According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, approximately 172,000 Brits left their homeland in 2008, with only half leaving for work reasons. The rest were accompanying someone, looking for work or just travelling around, presumably in search of a better life. It’s more difficult to get US figures, as the government measures immigration but curiously, not emigration; a recent UN report* however, states that in 2009 three per cent of the world’s population (200 million) lived in a country other than the one in which they were born. In short, there are a lot of people relocating around the globe.
If you’re a migrant moving by choice, the grass may well be greener where you’re headed, but it won’t always be plain sailing. Here are a few things you should think about before taking the plunge:Be prepared – From the practical to the cerebral, there are lots of things you can anticipate to make your relocation smoother. Expat American Michele Oyen recalls “The biggest hassle of moving for me had to do with banking and credit cards; there are plenty of things I could have done that would have improved my life if I had set up international banking services before I left the US.”
(A note to Americans from the IRS, “If you are a U.S. citizen or resident alien, the rules for filing income, estate, and gift tax returns and paying estimated tax are generally the same whether you are in the United States or abroad. Your worldwide income is subject to U.S. income tax, regardless of where you reside.”)
It helps to read about the culture into which you are heading, even when you think it’s not going to be too different from where you are. Adds Oyen, “The irony is that it never occurred to me to look into advice for expats before I moved–no books, blogs, or any of the other resources available. I’d certainly advise someone to look.” Indeed, with the amount of information readily available on the Web, there’s no excuse these days.
Learn the language – Jo Parfitt, author, publisher, mentor and public speaker advises, “If I were moving to one country and staying there, learning to be fluent in the language would be my number one priority, from this everything else feeds.”
She adds, “I’ve been abroad 22 years and this is my 5th country. I like to work and running my business is where I spend my time. I simply do not have/make the time to learn the language where I live. After 5 countries it is just one thing too many to learn another one. Yet it is my unwillingness to learn the language that is the cause of most of my stress…running a business in another language is very tough. I can’t even read my VAT return. Sure, I can read a menu, understand a train timetable and use public transport. But I can’t read the long words in official documentation and it gets me down. I also do not understand the rules of taxation, allowances and so on and after several countries this is wearing.”
Emily Vest, who blogs as Brit in Bosnia echoes this: “- not speaking the language (or speaking it but mangling it really badly) limits the numbers of people you can hang out with. Ok if there are lots of expats around, more difficult if there aren’t so many expats in town. I found that most people who speak English are gainfully employed during the day, which is not what I want when I’ve got two children in meltdown at 3.30pm on a Tuesday afternoon.” She adds that the language problem can extend to children, ” – the kids not speaking the language means that they are always outsiders. Even though mine aren’t bad at Bosnian now, they’ll never be one of the cool kids at nursery, they just don’t fit in.”
The popular British blogger Potty Mummy, who has recently moved from London to Moscow, has also found language acquisition to be crucial, especially in a country where the people don’t automatically learn English. She has found that doing the weekly shop, and communicating with taxi drivers, plumbers and school staff is impossible unless you learn the language properly. As someone who relocated from one English-speaking country to another, I would advise making yourself as familiar as possible with the new “language” as confusion and communication failure can still be an everyday occurrence.
Visiting home – Australia is the top choice for relocation by Brits. That’s a long way from home and an expensive trip back. I have many friends who relocated there and although they loved the people and the lifestyle, more than a few have gone home because the separation from family was just too much. One friend used to make the 26 hour, multi-stop journey on her own with three sons ages 6, 4 and 18 months. Absolutely exhausting.
Even if you’re not on the other side of the world, trying to schedule meaningful visits home when you’re juggling work and/or school is a challenge, and the expense of flying back often means that people go years before seeing family.
Visiting “home” can often stir up deep feelings of homesickness. As Carla Young, a Chicagoan who lived in England for ten years said, she didn’t anticipate that “every year, when I would return for a month in the summer, I would realize how much I really missed my life here. It was always hard to go back…”. For many years I would return to the States after a summer in England and be completely restless and fed up for about a month.
Returning home – after several years of living abroad, many expats begin to wonder if they can ever return to their country of origin (repatriation). Questions about whether they can settle back into the lifestyle are common but a surprising factor is whether or not they can afford to go back. Many Brits move abroad for a better (cheaper) lifestyle which may mean that they can’t afford to sell up and buy property in the UK should they want to go back. In addition, the costs of physically moving all your belongings around the world can be truly staggering.
Being “on your own” – There will usually be people around you when you relocate, but that doesn’t always make things easy. As American Carla Young says, “For me, the psychological component of having my entire support system across the ocean was the hardest. I was sick over there for more than a year, and not having family around to support me or the kids was extremely stressful.” If you have children, this loneliness can often be compounded by cultural differences.
