It’s easy to get swept away in the excitement of planning a move overseas, daydreaming about an exotic new life in beautiful settings, enjoying lazy days by the pool or partying with the international jet set. Then, suddenly, the daydreams give way to an avalanche of paperwork and planning, stress and sleepless nights.It’s not surprising then that many newly arrived expats find themselves asking awkward questions and starting to doubt their brave move abroad. The last thing you need when unpacking and arranging the details for your fresh start is a nagging little voice in the back of your head asking ‘why am I doing this?’, ‘can I really cope?’. By that point you will have only two options: tough it out and stay, or turn tail and run back home with your still-packed suitcases.
It’s normal to have a few concerns about such a major change in your life, and arrival in a new country always involves a bit of culture shock. But both these factors make expat life all the more satisfying, after a few months you’ll be settled in and acclimated having conquered the issues that caused you so much trouble at first.
That’s not to say that expat life is for everyone, or that every destination, role or lifestyle suits every expat equally. You may find life in one city to be thrilling and exciting, but others may hate the hustle and bustle, preferring a more sedate pace of life. That’s perfectly normal; the trick is to know what it is you want from your time overseas and give yourself the best chance of finding it.
Anyone heading overseas should know what they’re getting into, how much bargaining power they have with their employers, and what to ask for in order to be happiest in their new life. But the most important questions for anyone are those directed toward themselves.
You might have the best salary, a fantastic home and a great job lined up ready for you, but if you don’t want to be there, no perk will make you happy.
If you’re contemplating a move abroad, take a few minutes and work through the questions below.
Who am I taking with me?
It’s a fundamental feature of moving abroad that you will be separated from family and friends.
That said, it’s not uncommon for expat families to live a nomadic life, following the main breadwinner from one international assignment to another. This is particularly typical with diplomats, government employees and high level managers.
Provided the visas allow it, and the budget can stretch to it, there’s no reason why you can’t take your spouse and children overseas with you. It could be an exciting opportunity for the youngsters to explore a new culture, learn a language or study subjects not available to them at home.
Of course, you are also asking them to leave familiar territory and to take a plunge into the unknown. You may also be asking your spouse to put their career on hold as visa restrictions may prevent them from working.
You also need to consider the security of the country you are heading to. Many aid workers choose to leave their loved ones at home as the countries in which they operate may be too unstable.
Consider who you are able to take with you and whether it is fair to ask them to come along; balance the pros and cons from everyone’s point of view.
What am I taking with me?
Flying halfway around the world with just a suitcase can be stressful enough, so imagine how nerve-wracking is must be to to pack up furniture, valuables and family heirlooms for a long-haul trip.
Career expats learn quite quickly to let go of material possessions, ready to jet off on a new adventure without the need to bring along that designer coffee table or expensive kitchen appliances.
Many expats will find themselves renting a furnished apartment, or even living in a fully kitted-out company property, making it superfluous and expensive to ship items from home. Furniture, crafts and electrical goods are usually available from local markets for a fraction of their retail value in booming economies.
Of course, there may be equipment vital to your work that is just not available everywhere in the world.
What am I hoping to get out of this?
Have a clear understanding of what benefits you can get out of your time abroad. You may be looking to escape from a boring nine-to-five existence back home, but it’s just as easy to find yourself chained to a desk in another country too.
Let your daydreams become a bucket list of ambitions, things you want to achieve both professionally and otherwise. Give yourself a tangible ‘to do’ list of experiences to enjoy; visit famous landmarks, eat in a renowned restaurant, take up the national sport or become fluent in the language.
This will prevent you from stagnating and missing out on opportunities, and it’ll also help you conquer any fear of the unknown when it comes to exploring the country.
Keep in mind that your list might change, scrubbing one goal or adding in others as you get to know the country, its people and yourself better.
Some expats may be using their time overseas to take stock of their lives, working out what their next step should be. It’s perfectly fine to take a year out to teach, volunteer or just explore, but use that time to come up with a solid idea of what happens next.
The saddest tales told by expats aren’t from those who hated their time abroad and came home early, they’re from those who did their time overseas and came back without having gained anything from the experience.
Do I know anyone there already?
