Making the move: tips for expats


Good ol’ Samuel Langhorne Clemens, not only did he have a cracking name but he had a bit of a way with words, didn’t he?

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Wise words indeed. After all if, three years ago, I hadn’t pack up my meagre belongings, where would I be now? It’s a topic that comes up on almost on an annual basis. I reflected a little on the comings and goings a year ago. And now, another year on, I’ve started thinking about it again.

A couple of expat friends have been posting links to a Thought Catalog article about expat life: What happens when you move abroad. The article surmises that all expats are secretly yearning to go back “home”. That, no matter how long they’ve been in a country, secretly, “home” is always better. That there’s a constant fear of “missing out” by being away.

The anxiousness that was once concentrated on how you’re going to make new friends, adjust, and master the nuances of the language has become the repeated question “What am I missing?”

And, I’ll admit, this post started as a rant. I thought about taking quotes from the article and pointing out, ad nauseum and in painful detail, how the author is obviously taking the wrong attitude to living abroad and therefore their article is all a load of shit. I thought about extolling the virtues of living away from “home” and how I can’t even imagine moving back to the UK. I thought about explaining all the pros and cons of my new life and why anyone thinking about making the move should just do it.

(You don’t believe me. Some of the thoughts in the article made me fume: “There will always be a part of you that is far away from its home and is lying dormant until it can breathe and live in full color back in the country where it belongs” What the actual fuck? Because you’re not at “home” you’re living some form of half life? Because change and new experiences drain the life out of you? Seriously, if you hate it so much, move home why don’t you? Leave the challenges to us!)

However, my voice of reason, Dixie Chick, gently suggested that maybe my attitude has changed through time and experiences. While I was quick to scoff at this, it seems that, as ever, she had a point. There was a point that I had to let go of my old life and make a move forward with my new one. And it wasn’t easy. I felt very alone. But I picked myself up and carried on.

And so, as I think about it, I realise that some expats haven’t been as lucky as I have when moving abroad. Some people, despite having made a decision to move away from their home country, absolutely hate the life of an expat – it’s big, it’s scary, it’s different. And so they cling to their old ways, to people from “home”, to their quarterly flight back to see their family.

I don’t think this is the way to go about it, fellow expats. Whether you’re a trailing spouse, a young free and single, a worker, a student, a seasoned traveller, a newbie, there are so many things I’ve learnt along the way that I think can help anyone make their new life as good, if not better, than their old one.

1. Make different friends

It’s so easy, so painfully easy, to fall into a circle of work friends. After all, they’re all in the same boat. Dealing with the bureaucracies of the same company, that same woman from HR, sometimes the same projects. They get the pressures you’re under. They’ve had to go through exactly what you are having to.

Stop it. Move away from the easy route. It’s easy for a reason.

While there’s a place for work friends everywhere you go (after all, The Canadian and Dixie Chick were both friends I found through work) it is so important to find friends away from work.

Seriously, I cannot stress this enough – try and get a wide circle of friends.

Different friends have different purposes. You spend the best part of 45 hours at work a week. There are times when the last thing you need at the end of a long day or week, is to be surrounded by the people you’ve just left the office with. There needs to be some respite. There needs to be someone else. You need to have conversations that aren’t about work (and, no matter how many times you tell yourself you won’t become *that* person who talks shop, you will). You need people that you can truly be yourself around without that niggling feeling that it’s secretly being noted down and phoned into the Compliance Hotline on Monday.

How do you find those other people….?

2. Find something you love

Everyone has something they love. Everyone. It could be reading. It could be sport. It could be knitting. The cinema. Writing. Conversation. S&M. Whatever.