Blogger Brit in Bosnia recalls her loss of a mummy’s network, which she found “difficult to redevelop if you move somewhere where most childcare is done by grandparents, who tend to keep the kids at home with them. So, in my case, that meant that things like playgroups, toddler activities etc were VERY thin on the ground (ie not at all). I didn’t really know how to get in contact with other mums of similarish age kids.”
Vicky Gray, author of Didgeridoos and Digderidon’ts, adds “I suppose the only real tangible thing you miss when you move abroad is your family… It has become much easier to stay in contact now, with email, cheap phonecalls and of course Skype, so there really is no excuse!”
Homesickness – This hits you every now and again even when you’re really happy in your new location. Anne Naylor, an English friend who moved to Australia about two year ago recalls, “Three months in, the holiday is over and I realize I’m not going home. I had a real downer and still do every few months. Don’t really know what triggers it off. Went to a gym class a while ago, a nice calming Body balance; at the end, the dark go-off-to-a-far-away-place time …..tears streaming down my face. The poor girl didn’t know what to do.”
Being the foreigner – for some this is a novelty that never wears off and for others it’s a sign that they’ll never really fit in. I am still often referred to as the Brit, the English woman or “the one with the accent” if they can’t quite figure out what brand of English I speak. One of the joys of being back in England during the summer is the complete anonymity I have. There’s no one peering round the dairy aisle in the supermarket to hear me talking (although three American children tend to draw attention).
Making new friends – This will be very much up to you. Unless you’re rich and famous, Your arrival will cause little more than a ripple; everyone has their own life and may promise to have you over for dinner or get together for coffee, but you’ll have to make it happen. If you’ve moved from a situation where you had lots of people round you, suddenly only having a spouse and/or family members can be hard for everyone. It’s slightly easier if you go out to work or have small children at school, but it’s important even then to reach out to others to ease the transition.
There are expat social groups all over the globe so if, like me, you occasionally miss listening to British slang, you can usually find some comrades. However, as Brit in Bosnia discovered, “- expats can be really weird. I’m not sure if being a slightly more random country like Bosnia attracts stranger people, but the expats where we are are probably here because they don’t fit in anywhere else… “. Gulp! Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
The familiar – You may find yourself missing silly things like foods, shops, and smells. American Kerry Roe-Ely has been in the UK for about twenty years and says, “For the first couple of years I missed all the junk food in America so my family would send me care packages. When I went home for visits I would make sure I ate all my favourite foods. I missed hearing American accents and would watch Oprah Winfrey just to hear people speak. Every ex-pat I’ve ever met has gone through the same process. At first you’re so excited by all the differences. That wears off after about three months. Then you’re annoyed by all the differences. Then depressed. I would cry every afternoon. Then, eventually, you accept all the differences.”
On a lighter note, Brit Out of Water, Dylan muses “It’s difficult to lose access to shops that you’ve used as go-to’s all your life. I never knew that I could miss Boots so much, but somehow I do!”
The unfamiliar – Brit in Bosnia captures this nicely – “ I still haven’t worked out the etiquette regarding going to see people. They don’t have set meal times so I’ll pop in for what I think is a quick coffee and turns out we are eating a feast (or vice versa). Also, when people say come over they really mean it, but they also won’t ask you for a specific time. I still find it difficult to ring up and say can I come today (or even just drop in) as I’m, well, just too English for that. I like to be asked…”.
Even moving to the States, where you think you’ve seen it all on TV, can be a shock. Americans take their children everywhere so it took some courage on my part to throw parties and dinners for grown-ups only, and to answer in the negative when guests asked if the children were included. I grew up in a culture where adults don’t always socialize with their off-spring and I wanted to keep it that way!
The stress factor – Stress can be a surprising factor in your relocation experience. Anne Naylor,suffered eczema on her eyelids which her Australian doctor quickly described as stress-related and likened it to one’s body going into temporary mourning. A quick Internet search of “expat stress” pulls up many physical, emotional and mental examples of stress-related conditions. Even if you are thrilled at your new habitat, it is still a huge change and you may experience some of the symptoms.
In summary, being an expat takes work. As Kerry-Roe Ely muses, “I have a life here now. I’ve worked hard to achieve that. I think that is the most important thing to remember. Building a new life in a new country takes effort. It doesn’t just happen and it isn’t always rosy. All ex-pats should accept that it isn’t like home. If you’re like Dorothy, then follow the yellow-brick road back home. But if you’re not, see yourself as an explorer and enjoy it.”
*UN report (PDF file) – www.un.org/esa/population/migration/Migrants.pdf
Toni Summers Hargis is the author of "Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom", (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.