It's never easy moving to a new country. You're immersing yourself into a different culture, which can be exciting but also frustrating. Even if you speak the same language, you may not be saying what you mean in your new country depending on differences in phrases. I know it was frustrating for me. This post will hopefully alleviate the difficulties as you transition into a new culture or even help you with your visit there.
What brought you to your new country? Was it a job relocation? Your partner's job? Family? Or maybe you were just ready for a change of scenery - like me? Whatever the reason, I know you're going in with optimism and positive vibes, But a tiny part of you knows it won't be easy because you may not know anyone there and/or you don't speak the language.
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Being American, I had that mentality of "this works here so it must work everywhere". That's one of the biggest mistakes I made whether I'm traveling or moving from country to country. The best mindset to have is to toss any preconceptions out the window and start fresh. What I don't mean is to act like you were just born and ignore all that you've learned. You can utilise what you know, be respectful of other cultures, and be eager to learn. If you're moving to London specifically, make sure you read my recent post: 10 Things You Must Know Before Moving to London. It'll help you plan about things people don't often talk about, which makes for your smoother transition.
1. Must-Have Apps
To my surprise, not all phone applications in America, or your home country, work in other countries. And if they do, they may not work as optimally in comparison to the country's local apps.
Map apps: I know the well-known map app pre-installed in everyone's mobile phone is Google Maps. It's the ideal one to use for getting around in the States. But when I tried it in South Korea, I quickly learned from a local that due to legal reasons, Google maps is not allowed to be updated more than once every couple of months. Keeping in mind that locations of restaurants move very frequently in certain countries like S,Korea, I found using Google maps to not be useful at all for the most recent locations. Instead, I downloaded the country's local map app. The same thing goes with London. Most countries have developed their own map apps that makes transportation much easier, which makes sense.
Restaurant apps: You're out with friends in a new town, trying out local restaurants only to find that they don't take reservations and the wait is 30 to 60 minutes everywhere you attempt to go. Do you bail and swear off all restaurants that don't take reservations forevermore and miss out on some really great food? No. I spoke to another expat and she suggested a mobile app called Walk-Ins, where I can wait in a virtual queue (within 2 km of the restaurant's location). This way, by the time I get to there, a table is ready for me. Be sure to find apps like this that locals use which can make or break your nights out.
Ride Share apps: This is a lifesaver to get home during those late nights in the office or your nights out dancing with friends and you're feet are begging you for a cab. It's usually safest to use the ride share companies that are the most popular and highly reviewed in that country such as Uber. But not every country uses Uber. In S.Korea, the easiest and safest to use was Kakao T, which is a branch of the internationally popular Korean chat app, KakaoTalk. I used it when I didn't have cash after having a late dinner on the beach at an obscure location and the restaurant host could order the driver for me.
In Malaysia, Grab is a popular ride share app that locals use as opposed to Uber. Make sure you do some research into which application is best in terms of ratings, safety, and cost. Just because the town has a widely used app, it doesn't make it the safest or the fastest there. I recommend that you speak to a local or a more veteran expat to learn about and utilise these mobile apps that will make your life so much easier.
2. How to Walk
Walkability is a major factor when deciding where to live. I want to be able to get from place to place in my daily routine without solely relying on public transportation or owning a car. If you haven't guessed it yet, I'm bias towards urban areas or suburban areas that have public transportation options. You may have chosen to move to a more rural or sparse town. But the reason I bring up walking is because where and how you walk is different in each country.
I'm not talking about the act of putting one foot in front of the other, but the direction and right of way. Which side of the street do you walk on? And in which direction? And at what speed? Who has the right of way on the crosswalks or in general?
I've only lived in metro areas in Northeast America during my adult life. Having completed my undergraduate studies in Philadelphia, graduate studies in Baltimore and DC, and spent most of my adult working life in the New York metro area, I only know one walking speed - FAST. I'm in a constant hurry even if I'm not really in a hurry.
