Jetting off for a new life of fun in the sun should be a time for excitement. This is all one big adventure and you’re probably buzzing with thoughts of all the exciting things you’ll do.
Even if you’re only heading abroad for a temporary job, or looking to settle there for good, there are so many awesome possibilities for awesome experiences. And there’s an equal possibility of things taking a turn for the worse.Everyone who has tried expat life has had to overcome a series of hurdles before truly settling into their new lifestyle. Loneliness, money worries, illness and culture shock have all blind-sided generations of expats.
To be forewarned is to be forearmed. If you’re ready to take on the emotional, financial and cultural assaults heading your way, you will be better able to fend them off and come back stronger for it.
Remember to see this article as a list of cons, the list of pros can be found here, so take them on balance and see if expat life really is right for you. Most of all remember, you are never really alone; expats all over the world take to forums and websites like this one to find friendship and support.
You will suffer culture shock
Day one will be a frenzy of strange words, lots of paperwork and getting lost in a new place. Everything will work differently and you’ll have to work a lot of it out for yourself. It will take time to adjust to all these new experiences.
Settling in will involve trips to the bank, talking to utility companies and arranging accommodation. If you didn’t already feel like a fish out of water, you will now.
The first day at work will be the biggest challenge; not just learning the new job but also working out office etiquette. Add the different weather, strange food and different landscapes, and suddenly everything is unfamiliar.
This is the perfect recipe for homesickness, but hang in there. After the initial shock, you will begin to enjoy the things that are currently strange and intimidating.
Guilt will spoil good times
Just when you’re beginning to have fun, you’ll be struck down with feelings of guilt. How can you be so far away enjoying yourself when there are people at home who need you?
Your family may have waved you off any wished you luck, but ultimately you are leaving them behind. Any issues that arise whilst you are away, they will have to deal with without you. Expats have tales of close family and good friends being diagnosed with serious illnesses whilst they are abroad, unable to offer support, hold a hand or give a comforting hug.
Anyone taking children overseas with them will face the worry that they are putting their kids through a difficult experience and denying them a stable childhood.
Trips back home are expensive, so manage expectations. You won’t be able to make it back for every big event, so let loved ones know which ones you will be attending and make it clear early on which ones you can’t make.
Your new home just might not be right for you
For any number of reasons, you may be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The job may not be what you expected, the town you live in may be too remote or too busy, the culture may not be a fit for your personality.
This is not just about culture shock and getting used to the country; there may be aspects of the weather or culture that you will never learn to enjoy. Dubai may be a boomtown with plenty of good jobs on offer, but if you can’t handle the desert heat, it’s time to leave.
You won’t grasp the language as quick as you hoped
Even with all the night classes and audio books, you still won’t be culturally fluent.
There’s a big difference between being able to speak Japanese and being able to conduct business within the country’s strict hierarchy and workplace protocols. It’s important to recognize that there is a lot still to learn about a country before you are able to understand its language.
Most countries have regional accents or entirely different dialects, and then speakers of these will jump between formal and informal registers depending on the situation. There will also be cultural references, from ancient folklore or modern-day pop music, that creep into daily use. These cannot be found in any textbook.
Don’t be intimidated by this; being fully immersed in a culture is the only way to learn its quirks. Your language skills will improve over time, as will your cultural understanding so don’t shy away from this strange new country.
You will have money troubles
Starting a new live overseas really does mean starting from scratch. Even if you have a high-flying job at home and a perfect credit score, you may find yourself struggling to get finance overseas.
You will need a local bank account to work in most countries, but there may be big barriers to getting credit cards, business loans or mortgages. Being a totally unknown customer, landlords may request upfront payments or larger deposits than they would for locals.
Many expats are attracted to their destination countries by the low cost of living there, but remember that in turn means low wages. In the short term this may not be a problem; it’s still possible to eat for US$1 a day in many parts of Asia, and a lowly teaching job will still give left over cash for beers and rent.
The long-term issue is when it comes to returning home. Your bank account filled with Korean Won or Japanese Yen may be loaded with millions, but exchange rates will quickly pare that down to nothing.
Remember to account for the cost of visas and work permits, but most of all don’t forget about health insurance. Health insurance tailored for expats can be more expensive than for travellers, but if you do find yourself in need of treatment, you’ll save a fortune by having the right policy.
You will be lonely
Being new to a country brings isolation. Even if you are fluent in the language, the culture may be alien to you. Some countries simply aren’t big on warm welcomes and you will find it takes time to get to know people.
Even meeting other expats might not solve the loneliness; the fact that you are all foreigners doesn’t automatically make you perfectly matched friends. There may be long hours in your small apartment scrolling through social media pining for your old friends.
Even when you do bond with people, be ready for them to move on without you. Expats working in diplomacy, charities and NGOs or the military will be send on to their next posting after a set period of time, and other business people may be promoted to jobs elsewhere.
Loneliness will hit hardest at fairly predictable times. Birthdays, Christmases or any occasion usually marked with friends or family will be particularly hard to handle. Try redefining the event and making it a chance to spend time with new friends or meet new people.
A great source of emotional support is expat forums, where other members will have gone through a similar isolation. Reach out to this ready-made support network and don’t be afraid to admit that you are in need of a helping hand.
It will change you
Eventually you will adjust to your new life, and that will mean you change as a person. It may be as simple as changing dress sense or accent in order to fit in; it could be an entire change in attitude. And you might not realise you’re doing it.
Spent too long in New York and you may become standoffish. Living in rural Tuscany may create a chilled out demeanour that differs from your previous hectic lifestyle.
Everyone changes over time, but returning home after time abroad will show these changes into sharp relief. Combine a different accent with a tropical tan and family members probably won’t equate the new you with the old you at first.
Your concept of home will also change. Is it where you grew up? Or is it in your new country? You may find trips back to see friends and family serve to highlight what you enjoy about your new home.
There will be disappointments
Many expats set out with a goal in mind, such as setting up a business or studying a course. Sometimes these ambitions just don’t pan out. Life anywhere can be seen as a series of hurdle to jump over. Living abroad these hurdles can get bigger and bigger.
Businesses may not take off, opportunities might not materialise and promises you made could turn out to be hollow. Be prepared to meet these troubles and overcome them, or be ready with plan B.
Being a new arrival means you have a limited business network and many countries value personal relationships in the working world. Even a completely sound business model may founder without the right contacts.
Even if everything goes swimmingly, the end result may not be as rewarding as you’d hoped. Your dream job overseas may be just as dull as your old one, or you could find your status as a foreigner limits your chances for promotion.
You’ll never be a true native
However long you live in your new country, however many friends you make there, you will still be seen as a new arrival.
Some expats talk of a sensation of ‘looking in’ on the culture of their adopted homes. They can observe and sometimes participate in its traditions, but can never really feel fully included.
The locals might never say or do anything hostile, but you didn’t grow up in their country, so you just wont have the same connection with it. It can lead expats to feeling self-conscious and conspicuous, especially if they look physically different.
Even in countries like Brazil, with a complex ethnic mix and a warm welcome extended to visitors, expats living there may never feel they belong.
Life goes on without you
Being an expat is a bit like living in a bubble. You aren’t entirely integrated into your new country, but your links with home are stretched. And they will only get more stretched the longer you are away.
It’s a sad fact, but with distance comes isolation from old friends. You may be able to arrange Skype call once in a while, with one of you staying up ‘til the wee small hours thanks to the time difference, but that’s no substitute for sitting together and having a proper chat. You’ll drift apart from many of your old friends, and your new lifestyle may change the relationship you have with those who do stay close.
You’ll miss out on weddings, birthdays and Christmases, and it could be years before you get to meet any new additions to the family. As much as we may love family and friends, it’s impossible to be so far away, yet remain part of their everyday lives.
It’s not just family that will move on. The culture, politics and architecture of home will change. When you do come back to visit, be prepared for a reverse culture shock as you adjust to what’s changed. Be ready to feel out of touch with popular culture and to be surprised by new buildings on the skyline.
Before packing your bags, make sure you are really ready to put this kind of distance between you and your old life.
Article by Andy Scofield, International Features Writer