So, you’re thinking about moving abroad? That’s great! Or is it?
Moving abroad is one hell of a commitment and a total shake up of the life you know. It’s not just a case of moving to another country and learning a new language, but also the separation from the familiar.Your favourite shows won’t be on TV at the click of a button any more. Your favourite tipple won’t be on tap and your beloved local pub is not longer just a short stroll away. Your friends and family won’t be able to just pop by at short notice. For many people the tug of home overpowers the excitement of exploring a new country.
There are a whole host of reasons why expat life may just not work for you. It can be a traumatic, painful process learning this the hard way. Thousands of miles from home, without the support of your nearest and dearest, having spent large amounts of money to set up your new life, it can be difficult and humiliating to come home again.
Expats all find their own challenges when adapting to life overseas, but for some these troubles are just too big to conquer. The troubles that weigh heavily on one person living abroad may hardly bother another who may be battling with their own issues.
We’ve taken a look at what drove even the most experienced expat to the edge in their years spent abroad. If these sounds like insurmountable challenges to you, perhaps it’s time to think carefully about your upcoming move.
You will have to clear out your possessions, twice
Your current home may be an interior design masterpiece, packed to the rafters with much-beloved furniture and gadgets. Your car might be your pride and joy, or that bulky record collection could be the one thing you daren’t part with.
Sadly, you’ll be faced with a tough choice. Moving abroad requires one of two things: stripping back your life and only taking the bare essentials, or paying an incredible amount to have everything shipped over.
Most expats arrive in their new homes with a collection of suitcases and a few boxes of important documents. Most will de-clutter their lives before leaving to minimize the amount of property that they have to fly overseas. Of course, there is always the option to store remaining objects at home until they return, but the more you store the more expensive it turns out to be.
If you know you are heading abroad for a long-term stint, it may be worth shipping your possessions over by sea. This is not only expensive, but also takes time. If you’re staying for less than a year, there’s a chance you will be heading home before your container even arrives.
Expat life isn’t for the materialistic. Most expats will furnish their new homes from scratch and then sell it all on again when they leave. In many cases, your employer may help with this, or even provide furnished accommodation for you to live in.
If you can’t bear the thought of being separated your collection of china plates or porcelain vases, expat life might not be for you.
You will get lonely
You will get lonely, you will get homesick, there will be days when you just don’t want to go out and face this strange new world in which you find yourself.
If you don’t think you’ll be able to cope, you should probably stay closer to home.
The paperwork is horrendous
Visas, passports, job contracts, rent agreements, new bank accounts, shipping documents, customs declarations, flights, car hire, insurance, medical records, school applications, tax declarations, pension policies, there’s a lot of paperwork to worry about when moving abroad.
You’ll be wading through two bureaucratic nightmares at once before you head over. And one of them might not even be in a language you speak.
The process of putting your life at home on ice whilst starting another overseas can be a challenge for even the most organised of administrative minds. Then just as everything is settled and up-to-date, you’ll have to repeat the process for coming home again.
If this sounds like a carbon-copy nightmare, rubber-stamped by the devil himself, with panic attacks in triplicate, you can hire agencies to help. Whilst this represents additional cost, it is the easiest way to avoid falling into a black hole of papers. If this still sounds like too much hassle, rethink your plans.
You might not achieve what you set out to do
You may be planning all manner of adventures, excitement, achievements and victories. Moving abroad is an exciting experience, with lots of potential for success. But don’t let daydreams build up a big sense of expectation.
Even living in a romantic villa by the coast will involve mopping the floor and shopping for groceries. Taking on a new job overseas does not automatically mean promotion to the board.
Manage your expectations before you go and do be prepared for a few setbacks along the way.
Life goes on without you
As often as you might talk to your family and friends, you will miss out on things. You will be absent for birthdays and Christmases; you may miss weddings and graduations. Sadly, you may also miss saying goodbye when loved ones pass away.
Even though you are away from home, your loved ones will carry on and you will miss out on this. Youngsters will grow up and your parents will grow older. Expats say one of the hardest things they have to deal with is guilt.
You will not be able to nip round to visit elderly relatives who need a helping hand. You can’t drop what you’re doing and rush to hospital if someone falls ill. You can’t hug people who need a shoulder to cry on. Being absent can be tough.
It’s not just about guilt either. You’re going to lose touch with people who used to be good friends. Even with email and social networks it’s difficult to maintain friendships when you are a world away, especially when you are both leading very different lives.
You will always be the odd one out
However long you stay in your new country, you will always be a foreigner. In some countries this won’t be too much of a problem; you may just be reminded once in a while that you grew up somewhere else.
In parts of the world where you look different from the locals, you might find yourself treated differently. You could be given a different level of service when out and about, asked to pay a little more, or just asked questions about who you are and what you are doing.
Expats in Japan are used to cries of “gaijin” following them around the streets. The word isn’t necessarily an insult, it can simple be a surprised passer-by’s reaction to seeing a ‘foreigner’.
Even if you learn the language, become familiar with the customs and settle in for good, being the outsider can be a bother that never goes away.
Welcome to someone else’s home. Rest assured, you are playing by their rules now, they may welcome you in and be friendly but make sure you are ready to respect their way of doing things.
Your traditions and culture will take a back seat to theirs for the duration of their stay. This may be as simple as not being able to celebrate Thanksgiving, Australia Day or Fireworks Night, or it may be a little more severe.
Women in particular may face their lifestyle altered by the rules of their new home. Going out to bars might be frowned upon, you may need to adapt your clothing style, and the way you are spoken to might not be what you are used to.
Know the culture you are about to arrive in, have a good think about living in such a society, and work out whether you can really make it work for as long as you intend.
By now you must be ready for cultural differences, knowing you might not be able to party or talk as freely as you did before. But you’ll also face some other home truths about your home comforts.
Brits will always bemoan the absence of a ‘decent cuppa’, wherever they are in the world. Sometimes a few creature comforts can help you conquer a host of seemingly impossible problems. Without them, it can seem if the world is coming to an end.
Expats in Japan may find themselves crying tears of frustration for want of chocolate, Argentinians away from home will get itchy for yerba mate, Koreans will go crazy without kimchi. But it’s not just wanting a taste of home that can serve up a large platter of homesickness.
Americans heading to humid Asian countries have been hot under the collar about the lack of air conditioning, which is ubiquitous at home. The country you move to might not have all the conveniences you are used to. Imagine life without Netflix, with slow internet, without public transport or even tarmac roads.
Research the area you’re heading to and honestly ask yourself if you can cope in that environment. If you can’t face life without pizza delivered to your door, or your favourite brand of shampoo, think about your choice of destination.
It’s not just the cost of flights to your new home that can put a pinch in your pocket. You might enjoy a low cost of living overseas, taking a modest salary and living in opulence.
But your beachside villa in Asia won’t buy a box room in trendy Manhattan. Remember that your income overseas might be sky-high, but it’s a massive pay cut compared to back home. Even careful saving of your foreign funds might not translate to a tidy pile of pounds or a great deal of dollars.
Many expats find themselves in a bind upon coming home again. Not only have they spent money relocating abroad, they are paying to come back, too. And the money they are spending is greatly reduced by exchange rates and transfer fees.
Unless you are a high-flying business whizz of a tech hot-shot, your equivalent salary overseas is unlikely to translate back into an equivalent wage at home. Your former colleagues will be spending the time you are away earning significantly more than you, without having to pay for two relocations.
For many expats the experience and adventure is enough compensation for this wallop to the wallet, but if cash is what you care about, consider your options before you move.
Needless to say, long-distance relationships are tough. Separated by thousands of miles, several time zones and wildly different lifestyles, it can be tough to keep the spark alive.
It’s not just the fact that Skype dates are no substitute for spending an evening cuddled up on the couch together. You will both be living very separate lives; you will be battling a host of everyday challenges that might sound trivial to your significant other.
They will wonder why you are so stressed out by simple tasks like buying a train ticket, with no true understanding of how difficult it is to navigate the local lingo, culture and customs, let alone the labyrinthine transport network.
At the same time their troubles with work and commuting will become the familiar things you miss. It’s an easy way to start building up resentment between you and begin to drift apart.
Don’t underestimate how much both of you will change either. You’ll be having all kinds of new experiences that will change your attitude and outlook, you’ll discover things you never knew you loved and be less attached to things that used to mean a lot. They too will change over time and you may find that the people you’ve become just aren’t as compatible as the people you once were.
Even if you head abroad as an expat couple, expect the experience to put a strain on your relationship. All the work of trying to set up a new life, start new jobs, settle the kids in and meet new friends will be stressful.
For many couples the pressure bonds them closer together, working as a dynamic duo to adapt to their new surroundings and conquer the problems they face. For others these challenges become a wedge that drives them apart.
It’s also entirely possible that one just enjoys themselves a lot more than the other. It could be an irreconcilable difference: one wants to stay overseas, the other will not be happy until back on familiar soil.
Whatever your circumstances, whatever the bumps in the road you face, the only way to conquer them is to talk them through. Communication is the only way to make sure you can both understand what the other is going through and try to work things out.
If either of these scenarios sound like your predicament and would be the cause of serious distress, think twice before moving abroad.
Have you decided that expat life isn’t for you? Have you had doubts like the ones above but then worked through them? Share your experiences in the comments!
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer