Goodbye old life, hello great unknown. Setting up a new life abroad can be daunting prospect, and it’s difficult to plan for most of it. It’s like the first day of school all over again: Will you make friends? What if you get lost? Why is everything so different?
But after a little time and a few mishaps, everything will start to make sense and that’s when the rewards start to shine through.This big new town will start to feel familiar, the strange language will suddenly become fluent and natural, and the strangers will become friends.
Living abroad is simultaneously one of the toughest and most rewarding things that many of us will do. It’s a chance to reinvent ourselves and to choose which parts of our old lives to keep and which parts we can cast aside.
The experiences we have living abroad and the stories we’ll have to tell in years to come are a big bonus to living abroad, and there are lessons to be learnt and skills to be acquired that will be valuable for life.
So if you are having a dose of doubt about striking out into a new life abroad, make sure you consider the ten best things about being an expat.
There will be things that you miss from home and others you won’t notice are gone. One big thing you’ll notice missing is the watchful eye of friends and family.
In reality they probably aren’t watching you all day, every day waiting to pour scorn onto your decisions, but we do all consider what the reaction of our peers will be to things we do. Starting again in a new country means the choices you make are free of strings.
Provided you don’t scandalise the neighbourhood or break any laws, you’ll be freer than ever before to push your boundaries and try new things. The anonymity of living in a new place, especially big cities, can create a new sense of daring, because if it goes wrong or you look silly nobody will care.
You’ll also have more of your own time. The first few days may be taken up with unpacking, but the rest of the time will be free for adventures. Outside of work hours you won’t be obliged to visit family or tag along with friends to things you aren’t that keen on.
Embrace this newfound freedom and use it as an exciting way to explore your new culture.
9. Being a tourist…and a resident
With the freedom to explore you get the chance to do all the things listed in the guidebook. If living in New York, your weekends can be packed with hot dogs and taking photos on top of the Empire State building.
Once you’ve done the touristy things, you’ll also get to explore the city with the help of local friends. Native New Yorkers will tell you to go up the Rockefeller Centre, where your view of Manhattan is less crowded by tourists, and includes the iconic Empire State Building.
Local knowledge is invaluable; the friends you make will help ease you through the practical problems you face as well as guiding you to the best bits of town. There’s always a bar the locals don’t tell the tourists about, or a cheaper way of getting across town.
You may even find that the prices you pay for things start to come down; for example, in Morocco it’s easier to haggle with traders if they’ve seen your face a few times.
That’s not to say you have to sacrifice the best bits of being a tourist. Use your status as a ‘guest’ in the country to explore and encourage the locals to rediscover their city. Take a Londoner on river tour and show them a new perspective on their home.
8. Rediscovering your own culture
As well as exploring the new culture, remember your own. Chances are you’ll be meeting expats from other countries as well as the locals. Take this opportunity to introduce them to the traditions you hold dear and make them part of the fun.
Hold a Thanksgiving dinner, invite mates round for an Australia Day barbecue, hit the town for the craic on St Patrick’s Day. Make it fun and find any excuse to share with friends. Most cultures celebrate festivals and holidays with food and drink, even if the reasons for the parties are different.
Sport can be a great thing to bond with friends over: Brits will inevitably find a place to watch the Premier League and Indians will discuss cricket with anybody. Invite your new friends to the ball game, match, bout or one-day international.
Of course this is also an opportunity to leave behind anything from home that you don’t like. Restrictive traditions and social mores can all be ignored while you’re abroad.
Exploring traditions and national identity from afar might be the best chance to understand and appreciate how important they are to you as an individual.
7. A more interesting CV
Of course life abroad isn’t all sightseeing and parties, there will have to be time spent at the grindstone. This may be worth even more than just padding on the CV.
Many employers are impressed by someone who is adaptable enough to work in another country, and many companies offer management roles that rely on the ability to work across cultures.
Think of your career working double time: everything you do overseas can be seen as twice as impressive, as you’ve had to adapt to a new business in a new culture. Even if you are already qualified in the local language, showing that you can work effectively with it is important too.
For some expats, visa restrictions may prevent them from holding down a job. This shouldn’t place any restriction on improving your CV, though. Look into courses you can sign up for. Local colleges may offer vocational courses or something the region specialises in: who could turn down a chef who studied cooking in France or a yoga teacher who learnt in India?
6. Gaining some perspective
Your new home may move at a much slower pace than you’re used to, and may hold family time to be more important than it is at home.