You may be flying out to join family, friends or colleagues, or you may not know a single soul out there – don’t let either scenario put you off.
There is something equally terrifying and exhilarating about stepping into a country where you know nobody, knowing you have to cope with everything yourself.
But even if you don’t have a welcome party waiting to meet you with open arms, you can learn from the experiences of others. Online communities mean you can reach out to locals or fellow expats, getting valuable insight into how life works out there.
Online can be a great way to seek anonymous support for your worries and concerns, finding a community of expats all over the world coping with culture shock and loneliness without ever needing to feel embarrassed.
If travelling to take up a job with a big company, ask to be put in contact with any other expats they have in the country. These old hands will be able to guide you through the quirks of working, surviving and thriving in a culture you don’t yet understand.
Can I cope with change?
This introspective question is a key one to know about yourself.
Expat life involves shaking up just about every facet of life. You’ll be working with new people in a new language, with new cultural norms and surrounded by things you don’t know how to deal with. For some this panic-inducing scenario is their idea of hell, but for others it’s a challenge asking to be conquered.
And change doesn’t just happen when you arrive. As you begin to settle into a familiar routine and become used to certain aspects of life, you will suddenly find yourself confronted with new and strange elements that you never considered before.
If you are the kind of person who gets sweaty palms when thinking about a break from their routine, expat life might not be for you.
How ready am I?
Here’s a big question. You can be packed up, have the right visa and be ready to board the plane, but you may not really be ready. There are a lot of practical steps to take in order to set up in another country but if you don’t feel prepared, all your hard work could be in vain.
Learning a little about the culture, getting a grasp of the language, and knowing as much as you can about the job you’re starting can all help you feel confident about getting your new life off to a flying start. As with many things, being confident is half of the expat battle.
Being comfortable with your ability to conquer the problems that assail you will help your frame of mind, but also give you an air of competence that will help you at work and make it easier to get to know people.
If, deep down, you don’t feel ready to leave home and start again elsewhere, you may find yourself with feelings of helplessness and frustration over even the smallest hiccup.
What do I know about where I’m going?
You may have read a few brochures and travel guides, but what do you know about living and working in the country?
Expats are sometimes lured out to a country by promises of adventure or luxurious lifestyle, only to find themselves trapped in a workaholic culture or lost in a confusing city.
Wherever possible, learn from other expats and read up on tips specifically for those living overseas. These sources may dispel some of your more romantic notions about your destination, regaling you with tales of warts-and-all worst case scenarios.
Don’t be scared off by any tales of disaster, but weigh them carefully against your ambitions for your time overseas.
Can I afford to do this?
There is an image of expats as wealthy foreigners living a carefree luxury lifestyle in exotic locations. In many countries an expat’s earnings will outstrip a local’s, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that expats can retire rich.
The money expats earn overseas normally has to pay for them to resettle back in their home country, where the cost of living is usually higher. If the expat has been paid in local currency, they may find their buck has gone from big bang to damp squib thanks to exchange rates.
Balance the books carefully and see if your salary and perks add up to a great deal or a total rip-off.
Can I cope without my family?
As mentioned earlier, expats are sometimes able to take immediate family with them overseas. This can be a fantastic way to bring the family closer, sharing adventures and experiences not open to folks back home.
Even in these cases though, there will be an extended family of loved ones and close friends whom you may not see for the duration of your stay overseas. Flights to visit you might be too expensive and you might only be able to return once or twice.
Separation anxiety can strike even the hardiest of expat veterans at different times in their life and homesickness will strike everyone at some point.
If you are close to your folks and not even regular Skype reunions could ease the pain of being apart, think carefully about your plans.
Can they cope without me?
In addition to being emotionally unavailable, you will not be available in a crisis.
Your elderly parents or a sickly uncle might have needed your help in the past, but being in another country removes you as a valuable lifeline.
We’re not suggesting that you place the needs of others before your ambitions, but you need to consider how they may cope without you and how you may feel about that. Many expats feel guilty about their lives overseas keeping them from away from struggling family members.
Just by the nature of living overseas, you will miss out on things; a nephew’s birthday or a cousin’s wedding, but the worst case scenario is that you may miss out on saying goodbye to an ailing family member.
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer