Being an expat isn’t easy
No one ever said that being an expat was easy; in fact, when you’re starting out, it’s about as far from the romantic ideal of a carefree life in the sun as you could possibly get. With so much to plan and organise it feels chaotic at best and disastrous at worst. But stick with it, there are lots of ways to make it easier on yourself and lots of advice available to help you overcome the stressful bits.
Every family is different and for every expat there’s a unique story, but I’ve found that there are some common themes. Here, I’ll explore the four key challenges that every expat faces and point you in the right direction with some helpful advice.
First and foremost on the list of commonalities is loneliness – either being lonely, or worrying about being lonely. Missing the people you’ve left behind, not being able to make new friends, not speaking the language and not understanding the culture are a few of the most oft-repeated concerns.
Loneliness is a slippery slope. It starts with a feeling of unease and isolation, which you overcome by keeping yourself busy. The trouble is, it’s not the same as boredom and it’s not so easily dissuaded – left unattended, loneliness can lead to depression and a detriment to your physical well-being.
For all people, relationships are important. Avoid loneliness by…
- Having a robust plan to keep in touch with your loved ones at home. Skype, phone, email and write good old fashioned letters. Letters can actually be a great comfort purely because they’re tangible; you can hold them in your hand, you can send and receive little gifts and you can revisit them time and again when you feel the need. Plan your visits ahead of time too – both for you to go ‘home’ and for people to come to you, giving yourself something to look forward to.
- Don’t leave it until you actually move to start networking. Look for Facebook groups in your new locale and join them – reach out to people, tell them you’re moving soon and you’d like their support. Never underestimate the goodwill that’s out there. Plenty of people will be happy to make suggestions, arrange meetups when you arrive and chat online about what you can expect. Have a zero-tolerance policy on negativity though – trolls are few and far between but there’s always one, don’t let them influence you. Try my own ExpatChat group to get you going.
- Learn some basic conversational phrases in the new language. This is one worry you have the power to remove completely before you leave. You don’t have to be fluent in the language to be able to connect with people; some basic small talk options about the weather, being able to ask people how they are and being able to show an interest in their activities is all you need to start making friends.
- Culture can be tricky. Depending where in the world you are moving there may be specific rules on conduct for men and women. As long as you go into it with your eyes open (do your research!) you should be informed enough to avoid any social faux pas. Immerse yourself in the local culture; don’t let it hold you back.
2. So many choices!
Another common worry, especially for those moving with their families, is making the right choices – preschools, schools, healthcare, houses etc.
Although we all worry about it, thankfully, this one is relatively simple to overcome. Make sure your research is robust; you’ve networked, searched, checked and double checked and you feel you know as much as possible about the area and the facilities you have chosen. You’ll find plenty of detailed articles on this site, giving advice on the means and methods of research and helping you to make great, well informed decisions.
More than this, keep an open mind and remember that there are no absolutes; nothing is forever. If you move and you discover the school, or the doctor’s surgery, you’ve registered with isn’t everything you thought it would be – go back to the drawing board and start again. This is your adventure and you have every right to live it your way, so you don’t have to settle for less than perfect.
3. Cost of living
In every country, and indeed every city of the world, the cost of living is a variable and you’re going to need to understand the differences if you’re going to be able to afford to survive.
The Expatistan Cost of Living Index, is a helpful tool that will give you a basic idea of what to expect.
The data is collected from visitors and is kept as up to date as possible. So, in 2017 for example, if you’re moving from Amsterdam to Doha in Qatar, you can see clearly that your cost of living will increase significantly. This isn’t the only index you’ll find, the internet is full of similar examples, so there’s no excuse for not knowing what to expect – and knowledge is power!
To overcome any worries about the cost of living you will need to plan your finances carefully; talk to your bank and find out about onshore vs offshore bank accounts. Research the best deals on transferring money to avoid being stung with outlandish transfer fees. Find out the average wage in the area of your choice and start making some preliminary calculations.
4. Finding work
For many people, the reason for moving to a new country is that they’ve been offered a new job opportunity – but most commonly this only applies to one member of the household. If you’re the ‘trailing spouse’, or if your reasons for moving are completely different, then at some point you’ll need to face the common problem of finding a job.
Although you may feel that finding work in a different country is a completely new ball game, the basic principles are reassuringly similar. Your starting point is a great CV and a positive attitude. There are some differences to look out for though.
If you live in the UK for example, equality laws prevent employers from asking about your age, your marital status and your nationality. UK CVs shouldn’t include a photograph or any personal information– but in other countries these laws are different. Outside of the UK you will find that a photo on a CV is a common expectation, as is stating your nationality and other personal information. The reasons vary – in Saudi Arabia it is illegal for a man to teach in a girl’s school; in Afghanistan there are restrictions on women in the workplace and many positions – for example teachers for English as an Additional Language – require the candidate to originate from an English speaking country.
As long as you know the rules there is nothing stopping you from sending out your CV to any number of suitable prospective employers and pursuing a wide variety of job opportunities. Be prepared to start small; it’s unlikely you’ll walk into a position at the same rank as you held in your home country, especially if your language skills are limited.
And make sure your visa will allow you to work too…
My answer to everything…
It feels like I’m always banging the same drum – research, research, research! But I can’t stress enough that with strong preparation, you can avoid much of the stress that even these four common problems present.
Obsessive list making may not come naturally to you, but learn to do it effectively and those lists really could be your saving grace. A good list can be the difference between a smooth transition and a massive headache.
Lists and journals