In previous issues of Escape From America Magazine we have covered the topic of the most common obstacles or reasons people put off becoming an expat. Moving on, we are now addressing the expats who have overcome those hurdles and have just made the move or are about to and are wondering what pitfalls lie ahead in their new life overseas.
It is nearly impossible for anyone who is planning their big escape to take into consideration all of the obstacles that they are likely to encounter as a new expat. However, we here at Escape From America Magazine have come up with a list that addresses many of them. Some are fairly obvious, but it is the unforeseen obstacles that can be most difficult to deal with precisely because they are so unexpected. Rather than discouraging, we, as experienced expats, are naming these challenges in order to help others get a realistic idea of what is in store for them as new expats as much as to encourage the can-do spirit that drives all expats to get out there and make their dreams come true.
Looking for friends in all the right places
When removed from familiar settings, such as when you become an expat, it is important to have a trusted circle of friends and acquaintances you may call on for advice and assistance. This is particularly true when having to deal with health issues in foreign lands. You may not yet be familiar with the language, when you get that once in a lifetime toothache, but having someone to call on to find a good dentist or doctor is always important. There are also situations where you may have to take a trip, and need someone to take care of your pets. Sometimes a daily visit is just fine, but many times you will want someone to stay at your house, for security as well as having someone there for your cat, dog, or aquarium. Having trusted friends in this instance is extremely helpful.
Home is where your heart is
This all starts with your arrival in your new home country, where it is equally important that newcomers have a positive outlook on their new environs. Forget what you know about where you came from, and settle into your chosen destiny without reservations. If you go into it with an attitude of it being just a trial, give it every chance you can, being ready to make some serious adjustments in your lifestyle. Parador is not Palo Alto. There are few hypermarkets, but on the whole, people tend to be much more open and friendly, if you let them be. When setting up housekeeping in foreign lands, be aware that it’s you who is the curiosity. Your new neighbors may wonder why you would choose to come to their country to live, when many of them would like nothing better than to take your place where you came from. They are watching too many Hollywood movies!
From the start, while setting up your new digs, you will be tempted to compare things with the way of life you left behind, from the water pressure, to food, quality of life in general, and of course the weather. While it is OK to make quiet observations to yourself or loved ones, it is very counterproductive too utter these things out loud, when socializing with your local friends and neighbors, as that invariably will lead to the question, “Well, if it’s so great where you came from, why are you here?” …and justifiably so. Dwell instead on the positive aspects of your new life, and be grateful for the fact that you are being exposed to a new ways of doing things.
Red tape and more red tape
One aspect that is probably the hardest to adjust to is the endless parade of bureaucratic hurdles you will encounter anytime you have dealings with officials. Things are still done in the old accustomed way, with computers only seeming to complicate things even more. For example, we had to pick up a care package from my wife’s sister at the customs office recently. They have a very modern system, what with bar coded forms, labels, and boxes. But in spite of all that, after entering everything in the computer, they went right back to the old fashioned way of shuffling the papers back and forth between the two officials in the office. One guy would stamp a document, then give it to the other to sign, who then would hand it back to the first guy to now enter the info into an old ledger book, which he would pass back over to the first guy to stamp and sign. Then they got the package from another guy in the lockup and eventually, after inquiring what the contents were, handed it over to us, without opening it.
The whole time this was happening, we smiled, made small talk with them and never once showed any sign of impatience or anger, as that certainly would have prolonged the process and made it an unpleasant experience for all of us. As it was, when we left the office, we got smiles, handshakes, kisses on the cheeks, and the guys assured us that if we needed anything else, they would be at out service. When dealing with the bureaucracy, be patient and smile a lot! You will get things done much more quickly and efficiently.
Looking for love in too many faces
Most people want to make friends and socialize and so it is natural when you first become an expat to seek out company. Maybe you have decided that you are not going to stick to only socializing with other expats but that you really want to integrate with your local community. This is a great attitude to have but apply the same rules and criteria that you would if you were still back home. It is not realistic to expect to be compatible and form lasting friendships with people who are on very different social, economic and intellectual levels as yourself. Therefore you should take your time to get to know new people you come into contact with and be selective with whom you form friendships. Failure to do so could result in the arrival of unwanted guests at inconvenient times or expectations of hand-outs from people in your local community who perceive you as the rich gringo and the answer to their prayers.
Don’t pine away
Home sickness: This can strike at any time from within the first few days of arriving in your new nation or several months or years down the line. It is not uncommon for your environment to suddenly strike you as alien and you find yourself wondering if you have done the right thing or hankering after the familiarity of home. For most people this soon passes although for others the homesick feeling lingers on. It can help to remind yourself of the reasons you left your home nation in the first place and why you chose your new location. Keeping your mind occupied and a positive mental attitude is essential to prevent a downward spiral and convincing yourself that the only option is to go back home. However if the feeling persists and you start to become withdrawn and depressed then maybe being an expat really isn’t for you and you need to consider whether to stay or go.
You are not in Kansas anymore
In other words, if you have moved to a new nation you are going to be living in a whole new cultural environment and things are done differently to how they were “back home”. It is a totally fruitless exercise to set out to change things and try and educate people on how to “do things properly”. It is you who is the guest in your host nation, and an uninvited one at that, so you have to learn to adapt and adjust to their way of life and methodology. This is something that is often overlooked and is a huge source of frustration for many new expats but with time and patience you will slot in to a new way of thinking… after all is this not one of the reasons you became an expat in the first place … to get away from the same old routine?
You can’t always get what you want
At some point you will find yourself searching in vain for items that, quite simply, are not available in your new nation. How much a problem this will be for you is directionally proportionate to the extent that you have convinced yourself that you cannot live without certain foods, the latest movies, books in English or whatever. It is the absence of certain brands or types of food that get to people the most. Cravings kick in and you have to get over them. A great benefit of this is that you end up being more creative in the kitchen. You have to adapt recipes according to what is available. Your social life will expand too as you need to find alternative sources of entertainment. Both plus points of being an expat in my opinion.
Talking the talk
Don’t underestimate the difficulty of learning the language in the place you are planning to live, and don’t put off learning what you can before you leave home. It is never too early to start putting in the effort, as tedious as it can be, to begin learning the basics. There are many ways to do this: books, classrooms, private instruction, software programs, and internet sites. Even if you are planning to take an immersion course upon arrival, which is an excellent plan, you can move yourself forward so that you will get even more out of your course. Whatever your plans are, do not fail to at least familiarize yourself with some vocabulary and grammar. And don’t make excuses for why you can’t practice speaking the language upon your arrival. If you put in a real effort, you will find that people are generally patient and helpful in response. In case of an emergency, to read instructions, to ensure that you are not being taken advantage of, and of course to interact with people, you will want to learn the language. It will not be easy, and it will take time. But it will all be more than worth it.
The measuring stick shuffle
You will find yourself constantly converting prices between currencies, which may also involve converting between different measuring systems. You will need to convert weights and volumes of everything from food items to petrol, recipes, temperatures, and distances. Eventually, the new measurements and numbers will sink in, and as you realize that comparing prices between very different economies doesn’t really make much sense, the need to do these conversions will decrease. It is just another aspect of life in a different culture that you will need to get used to.
Steering the rudderless ship
For many who retire abroad as well as those who give up their jobs to accompany their spouses to an overseas assignment, filling time constructively may be an unexpected challenge. Lack of a structured schedule can be disorienting, especially when it is piled on top of the immense changes in everything from the building construction to the climate to the daily rhythms, etc. It is easy to feel rudderless in the switchover from being a go-getter to dealing with the things will get done when they get done attitudes that exist in many cultures in the world. Making connections in the community, getting involved in volunteering, working on a personal project or even a at a job are a few ways to ward off the emptiness that can send people into the strange funk of not knowing what to do with themselves.
Outside looking in
Expat isolation is yet another obstacle you may find yourself struggling with. It is that feeling of always being stared at in public because your red hair and freckles stand out. Or your heroic effort to speak the language is exhausting you, and you find yourself seeking comfort in the expat community instead of interacting with locals, as you had promised yourself you would. But in the end, you have to work your way through the hard part, the disorientation, the desire to retreat, the loneliness, by getting out there, striking up conversations, and showing that, despite your freckles, you really are not all that different after all.
Escaping from the rat race, or whatever it is that you are leaving behind, does not mean you are done living life – it means you are beginning anew.
About the authors:
Do you disagree with our answers? Do you have other options or opinions to share with our readers? What has been your experience? Please leave a comment.
Every week, we receive numerous inquiries covering a variety of subjects that are important to you. Now, we would like to invite all of you to participate in our new feature by submitting questions that are relevant to expat living, whether you are planning to retire, work abroad, study, wander, or are just curious about life as an expat.
We encourage you to submit your questions to us, and our answers will be published on Expat Daily News on Fridays. This is an effort by your editors, all experienced travelers and expats, to serve you better, and have you share your curiosities with your fellow readers.
We are looking forward to hearing from you.
About the authors: Susan Beverley is a writer and editor for Escape From America Magazine and also writes for and maintains Expat Daily News – the expat news blog for EscapeArtist.com. She traveled extensively before becoming an expat herself having found a place to call home in South America where she has lived since 2005. She understands the concerns, needs and difficulties that expats face from first-hand experience and is dedicated to supporting and encouraging anyone who is looking for a new nation to call home. [ send her an email ]
Jamie Douglas is an Adventurer, Writer and Photographer with an amazing array of Nikon equipment, and a lifetime of experience traveling and documenting. To contact him for assignments and new adventures, email: jamie.douglas [at] yahoo.com
Julie R Butler is a traveler, blogger, freelance writer, and editor who has authored several books, self-published as eBooks, including Nine Months In Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info).
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