Moving abroad for work is certainly not an easy feat. Especially if this is your first time to live and work overseas (like me!). You’ll be thrown out of your comfort zone, into a new life where most of the time you don’t even know anyone in that new country. Depending on your circumstances, it could be one of the best or worst decisions you could ever make in your life. So for the next post in my Bloggers’ Top 3 series, I asked 13 bloggers on what are their top life lessons learned as a new expat.
Here are their top 3 life lessons learned as a new expat:
- Rachel: Expat in Netherlands
When I moved to the Netherlands with my Dutch husband, my plan was to spend the first year studying Dutch, then get a job. Here are my top 3 life lessons as an accidental expat:
- Don’t overestimate your own abilities.
When you’re 35 years old, you can’t learn a language in one year! It took more like four years before I could have a reasonable conversation (and get through a job interview) in Dutch. I also thought that the Dutch way of life was pretty much the same as the American. Wrong!
- Even if things seem the same at first glance, keep an eye on the subtleties.
They’re not taking any of the cookies you set out because that would be rude. You have to actively offer the cookies, and if you don’t, you’re the one who’s rude!
- Their way is also okay.
I was horrified that I couldn’t, for example, go straight to a dermatologist for a skin problem. No, my GP would look at it, treat it and decide whether I needed a specialist. I was worried at seeing kids as young as four riding their bikes next to their parents and as young as about seven or eight riding to school or sports unaccompanied. Both, it turns out, work fine. Other societies do things differently. The way you’re used to doing things is not the only way, and may not be the best way.These are the three life lessons I learned as an expat in the Netherlands. I still get regular reminders of all three, both here and on my travels; I suppose we all need reminding from time to time!
Follow her on Instagram: @rachelsruminations
2. Steffi: Expat in Thailand
Having lived in Thailand for the last 3 years, I learned the following lessons:
Like most developing countries, certain things can try your patience when living there. Problems with communication and issues with efficiency can all get on your nerves. Living in Bangkok has forced me to slow down and accept things as they are rather than get riled up by them.
- I’ve learned to enjoy cultural differences.
I love that I have met a diverse and interesting group of friends over here in Thailand and the fact that we have many different ideas and attitudes from dating to jobs is something to celebrate and enjoy discussions about.
Knowing that you can move solo to the other side of the world and make a life for yourself is definitely something that I am proud of and that boost in confidence will stay with me always, including when I make the move to the next place!
3. Kylie: Expat in the USA
- You learn who your real friends are.
I found that people that I considered some of my best friends for 20+ years suddenly cut me off when I moved overseas. With technology nowadays it’s so easy to stay in touch with advancements such as video call so it shocked me as a new expat that they ignored me when I needed their support the most.
- I thought the transition from one ‘first world country’ to another would be easy.
Just because a country may speak the same language, the culture can still be extremely different. It’s often hard to embrace the differences because you can’t help but think “if you UK does it this way, why doesn’t the USA?”. I’d imagine it would be easier to embrace things in a country that has obvious cultural differences.
As soon as I open my mouth my accent makes me stick out like a sore thumb. So I guess my third lesson would be patience as I have to explain my story/answer the same questions over and over again!
4. Dawn: Expat in Australia
This is my second time being an expat (first in Malaysia and now in Australia) and I have learned so much about how to live as an expat overseas.
- The first thing I have learned is that even if living overseas is short-term (2 years in my case), you need to set up your house like your home. The first time I didn’t bother with little decor items or making the house mine. As a result, the house didn’t feel like our house; it felt temporary.
- I have also learned that making real, true, good friends takes time and you can’t expect to replicate your friendships back home in a year or two in a new country.
- Lastly, I have learned that your sense of normal will be turned on its head. You see new ways of doing things, your eyes are opened to new experiences and you will change your idea of normal.
5. Donovan: Expat in France
- On Opening a Foreign Bank Account: Always have backups for your Documents.
We had to wait 6 weeks for our bank account to be approved. During the wait, we were requested to submit the same documents which we have already submitted. Luckily, we have backup copies of those in soft copy as well. Always have soft and hard backup copies of your documents.
- On Driving in Europe: Always research ahead before Driving.