There’s nothing like waiting in line for an hour in a Mexican post office to make you realise how communities meet and network in these queues. It’s likely you’ll notice other things about your new home: things you may have become immune to in your own country.
It’s probable that you’ll notice poverty and equality in ways you might not have done before, just because you are looking at everything with a fresh set of eyes.
You’ll also learn to go without things you thought were essential. Freely available wi-fi, soda, TV and fast food might be scarce when you first arrive. But this will give you an opportunity to focus on other good things, like home-cooked food and conversation with friends.
There will also be plenty of opportunity to extend your comfort zone. Soon you’ll be going to the cinema by yourself, eating alone and striking up conversations with strangers without the burden of social awkwardness.
5. Learning not to worry
There will be big problems. You will overcome them. The next problems will seem smaller.
So much of the anxiety we carry with us isn’t the stress of dealing with things, but the imagined what if scenarios. We put a lot of brainpower into conjuring up unlikely situations and dreading them happening.
The first few weeks in your new country will see you conquer mountains of problems and casually skiing down slopes of stuff not worth worrying about.
Thanks to your newfound perspective on life, it’ll be so much easier to stop sweating the small stuff and start exploring the neighbourhood.
4. Making lifelong friends
Arriving in a new place with no friends can be intimidating, but it’s also the perfect opportunity to branch out and meet new people. At home our friendship groups can be insular, with the same kinds of people gravitating toward each other.
In a new country you’ll be forced to meet the neighbours, socialise with colleagues, and seek out people who can make you smile. An entirely new set of friends will quickly form, and they won’t disappear quickly.
It’s also worth remembering that fellow expats you meet will be the best support network you could ask for. They’ve dealt with similar problems; they know what it’s like to be homesick or lost. They can perk you up, lend you things you need or guide you through the local bureaucracy.
Even if you don’t talk often, friends made overseas will always be an email or a Skype call away. The times that you spent exploring and discovering will cement the relationship for good.
3. Discovering new cuisine
Nothing says adventure like a plateful of delicious but mysterious food. Grab a fork, or chopsticks, or a piece of bread and take your taste buds on a whirlwind tour of your new home.
Food is an integral part of national identity, even more so than anthems or flags. Families gather around the dinner table and milestones are marked with feasts, so what better what to get under the skin of a culture than through its stomach?
Anyone visiting Seoul should try kimchi and understand its place in Korean culture. Who can live in Naples and not learn the true art of spaghetti eating? How can you spend time in Edinburgh and not eat the haggis?
A sure sign that you are adjusting to your new home is that a trip to the market becomes an easy affair, you are familiar with the products on offer and can easily transform them into imitations of the local cuisine.
Discovering new flavours is only part of the fun: delicious delicacies are best when shared with friends. Look forward to the day when you can bring your new recipes back home and wow family with a delicious dhaal, a mouthwatering moussaka or tasty tempura.
2. Learning a new language
A new language is an asset that will be valuable in many ways. But there are things about a language that can’t be learned from books or in the classroom.
Living and working with a language is as important as learning grammar and vocabulary. There are nuances of every language that can only be mastered by conversation with native speakers.
In many cultures there are social factors which affect the way language is used. The way you talk to the boss will be different to the way you talk to peers. It’s a common mistake for novice linguists to mix up these registers, causing embarrassment and sometimes insult.
Playing in a new language is just as important. It’s only your friends who will teach you the slang, swearing and relaxed chatter used when people wind down. Even if you don’t want to swear fluently, you’ll at least know what words to avoid.
1. Boosting your confidence
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. In most cases, this is true. So many of the limitations we put on ourselves are due to a fear of the unknown. What bigger unknown is there than setting up home in an entirely new country?
After dealing with unheard-of problems in a foreign language, in an unfamiliar place, where everything works differently, you’ll be able to conquer anything. Problem solving skills can be applied to any situation, and once you have cracked a few tough nuts, the prospect of more will be less daunting.
A little time living abroad will probably have helped you shake off any emotional or cultural baggage from back home, giving you a clean start and less weight on your shoulders.
It’s sometimes said that successful people make their own luck, but often it’s just that confident people are more frequently successful. Walking into a meeting with your head held high convinces people you really do know what you’re talking about.
If there’s one bonus to living abroad that can help improve your life when you get back, it’s a healthy dose of confidence.
What have you found most rewarding about being an expat? Let us know in the comments!
Article by Andy Scofield, International Features Writer