So many people around the world are dying to leave their home country and explore new ones. Only a handful of these adventure seekers are going to actually move to a new country. I always knew that I’d be one of those people, and it was never an option to just stay where I was. Yet there was a lot about being an expat that I just didn’t realize was going to happen. What was culture shock, and how was it going to affect me? Who knew the culture in my new home was going to be that different from my own?
Being an expat is an invaluable experience. But before you go bounding off into the great mysterious somewhere, here are some tips I wish I’d heard before I left.
1) Try Out a Small Trip: Being an Expat Isn’t for Everyone
There’s a world of difference between visiting a place and living there. It doesn’t matter how much you prepare for your new home, the reality is still going to be different from what was in your head. That’s why a two or three week visit before you commit to anything is a great idea. It’s enough to figure out if your love affair with Paris is the real deal, or if it was all in your head.
2) That First Year is Going to SUCK
With every single expat I’ve ever met, the story is always the same. The first year in your new home is going to suck. You might have awesome experiences, but you’re also going to have your lowest moments. Culture shock is going to hit you hard, at least twice during this year if not more. The language barrier will seem impossible. You’re going to feel like an idiot more times in that first year than you ever have in your life. But if you can stick with it, then by the second year you’ll have your feet firmly planted on the ground.
3) The Locals Are Going to Treat You Different
Every website I viewed about my new home assured me that it was a magical land. Honey flowed from the water taps, the people would always be hospitable, and most everyone spoke English. Now that I’ve been here, this image seems to stem from the Tourist Areas, not the rest of the city.
It’s not that my new neighbors aren’t hospitable, or that they don’t speak English. It’s that once you actually decided to live somewhere, the locals see you in a whole new light. They love you for loving their home enough to move there. Yet there’s always that lingering feeling that you should be trying harder. You want to live here, right? Then you have to be exactly like the locals, or else you’re not trying hard enough.
4) What You’re Doing is Super Cool, but It Won’t Always Feel Like It
The dream of living in a far away land and the reality of it are two different things. When people tell me how awesome it is that I work in Europe, but I live in Asia, I just smile and shrug. “It’s not that cool,” I think. “It’s just my life.” No matter what kind of weird stuff happens to you while you’re away from home, after a while it’s all going to become normal.
That doesn’t mean you should start to take it for granted though! When you look back at this point of your life, make sure it’s with a lot more fondness than regret. Take advantage of where you are, and try to experience everything you can. You don’t know how much longer any of this is going to last.
5) Never Be Afraid of Square One
My worst nightmares is that one day all this is going to go tits up and I’m going to end up back in America working at a Starbucks. If I’m lucky, I’ll get some soul crushing office job where I have to wear pencil skirts and cut my hair conservatively. I’ll be someone who chased after her dreams but never actually made it, someone who never changed from the way she was when she left.
The good news is that this fear is irrational. As soon as you and I took that first step towards our dreams, we changed. We became people who listened to the voice inside that said there was more out there. There’s no possible way we can ever return to Square One after that. We can get stuck, we can stop trying to reach for more, but we can never return to Square One. The person at Square One never tried, and we did.
6) This Is Going to Be Hard
I wish I could actually tell you how hard it’s going to be, but there’s no way that I can. Your experiences, views, and struggles are going to be different from mine. What I can tell you is that at some point you are going to have to make the choice to either go back home or grit your teeth and make this work. Sometimes going back home, or just moving to a new country, is the healthiest choice. It’s a good way to recharge or get out of dangerous situations. Look, if you fear for your mental health and safety, then please go back home. Get the help you need.
But if that’s not the case, then you should stick it out and learn to adapt. It will be incredibly difficult, but in the end you’ll be a better, stronger, person for it. I’ve learned so much about myself overseas that can never be taken away from me. That alone makes all the crazy crap that’s happened worth it.
Becoming an expat is a wonderful, life-enriching experience, but I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. If you think you’re adventurous and flexible enough to roll with the punches and adjust to a new way of life, then more power to you. If you’re already living the expat life then please feel free to comment and add your own tips. Remember, we want to encourage and equip our fellow future expats!