Moving to a new country for a job or relationship can be really intimidating. If you don’t know the local language or have family or friends that live near, the transition can be a bumpy road. When I first left America for The Netherlands, I was full of excitement and ready for adventure. I didn’t expect to experience culture shock in a Western country let alone have a difficult time. But I did. Moving to the UK from The Netherlands was easier because I knew what to expect and what steps I needed to take. Here are my ten tips for new expats, whether you have just arrived or are in the planning stages.
Moving to a foreign country that speaks a different language is easily the most difficult hurdle you’ll encounter as an expat. Locals may not give you respect. Simple tasks can feel overwhelming. Not to mention, it makes it extremely difficult to communicate with anyone. Before you leave, learn a few phrases or take an intro class if there is one available. If I could go back in time, this is the one thing I would have done differently. Seriously, it will make your life easier.
2. Join an expat group
I can’t stress this one enough. I have met AMAZING women through the expat groups I have joined both in The Netherlands and the UK. Check Facebook for an expat group in your country, it makes all the difference having people you can relate to and complain to on a daily basis. If this is too personal for you there are a plethora of expat websites with forums where you can post questions and ask for advice. My favorites are Expat Women, Expatica, Expat Hub (they did a great guest post here), and Expat Blog where you can read blogs of expats already living the lifestyle- like me!
“Loving life is easy when you are abroad. Where no one knows you and you hold your life in your hands all alone, you are more master of yourself than at any other time” ― Hannah Arendt
If you never leave your house, you will never integrate into your new culture. You MUST go see the sites, talk to your neighbors, shop at local markets, get out of your comfort zone! It may be difficult at first, but push yourself. Exploring your new country means getting to know your new country. This is so important. Make it an adventure, set goals for yourself, just do it.
As a new expat you may not start out with a work visa. It is difficult to meet local people when you are the new kid on the block, especially if you aren’t meeting people through your job. Volunteer with a local charity, school, or business. You will meet new friends, increase your confidence, and gain valuable insight into your new country. There is also the added benefit of helping a good cause, and making a positive difference in your new community.
Before you go: Know whether or not you need to file taxes with your home country. Find out if there are local customs you should be aware of to avoid embarrassing mishaps. Check local weather, currency conversions, and get a basic feel for the geography. Doing a Google search and a little research will put you way ahead of the game, and help avoid headaches when you arrive.
“The loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped.”
— Adam Gopnik
6. Embrace local customs
I celebrate holidays for three different countries. This pretty much means we always have a reason to party. I have a lot of fun learning about new customs, and then making them part of my own traditions. Not only will this help you get to know your new culture better, but getting involved will make the experience so much more fun and rewarding. You may find some customs strange (Sinterklaas?) at first, but learn the history and do your best to embrace the good in them. Before you know it you will be putting your shoes in front of the fire every December 5th hoping for a visit from a Spaniard on a white horse.
Eat! Food is such an integral part of learning about a new culture. Try everything. Although I wouldn’t recommend downing a herring or slurping up some dog soup, I am happy that I have put myself out there and tried local cuisines. If locals ride bicycles, start riding one to buy your groceries. If they take off their shoes before entering the room, join them. Trying little things will add up to make a big difference in your assimilation.
8. Download Skype
Missing family and friends back home is one of the most difficult aspects of the Expat life. Download a program like Skype so you can stay in touch and get ahold of Mom anytime you need her. If you live in the UK, SKY has a phone plan that lets you call most countries for free for a flat monthly rate. (I think I pay something like £20 a month.)
9. Don’t put on a brave face
Whatever you do, don’t keep everything inside if you are having a hard time adjusting. Talk to your partner, join an expat group, or e-mail the bestie back home. It is normal to have an adjusting period and research shows that being well-travelled or having a large income will have no effect on the experience of moving abroad. Culture shock happens to the best of us. If you are really struggling make an appointment with a counselor, depression is not something to take lightly in the middle of a big life change.
You have embarked (or are about to embark) on an amazing journey. It will change you for the better. You will grow in ways you can’t imagine and you’ll never be the same person you were when you left. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Love it. The expat lifestyle can be incredibly rewarding, it is all what you make of it.