We were done with our snowboarding in Feldberg, was near the border at Basel, Switzerland. And we thought, why not just go for a brief drive in Basel. We drove in and was surprised the city center has little to no traffic (only trams). Before we went on further, we were stopped by the police because we were in a no-car zone in Basel. 100 CHF ticket for that.
- On Travelling: Buy or Book your Tickets in Advance.
Because most popular tourist attractions usually will have long queues. If they sell tickets online that guarantee your admission. Please do so. You will save hours of queueing time. Vacation time is always precious and short, don’t spend time queuing and waiting.
6. Trisha: Expat in Tel Aviv
After years of moving around the world without a permanent home base, I found myself head over heels to this city when Vibe Israel invited me to take part in their media trip for travel bloggers.
- The first lesson I learned from being an expat here: when it feels right, it fits. Moving to Tel Aviv was an extreme accident for me. I didn’t plan it! On the day of my flight to Mexico City, I decided I didn’t want to leave yet even if the flight cost ($1,800, one-way) was flushed to the drain.
- Second, I was able to explore the human’s adaptivity to change: wherever we are, there we are. This mindset is often overlooked but living in the present is one of the best practices that made me lead a happy and artistic life.
- Lastly, I learned that eating, drinking, speaking and breathing a culture that is far away from yours is possible and easy only if you are willing to participate in it. I can’t believe I am saying this but Tel Aviv is really my home now!
7. Mike Clegg: Expat in Austria
I’ve found living as an Expat in different countries comes with tons of challenges and lifestyle changes. Here are three of the top lessons and things I’ve learned from my experience living as an Expat in Toronto, Canada, and then Vienna, Austria.
- Get the essentials sorted first
When moving to a new place I found once you get the essentials sorted, such as a place to stay, a phone connection and bank account, then everything else starts falling into place and your new country will start feeling more like home.
- Travel around your new location
Once you’ve moved and settled you should take advantage of your new location and the places to visit nearby. Such as in Toronto I visited Niagara Falls, New York, and various other places which were in easy reach. Whilst in Vienna I often get the bus to surrounding countries and cities and as a result, have had the opportunity to travel so much more. This makes living in the new destination that much more enjoyable and satisfying.
- Make friends
My final suggestion would be to make friends with other people in the city/destination. This may be with locals or other expats. As a photographer, I often meet up with different Instagram photographers in other countries I’ve lived in, and have since made some really good friends as a result.”
8. Callan: Expat in South Korea
- Embrace the culture
As I landed in South Korea my sponsor company wanted to take me to dinner. After much miscommunication, they finally realized the meaning of “pescetarian”. The first thing that was dropped in front of me – a live octopus. Learning: No use fighting against something different. Experience the newness and step out of your boundaries. As the tentacles squirmed around the chopsticks, I felt a little woozy but had a massive grin on my face. I now make my own kimchi at home!
- Don’t compare your home to your new country
As an expat, it’s inevitable that you will miss home, but I learned not to focus on the differences. Rather I saw every experience as a new lesson that would broaden my small mind. I have seen expats in Korea getting very angry with the cultural differences leading to a sort of passive-aggressive anger. Some start staying indoors sulking and constantly talk about how horrible their time is. Learning: Relax. Take some Korean language lessons. You’re not at, there’s no changing that. Focus on what’s happening in front of you, not what’s in the past or future.
- Learn the language and spend time with locals
I believe that you know nothing about a country until you learn the language and spend time with locals. Language shows you intricacies about a culture that you would never know otherwise. I have seen “lifers” in Korea that live in a small Western bubble and can’t speak a word of Korean. It seems to me like a wasted opportunity. Learning: Every culture is rich and full of amazing customs and you will always be at the tip of the iceberg if you don’t learn the language.
9. James: Expat in Portugal
- Flexibility is key, especially when it comes to cooking
Being flexible is essential if you want to settle into a new culture. I think everyone knows this before they move abroad. One of the first areas we noticed this was with food – particularly from supermarkets.
In Britain, there’s a 24/7 culture, and many shops stay open overnight. They also stock a huge range of international products, so if you want blueberries in November or an obscure spice mix you’ll probably find it. In mainland Europe, shops tend to close around 8 pm and mostly sell local, seasonal produce.