And if you like something, it’s likely that there’ll be other people in this new world of yours who’ll like it too. There will be clubs, casual groups, places these people meet. Go there. You need to shed that (typically English, it has to be said) reticence to put yourself out there and force yourself to be sociable. Don’t say no to new experiences, go to random meet ups. If there’s nothing set up, why not do it yourself? It may be that there are a stack load of people out there, just like you waiting for someone to…

3. Make the effort

Making the effort is two-fold. Firstly, you have to get out there and make the first move. If you don’t look after yourself, other people aren’t going to do it for you. This means you have to organise drinks, dinner parties, groups, events. Yes, it takes time and commitment  Yes, it’s likely that you’ll get no thanks for it. But it also means you’ll fulfil points 1 and 2.

Secondly, make an effort to get involved with your new home. It could be shopping around for new food, expanding your tastes. It could be exploring local haunts, feeling a little lost, a little out of place. It could be learning the language, getting things wrong, asking questions. Whatever it is, you need to throw yourself into it. If you don’t try something new, you’ll never learn.

4. Stop the comparisons

Yes, maybe the bread at “home” is better. Things may be cheaper. You may have more choice. There are a million ways in which “home” will be superior to your new world. But it’s that difference that you wanted, right? It’s part of the reason you moved. Constantly converting prices, complaining at the way in which things work (or don’t), getting frustrated at difficulties – we all do it, but we need to stop. Find new ways to work, find ways to make things happen, embrace the alternatives. Part of the adventure of the expat life is the stories, memories and experiences you gain. You will grow, you will mature, you will expand your horizons. All of these are making you a better person.

5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Just because you’ve moved somewhere new, it doesn’t mean you need to be alone. There will be other expats around you and, because you feel you need to immerse yourself in your new life, it doesn’t mean you should shun those who are able to help you. The problems you’re going through are not new ones. You don’t have to face them alone. Ask for advice, talk to people, take on advice. And, in return, when you’re an old hand, pass on your knowledge to other newbies you see. Just think how grateful you were when people helped you out – do the same for others.

6. Don’t cut yourself off

It’s tempting to think that if you cut off your old life, your new life will be easier. Not so, your old friends may be many miles away, but that doesn’t mean they stop being your friends. The distance will test your relationship but, hopefully, will make it a hundred times stronger. Similarly, the expat life is a transient one. New friends will come and go. Keep in touch – expand your network. How lovely it is to hear a friend say “I’m going to XYZ” and for you to be able to respond “Oh! I have a friend there, let me put you in touch.” All it takes is a quick email, a funny postcard, a skype date, a post on their facebook wall. It’s so easy to stay in touch with people all around the world with minimal effort. Take advantage of the digital age we live in.

7. Enjoy going back “home” 

There is no doubt that going back to familiarity is a joyous experience. Visit friends, family, old haunts. Take advantage of all those things you miss (I, for example, find it a revelation to wander round a Tesco. Look at all the choice! Look at the prices! Oooo, proper bacon!) Take some home comforts back with you, of course. But realise that you’re on holiday. Your new home is somewhere else. And that’s not a bad thing.

8. Don’t be afraid if it doesn’t work out

It may be that, after all your efforts, your new life isn’t enough. It’s not what you expected, it’s not what you want. And, no matter how hard you work at it, it’s never going to be right. That’s ok.

Do give it a try. Don’t stay somewhere you hate because you’re stubborn.

It isn’t a failure to leave. You’ve given it a go, you’re made a choice, you’ve taken a risk. How many other people you know haven’t even considered it? Take the experiences of your move and make a change in your new life. The whole point of travel and the expat life is experiencing new things, and growing through things you get wrong as well as things you get right. It’s not for everyone.

… But if it is, take advantage of every wondrous day.


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21 thoughts on “Making the move: tips for expats

  1. Blonde says:

    I don’t think I’d ever move abroad, but I think you’re right: if you’re going to do it, you need to embrace it wholeheartedly. This post is brilliant.

