So you’re thinking about living abroad. Your workplace is considering sending you to Tokyo, or maybe you just want to see new places, experience different cultures. That’s great! My wife and I have been living in various countries since 1996, and we’ve learned a few things along the way. Gone are the days when we’d pack up a few suitcases and hop on a plane – moving with a family takes a lot of time, consideration, and planning.
There’s a wealth of material online about the nuts and bolts of moving abroad, so I won’t get into the technicalities too much here – the visas, the finances, the moving companies; all of the crap you have to consider. What I want to provide is some information on the little things, the tricks and tips that will make your transition somewhat smoother.
1. Pack a truckload of patience.
There are often bureaucratic hurdles that would reduce the most stoic of paper-pushers to tears of blubbery frustration. It’s going to take time to set up a new home in a foreign country, so expect roadblocks along the way and understand that everything won’t come into place immediately. A good rule of thumb that we learned in Mexico – try to get one thing done each day. If your day’s to-do list looks like this:
Go to post office
Do grocery shopping
Hit the pharmacy
Sign up for language classes
Get diploma translated
you’re screwed. You’re setting yourself up for a lot of pain and frustration. If you got what you needed done at the post office that day, consider it a victory.
2. Have your paperwork in order. Absolutely check the requirements of the particular country before you go and do anything that’s necessary while you’re still at home. At minimum bring:
- photocopies of your passports and visas, if you have them
- marriage certificate if applicable
- birth certificates of everyone in the family
- all your diplomas
- vaccination records for the kids (your doctor might be able to put all of the family’s medical records on CD-rom)
- at least 6 passport-sized photos of everyone
And each time you go to a government office for some document or stamp or whatnot, bring everything with you. You don’t want to have to go back.
3. If you can, do a scouting mission beforehand (if your company is sending you ask them for a pre-visit) to get the lay of the land and figure out exactly where you want to live. Before moving to our present home we came for an extended weekend, and just seeing where everything was in relation to everything else helped us find the perfect neighborhood for us. Are you going to be taking public transport to work? How close is it? Where will your kids be going to school? How long is the commute? That fifth-floor walk-up in the historic old building is gorgeous; consider how you’re going to get kids, stroller, and groceries up to that atmospheric flat without having a coronary.
4. Hire a local to help you out. There are often relocation agencies that will assist you with housing and other things, but they’re very expensive and generally quite short-term. I looked into one such agency in Barcelona, and for two days of assistance with house-hunting they charged 500 Euros. There’s a much better alternative, one that proved a Godsend and cost a fraction of a relocation agency. Long before we left I placed a free ad in the classifieds of several local websites that cater to expats. Within a few days I’d Skyped with and hired a fantastic young grad student who spent 4 hours a day with us for six weeks, getting our paperwork done, setting up phone and internet accounts, telling us which were the best stores to pick up things we needed and, most importantly, teaching us the local lingo. Which brings me to…
5. Learn the local lingo as quickly as possible, preferably at least a few words or phrases before you go. This may seem obvious, but you can’t believe how far a handful of simple phrases will take you in the beginning. There is a lot of online material available for most major languages, so there’s no excuse to not at least know please, thank you, how much does this cost?, excuse me, my hovercraft is full of eels, etc. Smile too, and don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. I’ve scampered about a Hungarian butcher shop while bleating ‘baaaa’ and repeating ‘barlang, barlang, barlang.’ Which means ‘cave.’ The word I’d wanted was ‘barany,’ which, of course, means ‘lamb.’ If you get things wrong, chances are the locals will love you just for trying.
6. DON’T try to bring too much from home. I carted around my massive copy of the complete (yes, complete) works of Shakespeare for nearly 20 years before I got smart and ditched the damn thing on our last move. DO NOT fill your luggage with a ton of stuff that you think you can’t possibly do without – you can – but do bring the little things that make you feel comfortable. With the international mega-chains that you find everywhere these days, you’ll end up finding most of what you want, but a few comforts from home go a long way. Here’s a short list of my own, all, of course, involving food: Lipton onion soup mix (for dip), Ranch dressing mix, Rice-a-Roni, beef jerky, dill pickles, Ghirardelli brownie mix, and sweet pepper relish.
7. Think long-term. If you’re going to be in a foreign country for a long time, you have to think about what you’ll be doing years down the line. You don’t want to be moving your kids from school to school, or having to pack up your house every year or so. With schooling, for example, even if they’re 7 years old you need to consider where your kids are most likely to go to university when you weigh whether to put them in local public schools or (usually) English language international ones.
8. Say ‘yes’ to everything. Some Japanese acquaintances want to take you to a traditional outdoor bath? Say yes. (And don’t worry that everyone’s naked.) A colleague in Mexico suggests you try the crispy fried grasshoppers? Say yes. (They’re delicious, by the way.) Some friends in Hungary want to go to some little village to slaughter a pig? Go along, for goodness’ sake. If you have a sense of wonder and curiosity about your new home you’re going to be a lot happier, and you’ll obviously have experiences that you would otherwise miss.
9. Get a car. We lived without a car in Korea, Mexico, and England, and wish we hadn’t. Having the freedom of a car allows you to see parts of your new country that are inaccessible (or at least really inconvenient) without one. We stayed at remote little inns and took day trips to swim in clear mountain streams in Japan, spent long weekends in the Austrian Alps, discovered little villages and fossil hunting hikes in Hungary – all of which (and so, so much more) would have been impossible without our own transport. Get a car.
10. Relax. Moving to a foreign country can be harrowing at first. Don’t expect things to be just like home (that’s why you left, remember?), and while you may be tempted at first to make unfavorable comparisons (Why do these morons drive on the left?), realize that just because they do something one way back home, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best way. Relish the new food, the odd customs, the cultural quirks. It’s all good – or at least interesting – so roll with it, baby.
Being an expat is a little like being on a permanent vacation. Sure, there are the inconveniences and the adjustments, but the rewards can be astonishing.
Now I know that a goodly number of our readers are expats themselves – please share any of your own tips that you’ve learned along the way! I’d really, really appreciate your input on this. You know who you are.