Life as an expat: Are you prepared?
Preparing to start a new life abroad is both exciting and stressful. Wading through the admin of renting out your house, sorting medical issues, finding schools for children, redirecting mail and so on is one thing, but preparing emotionally is something completely different. Here are our top 10 tips on getting ready for life as an expat.
- Get healthy. Settling into a new city and lifestyle can be stressful and you want to be fighting fit before embarking on an adventure. You’ll be affected by anything from jetlag to heat to air pollution and unfamiliar food when you arrive – and it may be a while before you can get into a new fitness regime.
- Keep an open mind. Pretty well everybody has a taste of culture shock. Things will be different and at times, not what you’d hoped for. Learn to go with the flow. Learn to recognize the symptoms of culture shock, too, and understand that it will pass.
- Start to create a support network. Research distractions you might enjoy in moments of homesickness – a gym, maybe, or a church, or a parenting group. Join discussion forums and social networking groups and make friends online before you leave home. Arrange to meet them as soon as you arrive; a network is important when you’re alone in a new place.
- Don’t over-analyse. It’s all too easy to obsess over the minutiae of what your new home might be like but you need to learn to wing it to an extent. There will be surprises when you get there so try to take these in your stride. You can do all the research in the world and things will still be different from what you expected.
- Do, though, think about what might affect you and how you will cope with it. If you’re moving to a big city in China, how will you handle the fact that everywhere is crowded, all the time? If you’re headed for the Gulf, are you prepared for the intense heat and the fact that you’ll spend significant amounts of time trying to escape it? If you’re South America-bound, are you ready for the fact that you’ll need tighter personal security than at home? Or if you’re moving to India, are you aware of how the air pollution might affect you?
- Don’t let your nerves rub off on your children. Children adapt well to new cultures and after a wobbly day or two in a new school, will probably settle in quicker than you will, so keep your frustrations to yourself and share them with your partner instead.
- Decide what to take. Most expats will share their mistakes with you – things they wish they’d brought, things they wished they’d left behind. Remember to stock up on any regular medication if there’s any doubt about where you’ll get it abroad, as well as things like contact lenses. Ask your new contacts for advice. If anything, it will be a great ice-breaker.
- Learn the language. This is very important, especially if you are to be a non-working spouse, or the ‘trailing spouse’, as they’re known in expat-speak. At the very least, you need to be able to function in shops, on public transport and so on. If you’re working, you need to get off to a flying start with colleagues so try to do a crash course before you leave.
- Study the local etiquette. Most places are fairly forgiving of foreigners but there’s no excuse for arriving completely ignorant. For example, in Germany, you should greet neighbours when you meet them on the street, and always acknowledge shop assistants. In the USA, you’ll need to be familiar with the tipping culture. In a Muslim country, prepare yourself for a different dress code.
- Finally, start an expat blog. It will help you feel connected to people back home, make the transition easier for them, and it will encourage you to go out and try new things in your new home. It’ll be fun for your kids – and when you leave, you’ll have a ready-made account of your time abroad.