If you've ever been to Lisbon, London, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, etc it's not appropriate to walk at top speed weaving in and out of crowds. You just seem rude. It took me several weeks to readjust my walking speed to match that of the locals. For the first few weeks, I was frustrated and didn't understand why everyone was so very slow. But I had to change my perspective to try to embrace a different culture rather than me forcing my own culture onto strangers. The perspective change needs to happen in order to be satisfied in this new country instead of having a complaining heart.
To assimilate to the speed of the culture, you need to understand its people. Are people in a rush or not? Figure out what drives people from moment to moment and day to day. Many European cultures value more family time which means siestas or getting home early on a work day to participate in family dinner is of value. Don't fight or ignore these cultural values in your new home because you'll be doing yourself a disservice. Embrace them and they'll change the pace of your new life and your perspective of things may change for the better.
A good rule of thumb in figuring out which side of the street to walk on is to follow the traffic of cars. If it's a two-way street, walk in the direction of the vehicles. If the vehicles in the right lane are going north, you want to walk in the same direction on that side of the street and vice versa.
Now if your experience is anything like mine in London, there is no unspoken walking rule when it comes to direction. In those cases, it's best to be mindful of the crowds. When it's the morning rush hour, most people may be walking from the subway station towards their workplace. If that's the direction you're headed, follow the crowd. If you're going the opposite way, it may be wise of you to cross the street to the opposite walkway so you're not bum-rushed.
Research local traffic laws or ask locals about who has the right of way when it comes to crosswalks. In New York, pedestrians always have the right of way. In Vietnam, I was taught to just start crossing the street without hesitation and the vehicles will stop despite the nonexistence of traffic lights. In London, if there's a zebra stripe without a traffic light, the pedestrian has the right of way. In any other case, they do not. I didn't know and almost was run down by cars a few times.
Even writing about this point seemed silly at first, but every time I think back to how frustrated I was with the different walking culture in each country, I realised I have to attempt to understand the culture and its people so as to enjoy where I am and to be safe.
3. Different Measures of Time
Depending on whether your new country is built on a grid system or not may make getting from point A to point B either easy or difficult. But the issue isn't only with getting to your destination. It actually has to do with your time estimations.
I remember when a local friend wanted to meet up with me for dinner after work in Northeast London. I estimated that the same distance I used to travel back in New York (ie. 2km) took me 20 minutes since the city is built on a grid system. Knowing this, I told my friend that I'd meet her in 20 minutes. The next thing I know, it's 15 minutes into my journey and I'm not even halfway to the restaurant because I didn't realise that despite the subways running southwest to northeast, it didn't run eastward far enough, and so after I got off the train I still had to walk for a while eastbound.
My lesson learned from this experience is to always map out my journey before providing anyone with an estimate. Since London is not built on a grid system, like many other cities in the world, it takes much longer to get from one end of the city to the opposite end.
Staying on the topic of time, many countries like the United Kingdom use military time. Thankfully, I used it regularly in the States the last 10 years due to my hospital jobs. But others found it difficult to learn once they moved to the United Kingdom or other countries that also use military time. I suggest you learn it now before your move so that you can make assimilating much easier.
4. Supermarkets vs Local Markets
It's very important to figure out where to go grocery shopping in your new town. You'll probably frequent the place multiple times a week. For that reason, figure out what each local market carries and use the supermarkets for everything else including bulk items.
I'm so thankful for the local markets. It may just be where I live, but the local markets have the freshest produce, seafood, meat, and baked goods. But it's not always cheaper than the supermarkets. So, why even go to local markets? Besides the freshness factor, they may provide local goods that supermarkets cannot provide.
At the Borough Market, there's a wide variety of food including wine, cheese, produce, meats, and seafood. But the Borough Market is a 30 minute trip for me so it's not helpful to travel so far to bring back bags upon bags of food when I can find the same items around the corner from my house. But I still frequent that market for things I can't find at the big supermarkets such as homemade meat pies, sausages, and pasta. So, I've made sure to map out which local markets provide which goods I can't find anywhere else.