  2. Addy says:

    Sound advice. I can recall living in Cologne in the 1970s and hearing a lot of hardened ex-pats moaning about Germany, the Germans and longing to be back in the UK, despite the miners’ strikes and the doldrums. They did not go out and make friends outside their workplaces and were with English people ALL THE TIME. So insular and narrow-minded. Greg and I, on the other hand, made lots of German friends, with whom I am still in contact to this very day.

    • nuttycow says:

      I can’t say I’ve got a vast number of Swiss friends but I do have American, Canadian, Hungarian, Turkish, Czech, Italian, French, Kiwi, Australian, Romanian, Portuguese, Brazilian friends (amongst others). I think it’s about widening your horizons and not just sticking to the easiest route.

  3. Kes says:

    Great post! I’ve been in Hong Kong nearly 18 months now and would find it incredibly difficult to go back to Australia.

    • nuttycow says:

      Fursty Ferret has just moved over to HK. You’re obviously enjoying it? I don’t think I could move back to the UK – I just have the bug for being “away” now. Where’s next for you then?

  4. looby says:

    I think that fellow is just trying to generalise his own loneliness and inability to thrive abroad.

    Must disagree with you on one point however. The bread can never be better in England.

    • nuttycow says:

      You’ve obviously never tried Swiss bread! There’s something so wonderful about that delicious, cheap, white bread with a bacon buttie. Has never been bettered!

  5. You think these are ex-pat lessons? Pish. These are life lessons.

    • nuttycow says:

      Could well be. I just thought it might be a tad arrogant saying “life lessons” when I know so little about life. Expat living, I have a bit of background in 😉

  6. Great post, though I agree with The Unbearable Banishment — life lessons, indeed.

    • nuttycow says:

      Thank you – I guess it would be nice if everyone followed these kind of rules and was generally more open minded to new and exciting experiences.

  7. Mud says:

    So true. Having friends outside work is vital for expat sanity. I should know!

    However, I am actually moving back to the UK this summer. Not because I don’t love expat life and exploring the weirder parts of the world, but because of a yearning for stability and the potential for the next phase of life that isn’t really feasible in the expat world I inhabit.

    Going to be weird to be back….

  8. Ulli says:

    I needed to read that. I have a hard time here in the UK. 6 months in. I mean, it’s ok and all, but I miss home, I am totally only making work friends right now and I compare shit all the time….

    • nuttycow says:

      Ulli – sorry that you’re not having a great time in the UK at the moment. I’d continue to suggest that you try and widen your circles a little. Where are you living?

  9. Siempre says:

    A good post, good thoughts. Although I have spent a lot of time abroad, I am considering moving overseas again. Thanks.

    • nuttycow says:

      Making the move abroad can be a good restart on life too. When I moved, I was in the right place to do it (no ties to where I was living, enough money to get back home if it didn’t work out). If you’re in that place too, it might be worth thinking about.

  10. Dixie Chick says:

    Lovely as always. Been reading a lot about change lately. One of our professors has written a good book about it in the context of working identities. The gist… Changing identity (you know what I mean) doesn’t happen over night. You must dabble and explore the new “space” if you will – whether it be a lifestyle change, career change, or in this case, change of “home”.

    It’s very easy for us to look back and see what we’ve done, where we have been. We weave our story from our memories – often forgetting about the low points, especially when they become fewer and further between.

    Everything you said is true! But it’s also important to accept that there is transition time for all of us. Perhaps that is where she (assuming she was a she) is/was. Let’s hope she makes it past that point and can join the crowd of us that understands what it is like to make it through the other side “merged” into one person again who can appreciate both worlds/lives/homes as her own.

    • nuttycow says:

      It’s the ol’ 3 month dip, isn’t it? We all experience it whenever we go and do something new. I certainly had it when I first moved to Switzerland and I’m sure you had similar when you moved away? After the initial excitement of moving, there’s a sudden realisation of what you’ve done. Maybe this article was written in the middle of that?

  11. […] other week I wrote about the life of an expat and my tips on how to make things a little easier on […]

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