considered for a promotion. But that's not all.
Seniority plays a massive role in the UK. There's no way you're getting promoted above your superior. You have to wait your turn for your senior to obtain their promotion
and only then, you'll be permitted for a step up the ladder.
It can be a frustrating, harsh reality when you move jobs thinking you'll take that step up the ladder only to realise that's not how things work in other countries.
The way I overcame this rude awakening is by reaching out to mentors and colleagues. If you have local work colleagues or mentors, reach out to them as soon as possible. Ask them to give you the lay of the land when it comes to your work culture so that you can manage your expectations.
It's safe to say that everyone knows healthcare will be different from country to country. But you want to make sure you know how to enrol in your new country's healthcare as soon as possible.
This was one thing that took me a while to figure out and then I turned it into an unnecessary multi-step process. Looking back, it's one of those situations where I wish someone had told me what to do beforehand.
God forbid you move to a new country and you need to seek medical help shortly after moving due to food poisoning or an allergic reaction to something unfamiliar. The last thing you want is to be unsure of what to do in the case of an emergency in a foreign country.
First thing's first. Look up what your new country's emergency phone numbers including the police and ambulance. Have those committed to memory or saved on your phone's contact list. I rarely ever had to use emergency phone numbers back at home, but five months after moving to a new country, I unfortunately found myself in a situation where I had to use it from memory.
Despite the firm or company you work for setting up your health insurance, you may need to personally register with a general practitioner (family doctor) in some countries. Make sure you search the process via a government website or ask your human resource department at work to guide you. This way, you'll be prepared if an emergency occurs.
I know we hate to think of the worst case scenario, but what's worse than being unprepared in a foreign country with no one to help you seek out emergency help?
6. Finding a Home
I found a vast difference in acquiring a home in the UK versus back at home in America. Not only was I unaware of the differences in how to go about finding a home, but I also had no idea which town had the shops, parks, and atmosphere that I desired.
The best thing to do before moving to a new country is to take a short trip there before the move to walk the neighbourhoods and scan the community you're looking for such as the demographics, school district for your children, parks nearby, and so forth.
You won't truly know if you like the area until you've physically walked it and toured around. That way, you can gauge if the neighbours are friendly, if any areas seem sketchy, and if there are easily accessible shops for your daily needs such as grocers, salons, and pharmacies But if that's not an option, the next best thing is to reach out.
Initially, I searched online search engines for towns I may want to live in based on proximity to work, safety, affluence, and so forth.
After that, I reached out to property management companies to discuss what I was looking for in my ideal neighbourhood and the realtors were able to help me narrow down my choices. Please utilise the experts in the field of real estates. They know the neighbourhoods and know their clients well enough to make these unbias suggestions to you.
Many real estate agents will be very frank with you when they answer your questions. With each agent, I made sure to ask the following based on what I was looking for:
Is the area safe to walk around at night?
Are there schools nearby?
What are the demographics of the townspeople?
Is there a nightlife in town?
Is public transportation easily accessible?
If you have any form of community in your new country, whether it's your work community or volunteer community, reach out to those communities to inquire about where it's ideal for you to find a home.
If you know anyone who has done the move before you, even if they're mere acquaintances, reach out to them. You'd be surprised that when it comes to making the transition of becoming an expat, many other expatriates are more than willing to help you out.
7. Cost of Living
Whether you're moving from a rural area to an urban city or a metropolitan city to another metropolitan city, you can be sure that the cost of living will vary.
Sometimes the overall monthly expenditures may be similar from one urban city to another, but the items that are expensive may vary.
For example, the rent is about the same when we moved from New York City to London. Eating out at restaurants costs about the same as well. But I found that if I shop at certain grocers in London, I can purchase the same amount of groceries I did in the States at only a fraction of the cost. That's an area where I can save in my budget.
You won't really know what's different with the cost of living until you're living in your new home. Some amenities may be surprisingly much ore expensive than you had originally planned for. People will describe living costs to you differently since everyone's definition of "affordable" varies, so you will have to figure this bit out on your own.
I highly recommend that you keep track of your spending by using an online budgeting website of all of your expenses over a month for the first few months. Compare it with your expenses from when you were back at home and see where you can save a bit more or maybe where you can spend a bit more freely.
One other detrimental thing that many of us expats do is converting currencies in our heads to compare prices. We see the price tag on something and then immediately convert that to the currency back at home and assume it's far too overpriced in your new country and decide not to purchase it. But you have to pause here for a second.
There are many factors to consider such as differences in taxes and what is considered a taxable item, whether that product is a local item or an imported item, and so forth. There may be built-in costs to the final tag on the product. If you're constantly calculating all of these things for every single thing you purchase from toiletries to kitchenware to furniture, you're going to drive yourself crazy.
The best way to overcome this is by getting used to what is considered normal prices for products and services in your new country. Accept that as your new normal.
I didn't sugarcoat the transition into the expat life because I wish someone had told me all these truths before my own move. That's not so I would be deterred from becoming an expat, but so that I could be more prepared and know how to overcome these struggles that are inevitable. Being an expat is still an exciting, unique, and rare adventure despite the hardships and is still completely worth the journey.. I hope this discussion helps you to cope with these positive challenges you'll face.