We quickly learned to make substitutions in our favorite recipes, and to our shopping lists. We’re both much better cooks as a result, and our shopping trips are more exciting as we look forward to certain fruits and veggies coming in season.
- You won’t integrate as fast as you assume you will
Before I moved abroad, I assumed it would only take a few months to integrate into my new life. But settling in takes time – and usually a lot more than you imagine.
Friendships take a long time to build, learning a new language takes an incredibly long time (and a lot of effort), and just getting your head around the way things work in your new country can take a long time as well.
Being an expat means constantly having to work at making this new life for yourself, and that can be quite tiring.
- Life as an expat is a trade-off
Although most people become expats for an easier life, ironically life as an expat can be more difficult than staying at home. This is partly because you don’t know the system of your new home, and partly because some things are just more complicated and take.
For example, my girlfriend and I both had to get vaccinations for a trip to South East Asia. She was in the UK and got everything done with one visit to the travel nurse. I was in Portugal and had to visit the travel consultant, the pharmacy (to pick up the inoculations), the travel nurse several times for the jabs, a trip to the doctor, and a lot of paperwork. I had to buy the injections myself and bring them along to the clinic, which was different and quite confusing.
But, it’s all a trade-off. Yes, some things are more complicated, or surprisingly expensive, or whatever, but in return, you get a better quality of life.
10. John: Expat in Germany
Back in 2011, we moved our family including our 2 daughters aged 11 and 12 from the UK to Cologne in Germany. While it was somewhat of a challenge, it’s been a great adventure and 6 years later we are still here and wondering what all the fuss was about. Here are my 3 top lessons that we learned as new Expats here in Germany.
- Put yourself out there
Ok, so it’s daunting enough as it is to move somewhere new where you might not speak the language or understand the local culture. As a newbie expat, your experience will be enriched if you step outside your comfort zone and put yourself out there to make new friends. Regardless of where hour new city is in the world, there are people just like you who would love to help you settle in and show you all their favorite spots. Take a breath and go for it, it’s not always easy but your new best friend is just waiting to meet you if you let them.
- Languages are for learning, you won’t be perfect but it doesn’t matter
When I first arrived in Germany I was terrified to speak German in case I got it wrong. It took a long time to make progress in my language lessons and I missed loads of opportunities to improve because of my fear of failure. Once I got past that, it didn’t seem to matter if I made (and still make) mistakes. People love it when you try and I’ve made friends in the process.
- Embrace and accept local customs
One of the strangest things I found about moving to Germany was the fact that Sunday was a proper day of rest. Initially, we really missed the fact that Sunday was just another day in the UK. We didn’t understand why contracts automatically rolled over for another 2 years if you hadn’t canceled 3 months before the end, in writing. It also drove us crazy to have to choose from so many types of water. Six years later we tut at the idea of washing your car or shopping on a Sunday, we write our Kundigung letters as soon as we sign any new contract and we drink Sprudel water of our own free will. As for the tradition of drinking gluhwein at the Cologne Christmas Markets, we got into that one pretty quickly.
11. Zeke: Expat in Qatar
- Learn the culture of the country you’re staying in
Their beliefs, traditions, language, and food. For a long time of staying here in Qatar, we were able to adjust to the culture of the country and its people. However, we kept our comfort zone in terms of using the English language as well as eating continental and Southeast Asian foods leaving the knowledge of Arabic language and adopting the Middle Eastern cuisines behind. Lately, we are appreciating the importance of both. We are learning some basic Arabic, thanks to the new app which teaches us common Arabic phrases. Our visit to different restaurants also exposes us to different cuisines in the region. Indeed, knowing one’s culture includes everything that makes a person whole.
- Learn to adapt
Since Qatar is a melting pot of many other cultures especially Westerners, South Asians and other Arab countries, Filipinos can get drowned with strong personalities that “may seem” tough and rugged. The tone of voice, words, and expressions really matter to us that is why a small deviation to what we are accustomed to may sound “differently” to us. But instead of taking people’s reactions and expressions to heart, we just have to adapt and think of how we would understand and celebrate the uniqueness of each other. Just like how usual friends get to know each other, spending time and having genuine conversations than the usual hi and hellos will surely “break the ice”, appreciate our differences, and get along well.
