There’s something uniquely exciting and enticing about the idea of life in a whole new country. The stories you read about seem fantastic and inspiring; the pictures are stunning; and the possibilities for a whole new style of life seem endless.
Meanwhile, here at home, you’re stuck in the same old boring, familiar surroundings, suffering the terrible weather you’ve known all your life, swamped with work at a job that leaves you no time to do much else, and you’re struggling to pay your bills.Surely there’s a better way to live than this tiresome, stressful routine, and surely it lies across the border in one of those magical lands? Surely it’s time to change your life, start doing things you love, in surroundings that you love?
Well, yes and no. Making a major life change is always more complex than it seems from the outside, and a lot more challenging. There isn’t a single convenient switch to make everything just fall into place. The aim is often less stress and a more relaxed or at least more enjoyable life, but the change often brings a lot of stress in itself and requires hard work, including some chores that aren’t very enjoyable. It can take a good long while to get to the fun part. And when the change includes moving abroad, the difficulties and the stresses tend to multiply, as do the chances of things going wrong. Never mind the success stories you’ve heard and read: they’re inspiring, no doubt, but too many of them leave out the more discouraging details. You probably also haven’t come across the failure stories, which are as numerous, if not more, but don’t get as much attention.
Of course, it’s not that you shouldn’t make a major change and try to live a happier, more fulfilled life. However, you should realize that it’s something that requires a great deal of thought, planning, and hard work. If you’re up for that, it’s certainly possible to create the life you want! Here are a few important tips to get you started.
Running away from your problems never works – they will follow you wherever you go. Whether it’s a bad relationship, debt, or something else, moving abroad is rarely the solution. Escaping isn’t the same as starting a new life, although they may often seem like the same thing and do share a few elements in common. If you have problems that are bogging you down, sort them out – don’t just leave them behind. If what you want is to start on a clean slate, remember that you can’t really leave the old one behind – you need to clean it up yourself before you go.
Analyze your current situation.
Figure out exactly what your motivations are and what the causes of your current problems and unhappiness are. Do you stress yourself out unnecessarily? Are you unable to figure out your priorities and act accordingly? Are you unable to say no to people? Sure, circumstances and your surroundings are undeniably important factors, but your own habits, behaviors, and ways of thinking are important too. Some of them may need changing if you’re to have a realistic chance at a more fulfilled, happy life, and simply moving to a new country won’t change them; even the things you can’t change will be less of a problem if you at least have more awareness and clarity about them.
Regularly remind yourself that you’re not taking a permanent vacation.
So you spent three weeks in Vietnam last year, and they were the best three weeks in recent memory. That’s wonderful, but remember that you were on vacation then – those were three weeks of no work, no job-related stress, no daily commute, probably no buying groceries, no cooking, and no running your own house. They were quite likely also three weeks of being waited on at every meal, having your room cleaned and your bed made, and maybe a cocktail at breakfast each day. That’s certainly not the life you’re going to live if you move there permanently. You will probably need to work and earn a living, you will need to run your own house and life, and there will be daily chores, mundane responsibilities, and various annoyances to deal with. Figure out whether what you loved was your vacation or the place itself and the opportunities it offers you for a new life.
Do your research.
Find out what it’s like to actually live in the country you’re considering. To return to the topic of vacationing versus living there, remember that the kind of research needed is entirely different. Find out about the weather at its extremes, the political situation and how much it will affect you, healthcare, insurance, public and private transport, work opportunities, housing options, recreation and expat clubs, the availability and prices of products and services that you regularly use, and anything else that is part of your life currently. Find out about the local language and make an effort to learn it.
Identify what you’ll need to give up and whether you can do without it.
Yes, the reason you’re moving is for a change, but you can’t entirely customize your new life: it’s a package that includes a few things you’d never ask for and that will take away some things you’d love to keep. For most people, there will be at least a few friends and/or family members who will be deeply missed. There’ll be places you’ll never see again, or maybe see only once every couple of years. Maybe you won’t be able to find your favorite foods, or you won’t be able to pop down to the pub for a pint. The point here isn’t to discourage you from making the move, but to be aware of what you’re going to be giving up, and weigh it against what you’ll be gaining.
Figure out your finances.
What kind of income can you reasonably expect to have, and will it be more or less than your current income? What are your expenses likely to be, and will your cost of living go up or down? Between the two changes, how much are you going to be able to save? What will you be paying in taxes, and what will you be saving on free or subsidized public services? And if you plan to return to your country of origin some day, will your expat savings convert to an adequate amount? Remember that even if you don’t plan to return, you may someday need to: the economic and political climate, visa rules, and many more things can suddenly change.
Formulate a concrete plan to monetize your passion.
Don’t imagine you can simply move to Italy to be a writer or the US to be a musician just because you read about someone for whom it turned out well. Whatever your passion, figure out exactly how it will work in your new country and how you will use it to earn a living. Talk to both local people and expats in similar lines of work. Find out how much you can expect to be paid, whether there are people you need to meet in order to further your career, whether the work is seasonal, and so on. If you’re looking for a new job, start your research on opportunities, find out about visa processes, and start applying. If you’re moving with a job and plan to eventually do your own thing, figure out exactly how the transition will work. If your work is location-independent, find out about the reliability and cost of internet and telephone services, as well as whether (and how often) it might be necessary to physically meet the people you are working with. The more you can work these details out in advance, the less stressful and problematic your life will later be.
Don’t suffer in silence, of course; when you have a problem, by all means confide in someone. Sometimes we all just need a good rant to get things off our chest. However, don’t make it a habit to constantly dwell on the same issues or to complain about aspects of life in your new country. If it’s something you can control, change it. If it’s something you can’t control, learn to make your peace with it. Those should be the only two choices you give yourself. Remind yourself that there’s no perfect life, and think about all the things in your life that are better than they used to be and that you’re grateful for.
Be open – both to surprises and to some negative experiences.
No matter how much research and preparation you have put in, there will be surprises that will pop up. You cannot control or prepare for every eventuality, but if you keep an open mind, you’ll find that many of them don’t really matter. As for the rest – the experiences that are undeniably negative – just remind yourself of the wider context and of the fact that you came looking for change. Also, very importantly, be open to the idea of moving on: either moving back home or moving to a new country. There’s no harm in accepting that you were mistaken. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to, and at other times, when you get what you want, you find that it isn’t all you thought it would be. The good thing is that you gave it a shot, learned a lot about the world and yourself, and hopefully had a lot of good times while doing so. Don’t make a mistake worse than it already is by stubbornly clinging to it.
Be patient, take your time.
Settling into a new life can take a while, even if it’s the life you’ve been dreaming of for years, and even if you’ve prepared for it thoroughly. With change comes plenty of discomfort. Setting up your dream life can be incredibly difficult and tiring, at least in the early years. On some days it will probably seem more difficult than the life you left behind. Try not to get too frustrated or dejected when things go wrong – and they often will. Remember that they will improve, that you will learn to deal with the things that right now seem overwhelming, and most importantly, keep your eye on the long-term goal. In the meanwhile, savor and be grateful for the pleasures you do find, even if they’re sometimes few and far between.
As you can see, there’s a lot of thought and planning that needs to go into starting a new life in a new country. It’s probably all a little bit intimidating, and perhaps that’s good – moving abroad and starting a new life isn’t something to be taken lightly. The life you want is quite certainly possible, but simply upping and moving can be a recipe for disaster. Life as an expat isn’t for everyone, but if you can get through the toughness of the preparations and the first couple of years, you can live the exciting, fulfilling life you’ve always wanted.