Tips on Moving Abroad for Future Expats
You’ve done it. Despite all odds, you’ve maneuvered your way into expat life. You’ve taken a job, transferred a job, or quit a job. You’ve packed up, sold stuff, stored stuff, completed a mountain of paperwork, and you’re on your way.Unlike nomadic travelers or location-independent folks who move from place to place on a semi-regular basis, expats are long-term residents in a country other than their own. While this arrangement can bring about its own benefits – access to local healthcare and education, long-term rental agreements and cultural immersion – expats also face a unique set of challenges.
We’ve been expats twice, first in the UK, and more recently we’ve jumped into the deep end of the pool with a move to China. While we’re hardly experts, we are enthusiasts who happen to know a thing or two about what challenges new expats will face on their first venture overseas.
That is why we have compiled this list of five essential tips for all new expats. Words of advice if you will, that hopefully we help you overcome the initial challenges as you begin a new chapter abroad.
1. Give It Six Months
The logistics of settling down in a new country – visa acquisition, finding a place to live, setting up utilities, making friends, working – take time. The initial honeymoon period after arriving in a fresh location quickly gives way to serious stress when you realize you can’t write your address, don’t know how to make a doctor’s appointment and how do you get one of those purified water delivery services anyway?
When we relocated to London from New York City, we assumed the transition would be a piece of cake. Two major world hubs, and no new language? Easy.
Months in, we were still struggling with aspects of daily British life. It took us ages to get our utilities set-up, banking abroad brought with it an entirely unforeseen set of headaches, and we were always worrying about spending loads of cash (all too easy in London, one of the world’s priciest cities). We had arrived in London with a list of friends of friends we could meet, but of course, building new relationships takes time, and we were impatient. Where were our lifelong pals, with whom we could travel and spend leisurely Sunday afternoons in pubs?
All in, it took six months for us to warm up to London and for London to warm up to us.
So please hear us on this. When, two months in, you are inevitably wondering: “Why did I come here in the first place?” – repeat after us: give it six months, give it six months, give it six months. Shy smiles and small talk with strangers are the basis for many a lasting friendship, so dole them out frequently. Every tiny step you make to set-up a new account or navigate your way through an unknown system is progress, and you only need to do it once. Soon enough you’ll find yourself with weekend plans, warming up to the language and, maybe, feeling at home.
But give it six months.
2. Don’t Go Home Too Early
It can be tempting, as a new expat in some amazing foreign locale, to take advantage of a flight deal and come home for your grandma’s birthday party. So what if you’ve only been gone a month and are still in the depths of your first six months living abroad?
Resist the temptation. Don’t go home. Here’s what happens when you go home too early: everything is easy, you can talk to any clerk at any store and get exactly what you need, you can buy your favorite brands of everything and you know exactly how things work. Your grandma’s birthday party is full of the people who love you most in the world, and all of a sudden, the promising foreign life you’ve started building looks barren and boring and lonely.
The minute you arrive home, anyone and everyone will be asking you, how’s it going over there in Poland? How are you managing the heat in Argentina? Where do you buy contact lens solution in China? And you’ll smile and put on a brave face and say that it’s great and I’m still ‘getting used to it’ and meanwhile you’re sent into a panic spiral because WHERE DO I BUY CONTACT LENS SOLUTION???
We waited nine months after our first move abroad to set foot back on our home turf. By then, we had visited ten new countries, and we had friends and thriving jobs. During that visit, we happily gushed to whomever would listen about the amazing weather in London (much better than expected) and the five airports that could take us anywhere.
When we moved to China this year, we had only two months before our first trip home. This visit was unavoidable, a years-in-the-making family reunion. We were deep into our first six months, and things just weren’t running smoothly. We struggled with the language every day, we had an apartment and utilities but we still hadn’t figured out how to pay them, and while we had met some nice people at expat events around town, we hadn’t made any lasting friends.
At the reunion, we fielded a million questions about life in China (it’s hot, crowded and going well so far!) and put on a brave face But honestly? It was rough. We basked in the love of our family, ate our favorite foods and spent too much money at Target on all the stuff we can’t get in China. Meanwhile, our China to-do list was a mile long and felt intimidating and utterly not worth it. After a respite in the States, the prospect a 30-hour travel day to go ‘home’ to a place that had no resemblance to home was tough.
It bears repeating: wait at least six months before your first visit home. At that point you’ll be able to answer with confidence: my neighbors in my new apartment building are great, I haven’t worn jeans in three months because of the heat, and I buy my contact lens solution at the eyeglasses store, thankyouverymuch.
3. Learn These Important Words
Frequent travelers know that learning a few key pleasantries in a new language can make daily interactions move from “awkward at best” to “oh, look, isn’t it cute that they’re trying.” You would think this would be obvious, but we have met plenty of expats who never really embrace the local language.
To develop a real connection to a new home country and the locals, language is key. In addition to the Basic Four – Hello, Goodbye, Please and Thank You – we’d encourage you to add these to your list: me, you, this, that, one, two, three, where, here.
When we arrived in China, our language skills consisted of the Basic Four, memorized with haste on the plane. Hello, smile, shrug, ummm, thank you? As tourists, or even short-term visitors, we’ve always been able to get away with lots of Hellos and Thank Yous, warm smiles and trusty Google Translate to help us figure out the rest.
But if you’re living in a place, you’ve got to turn up your language game, and fast. Once we learned how to count to three and say ‘this one’ and ‘that one,’ wow, our world opened up. Just like that we could order food, we could buy tickets, we could point to a location from inside a taxi. ‘Here, please.’ Boom. Mic drop.
Pro Tip: These days, YouTube is a great resource for beginning language skills, and there are also a plethora of online courses you can take before setting foot in your new country. We got started with an app (Hello Chinese) and an online course (Yoyo Chinese) and supplement with a local language school.
4. Find Your Resources
You know that app on your phone that makes life in your city so much easier and more exciting? In London, Citymapper solved any and all problems we had getting around and Time Out London was the first app we opened when we found ourselves with yet another free Friday night (see: First Six Months).
Everyone who lives in London takes for granted that of COURSE you must know about Citymapper and Time Out London because you can’t live without them. But as an expat just settling down into a life of umbrellas and lukewarm beer, you haven’t the faintest clue.
Now that we’re relative newbies in yet another new country, here’s what we do. Anytime we meet another foreigner, we exchange basic information (Why are you here? For how long? Where are you from?) and then cut right to the chase: What apps/websites/WeChat groups do you recommend?
Just this week we heard about a food delivery service that has menus written in English and thanks to a free local magazine with a great English app (it’s called That’s Mag if you live in China, too) we heard about an English-language book club that meets once a month in a local craft beer bar.
Facebook has groups for nearly everything, including expat forums for whichever country you’re in. We have a short list of doctors and dentists in our city who speak English from lurking on Facebook groups. Internations, an organization that is built specifically for expats around the world, arranges expat gatherings in hundreds of cities, providing the perfect opportunity to meet people in exactly the same situation as you.
5. Resist the Urge to Comparison Shop
Why don’t the gyms open earlier in China? Why do grocery stores close at 5pm on Sundays in the UK (or not open at all)? Why is ‘fancy’ peanut butter so difficult to find outside North America? Why doesn’t the whole world use one uniform system for: distance, speed, shoe size, bed size, electricity?
One of the great joys of traveling is to explore new cultures and a new way of life. But as we have to remind ourselves often, traveling and living are two different things. Those things you loved during a two-week holiday can become your nemesis when the days stretch into months and years. That slow pace of life you loved on your Italian vacation can become a dull headache when your favorite little shop seems to open at different times each day.
And the ugly comparison game rears its head: Why don’t they do it like this? Why does this take so long here? It is so much easier/better/more logical back home.
It is nearly impossible to avoid comparisons. Just this morning we found ourselves wondering if China has daylight savings time. They should, we said. And while we’re on the subject of time conventions, why does China have only one time zone? It should have at least three, probably five. Right?The most difficult thing to do as an expat is to let go and embrace the way your new home does things. Your new home will never be a transported version of your home country. Things will be different, no matter how much you complain. Some aspects of life may actually be better, or cheaper, or even more efficient, but it is so easy (and fun?) to complain about the differences.
When we moved to London, we spent all our free time complaining about our combo clothes washer/dryer. It took 3-4 hours to do one small load of laundry, and the clothes weren’t even that dry. We longed for those oversized washers and dryers back in the States. But you know what? Eventually, we got used to it, our complaints lost their steam, and we moved on. Doing one load of laundry per day became the new normal. Now, in China, we have a nearly identical machine. But here, because the clothes dryer gives off so much heat, people have an elaborate balcony pulley system for hanging clothes out to dry.
So, right now, our clothes are currently hanging on our balcony in Shenzhen, drying in the blazing heat of Southern China. We could still be comparing the efficiency of dryers here to the US, but where would that get us?
Moving abroad is one of the greatest joys of our lives. It’s brought adventure and sparked curiosities that we didn’t even know we had. We have become friends with some amazing people from across the globe, so we have someone to call in Dublin if we want a pint or fellow expats to reach to if we are bored in Shanghai. We have traveled extensively and visited more places than we thought was possible. That is the excitement and thrill of expat life.
It didn’t come easy though. The adjustment is difficult and it’s not for everyone. But if you follow our tips and learn to adapt to the day-to-day struggles, you too can have a fulfilling expat life. So when you are faced with a pile of boxes in a new apartment, in a new city, in a new country, and the thought of all of the tasks ahead of you seem overwhelming, just remember: give it 6 months!
We are Drew and Julie of Drive on the Left – serial American expats. After three years living in London, we are beginning a new expat adventure in Shenzhen, China. Together, we travel the world and share our experiences from our life abroad. When the suitcases are put away, you can find us scouring local food markets, binge watching shows on Netflix, and doing endless research for our next journey.