- Saving for the future
Ever since I started working abroad, it was really very difficult to save money since I was coming from a very deep financial situation. We could easily get tempted to splurge on things that we felt “we deserve” and forget the very reason why we came here in the first place. And while paying off credit card debts and other financial obligations back home, I was still able to squeeze in a small amount to start up saving for a condominium property which I am now leasing out thru Airbnb. It looked very difficult then since I practically have nothing left on my salary every month but the joy of having successfully paid off everything and now enjoying my own property especially during my vacation always gave me that “high” feeling!
12. Cristina: Expat in Guatemala
When it comes to traveling, living, and working as an expat in Guatemala, there are three main things that you need to know, which I have learned as an expat here.
- Always double check when asking for directions
As a traveler, if you ever happen to ask for directions, you should never ask just one person. Never ever. You may run the risk of going to the opposite way of where you need to go. Try at least five or six people in order to make sure you have the correct answer.
- Embrace the culture and traditions
If you decide to live in Guatemala, you will embrace the magic of the Mayan culture and traditions. You will learn how to recognize each tribe and how to follow the flow of the Mayan calendar and celebrate life according to the movement of the moon. You will learn how to connect to the pacha mama (the mother earth), and you will feel the power of nature embracing you every step you take.
- Be ready to suffer
Lastly, if you decide to work in Guatemala be ready to suffer, my dear friend. In my case, for instance, I work as a freelance translator and God knows how many times I have panicked because “Sorry, mamita, today there is no internet”. Choose a different job, bring your own wi-fi, or just learn how to breathe, and relax.
13. Mike Still: Expat in South Korea
I moved from the USA to Seoul, South Korea back in the summer of 2013. Over the next 4 years, I learned plenty of valuable lessons but these were the big 3 lessons I learned as a newbie expat.
- You don’t need words to communicate
I thought that I wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone in Korea until I learned Korean but you’d be surprised how much “body language” can convey. It wasn’t easy but I was able to “speak” to the lady I wanted to buy snacks from, order at a restaurant, and even get directions to the nearby hike all on my first day!
- It’s okay to eat at a restaurant yourself
The first meal I ate by myself was tough. I didn’t know where to go to eat and was worried I wouldn’t be able to order but thanks to lesson #1, I did end up getting a meal. I couldn’t read the Korean menu but bravely pointed something at random trying to ask the waitress if it was chicken or pork. She squawked at me, or so I thought, meaning it was chicken. It did turn out to be chicken but that may just have been an awkward response. Then I sat there alone in my thoughts trying to figure out how to make a friend and what I should do in this new crazy country. I NEVER went to a restaurant alone back home. Sure I ate by myself at home a few times but I always scarfed it down so I could get onto whatever I was doing. Well, that first meal was eye-opening for me; I had a journal with me and wrote plenty about this new experience. I planned out my whole weekend and realized that I would enjoy doing this more often in the years to come. Oh and by the way a Korean friend told me I ate “chicken butts” when I showed him a photo. YUM.
- Even people who live in “paradise” want to leave so make your own paradise!
On my 3rd day in Korea, I took a short hike to a little pagoda overlooking my new neighborhood in Seoul. I met my first Korean man who spoke enough English to have a conversation and I excitedly tried to ask him all about things to do in Seoul. He told me a few things but quickly changed the subject to amazing things to do in China (where he’d visited) and then asked me about what he should do if he visited the United States. He practically dismissed his own city and country as a destination and it shocked me.
Sure, I’ve since met tons of locals who love their country and are excited to tell you all about it but I’ve met more people in paradise who would love to leave. There are a seemingly infinite number of places to visit on this beautiful planet but you should make your own paradise. Better yet take that paradise with you by enjoying the little things because every destination can be paradise even if it’s just around the corner.
Having been an expat for 9 months now, I also had my share of life lessons I learned as I adjust to life abroad. Although this was not my first time to travel overseas, I can say that living and working in a new country is definitely different from just traveling for a few days, weeks, or months. I’ll be writing a post on my experience soon!
How about you? Have you also experienced working and living abroad? What are your top 3 life lessons?
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