Online groceries are an extremely convenient way to get groceries delivered directly to your home at your scheduled time. If you're new to London or you're new to just the online grocery scene, feel free to check out my previous post for more suggestions outside of the big names. Online groceries have been a game changer for me. Back at home in New York, I relied on it frequently because I worked late shift hours at the hospital and by the time I left work, all of the shops were closed. I've gotten used to the convenience of it. But moving to a new country, I had no idea what the grocery stores were called let alone which provided delivery to my door. Look into it if you have a very busy daily life or even if you initially have no idea where your grocery stores are located. It'll save you a lot of time and stress.
4. All About The Words
This still trips me up to date but I've been actively educating myself through conversations to adopt new words. I know that some of you may be moving to countries where the language is foreign to you. I can only imagine the difficulty you must be facing. It's one thing to be able to speak broken sentences, but to actually engage in day-to-day conversations with a fast-speaking local has to be a frustrating and confusing challenge.
The best way to tackle this is to keep trying to speak the language since practice makes perfect. Other ways to learn a new language is to use a mobile app such as Duoling or Babble, take a local or online course, find a conversation partner (I did to help someone learn English), or watch an endless stream of shows in that particular language to try to pick it up. There are endless options for you to learn a new language quickly.
For anyone moving to a foreign country that speaks the same language as you, such as English, it may seem like things will be very smooth upon arrival, but beware. I learned this the hard way. You'll see what I mean in my guest post on Sarah_With_A_Smile 's website where expats share their expert advice about living abroad. The best way to learn the different nouns and phrases in your new country is through conversations with locals. You can learn idioms and slangs with the help of a local. It doesn't hurt to also watch some Netflix shows from that country either.
I'm sure you've heard the words: "No man is an island". Whether your expat journey started alone, with a partner or family, you can't do this alone. We need a local community to survive. In the beginning, it helps to keep in regular contact with loved ones from back at home. But with time differences, different schedules, and just being physically far away, you'll find it increasingly difficult to maintain regular contact with those from home. And nothing beats the refuelling of love and laughter we get with people we can meet with face-to-face.
I highly encourage you to create your own community from the start. It's the fastest way to make your new home truly feel like a permanent home. It'll allow you to get back to your old routine of having friends over, having kids' playdates, or going out on the weekends.
Some ways I've been able to facilitate that community is through church groups, Meet-ups, friendship apps, and local events. If you're religious, church is always a welcoming place to build community with likeminded people. It's also a place your whole family can get involved and find fellowship.
Meet-ups using the website is highly popular in many cities where people with the same interests (ie hiking, cycling, painting, photography, etc) can meet up regularly and share in that common interest. I found this to be a great way to meet a large group of people in a nonthreatening environment such as a bowling alley or bar.
I've also tried friend-finding apps such as Bumble BFF. You can choose the criteria of person you are looking for - much like a dating app. It helps to weed out anyone you know you won't get along with due to different political views, interests, stages in life, etc. I was fortunate enough to make a couple of very good friends this way.
There are plenty of apps out there that I haven't tried and I encourage you to utilise everything available at your fingertips to create this necessary community. Once you have friends to meet up with regularly and those you can lean on when cultural assimilation becomes frustrating at times, it'll make your new home feel much more like home.
The best advise shared by friends, who had started the expat journey before me, was that the first 6 months or so will be difficult. There's no way to avoid it. But the points I shared with you can ease the difficulties of assimilation and culture shock. Some of these advise points were passed on to me by others and some of these were discovered by me. With the wisdom of multiple people passed on to you, I hope your journey into a new country is met with joy, excitement, patience, and optimism. I'm so excited for you to start this chapter of your life. Let me know how your journey goes.
The Palette Cleanser
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