So you’re really going. You’ve been dreaming of doing this for a long time and you’re finally doing it. And you’re clueless! No worries, we all are but here’s a few things I really wish I’d known before taking the plunge and becoming an expat for the first time.
Do not ONLY hang out with other expats.
I saw this all the time. You spend all this time and money to move to a new country and then I see expats only with other expats. When you move abroad, it can feel like you’re out of your comfort zone all the time. Our instinct is then to gravitate to something familiar. So when someone speaks your native language, it’s really easy to connect! And that’s great! However, you just moved all the way to insert country name and you’re going to hang out with someone who shares your same culture or very close to it?
I’m not suggesting that you reject all other expats. In fact, it can be really helpful because many times they’ve been there longer than you, they’re better with the language, they’re married to a local, and they can give you great advice or vice versa. I’m saying if you ONLY hang out with other expats, you’re going to miss a lot of the culture that attracted you to your destination country to begin with.
Be conscious and try to create a blend of friendships and relationships. Befriending local people and showing a real interest in their culture is true community building and so rewarding.
Eat local foods.
Do not go to the local grocery store and try to eat the same cereal that you’ve eaten every morning your whole life. That’s not what the adventure is about! Try local fruits and vegetables and pay attention to what’s in season. Have dinner at new friend’s houses and ask them to cook their favorite meal for you. Go to a restaurant and just point to something random on the menu. This is not always possible for people with dietary restrictions but there’s no reason you can’t still be adventurous and try some new things.
My husband and my favorite thing to do used to be to walk around our neighborhood and find the most hole in the wall place we could find, no Yelp, no maps, no suggestions. Because our city was small, we ended up making friends with patrons and restaurant owners and we’d run into them all over town. This is also how we became regulars at our local ramen shop! I can’t tell you how many times we’d be there and a friend would hand us a strange new fruit or the owner would make us something new for free. People love to share their culture, especially if you’ve already sought it out and shown you have a genuine interest.
Do not move to a new country and expect to eat your comfort foods. They won’t be there or you’ll have to pay big bucks to buy them imported. It’s not worth it! Try new comfort foods and make friends at local places. A lot of times the fact that you are so foreign and trying something local is enough for patrons to take an interest in you and strike up a conversation.
Getting lost on purpose and finding your way around is a great way to explore. If you can find your way when you are trying to get lost, when you’re lost for real, you’ll have the confidence to know you can find your way. You obviously need to be a little conscious about where you’re getting lost. Maybe don’t go out of your way to do it in the scary part of the city but take yourself to a new place and enjoy a good wander.
This is also a really fun way to discover new things when you’ve lived in a new place for a long time. Take a new route home and see what you find. You might discover you’ve been taking the less scenic route the whole time or find a great cafe to grab your morning coffee.
Say yes to everything.
Ever seen the movie Yes Man with Jim Carey? In it, he is forced to say yes to every question asked of him and it leads to quirky adventures and Jim Carey shenanigans. The movie is ok but when you’re in a new place, you are missing out if you don’t take this lesson to heart. Every yes is an opportunity and will lead you to the next opportunity. You never know where your yes will lead to! Check out my story about how I said yes to joining a Japanese festival here!
Bring your hobbies to your new home.
When I travel for long periods of time, there are a few hobbies that I always miss and am excited to return to. For example, I love needlepoint and gardening (I know I’m 100 years old) but bringing my banana pepper plant through customs is sort of a no go.
Things like sewing projects, gardening, building computers, woodworking, are obviously impractical to take with us on our travels or even when immigrating to a new country. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a place in your new life though! Taking the time and budget to set yourself up with the hobbies you enjoy can help you feel more settled in your space and bring a sense of balance to your new home.
Invite your friends and family to visit you.
Hosting a loved one in your new home country can make you remember why you fell in love with it to begin with. When my mom visited me in Paris, I took her to my favorite cafes, art exhibits, walks along the Seine, all the things I would normally fill my day with. Showing her what my daily life looked like I think really helped paint a picture for her and the image was something she could take with her when she left. Showing friends and family a place through your eyes helps create special memories for both of you.
Be aware of negativity.
When you live in a place for a long time, it’s easy to get a little jaded. It happens, it doesn’t mean you don’t love your host country but when you bump up against the same barriers over and over again, it’s hard not to get a little frustrated. People like to vent and get these things out, especially to fellow expats who will likely have experienced something similar. Hear your friend’s grievances, but don’t take them on yourself. Their frustrations need not become yours.
Remember why you’re doing it.
It’s very easy to get caught up in the romantic idea of moving abroad and then do a double-take when harsh realities present themselves. Suddenly things like grocery shopping, going to the doctor, or filing visa paperwork feels impossibly difficult. Living abroad is challenging. It’s even more challenging when you’re still in the basics phase of your language practice.
But THIS is where the growth happens. The only way to grow is to move outside your comfort zone and prove to yourself that you can handle it. Time and time again, I have been presented with the opportunity to step up and overcome obstacles I couldn’t have even dreamed up.
I once sang acapella in front of an entire Japanese school. I couldn’t get a taxi in Paris and had to walk 4 hours home from a bar in the middle of the night. I climbed up and over an elephant’s face in Thailand so I could scrub her back clean. I even had all my money and passport stolen three days into my study abroad program. And for each of these situations (and countless more), I asked myself, “how is it possible that I am here doing this?” For every single one, I shrugged, laughed, and took it for what it was: A totally manageable situation.
I sang my heart out for the students in Japan. I thanked my lucky stars it wasn’t winter when I walked home in Paris. I scrubbed the elephants back while balancing on her spine. And I filed a police report (in French!) and then went to the embassy to replace my passport. I was completely freaked by all of these things but I figured them out. And now I know that when things go wrong, I can handle it.