‘I’d love to move abroad’ is a phrase often uttered wistfully if the rain is hammering on the windows, the work day seems particularly long, or your favourite pub has lost its charm. But so many people who dream of a better life in a far-off land make no progress on transforming their dreams into reality.
Often it’s because they’re afraid. There are many things to consider when moving abroad, and it’s not without an element of risk. But expats tend to be adventurous sorts and don’t let unfounded fears get the better of them for long. Here’s what some expats had to say about their biggest fears before moving abroad, and what you can do to overcome any concerns you might have.
You’ve probably got a clear picture in mind of what you expect your expat life will be like. Breakfast on the terrace, followed by a swim, before rounding off a day exploring by dining in a new restaurant every night, perhaps? But can it really be that good?
‘The biggest fear I had, about becoming an expat, was to be let down by my new life abroad,’ admits Marta Correale of Learning Escapes. ‘When you start planning a move, you look at your new home as a place of hope and a better life: you want to go abroad for a better a job, a better salary, a richer cultural experience, possibly even better weather.’
‘However, life abroad is also made of mundane tasks and annoyances and the closer my travel date came, the more I worried these would be the aspects prevailing: would my life really feel “better” while making the school lunch for the kids, or would it feel exactly the same but with a different backdrop?’
And what did she do about those worries? Marta made sure to manage her expectations by learning from the experiences of people who had already made the move, as this gave her an insight into the kind of lifestyle she could expect.
‘My way of overcoming this fear was to connect with people already living in my new country. Social media, expats groups, friends of friends and local blogs were invaluable to get a sense of what life would really be like away and to help me be realistic about expectations. Twelve years later, I am still happy to be an expat and wouldn’t trade this life for any other.‘
The idea of leaving behind your social life can be incredibly daunting; amazing vistas and a new culture to explore may promise endless new experiences and nourishment for the soul, but at the same time many expats worry they will long for the comfort of friends and family.
‘The hardest part of being an expat in starting the process. The second hardest is leaving everyone behind and building up your social circle and network all over again,’ explains Jessica Cutrufello of A Wanderlust For Life. ‘It’s daunting, but the worry is a lot worse than actually making new friends.’
There are, she points out, plenty of ways you can meet new people; ‘In bigger cities, it will be easier because there are expat social groups to join. But everywhere there will be people who like to do the same thing as you!’
Not only are there expat social groups, but the locals are bound to have classes, meet ups and events that happen on a regular basis. These can be great for helping you integrate into your new community; showing that you want to fit in does wonders for becoming accepted by your new neighbours.
According to Jessica, the key is to make the effort.
‘This is definitely one of those situations where you get back what you put in. Check Facebook groups, meetup.com, group workout classes, and book clubs. There are so many ways to find new friends… I even joined a wine club! Just put yourself out there whenever you have a chance and you will find your new tribe.’
If you’re thinking of moving abroad because you’ve been offered a position by an overseas company, your current employer wants you to go, or because you think you can find better career opportunities, job security can be high up on your list of concerns.
Losing your job at home can be troublesome for your finances, but when you’re overseas it can be even more of a problem, as your right to stay in the country may end along with your employment.
As Rachel Richter told Global Living Magazine;
‘One of my main worries about living here in America is wondering if expat life will suddenly be brought to an abrupt halt. My husband and I are living in Atlanta, GA on a visa that is connected to his work. If, for some reason, he doesn’t have a job with that company anymore, once his last day of work rolls around, we have 30 days to get out of the country … I’m not ready to go back to life in the UK yet – I’m not sure if I ever will be – but right now I feel like there is always a dark cloud hovering over me, wondering if we might have to move and the life I know right now will be over in a flash.’
The key to avoiding this anxiety is to prepare for the worst. This gives you peace of mind, so you can carry on enjoying your expat lifestyle, secure in the knowledge you have a safety net in place.
Having some savings is a good idea, as this means you can afford to live and get back home if you absolutely must. This takes away the stress of making ends meet, so you can focus on finding a new job or getting a different visa.
Make sure you’re always as employable as possible, even if there are no indications your current role is under threat. The chances are you want to go abroad because you like new experiences and growing as a person, so learn some new skills to keep that CV up to date. In particular brush up on the local language – being from the UK is an alluring quality for many employers, but you’ll still need to overcome the language barrier in many cases.
If you know you’ve got measures in place to survive financially and you can put across the best possible case for a new employer to take you on, you’ve done everything you can. That doesn’t mean you’ll never worry about job security again, but it means you have something positive to focus on when the anxiety strikes.
Culture shock goes far deeper than just being surprised that things are different. You might think, considering expats are open-minded and adventurous types who like taking risks, that there won’t be an issue. But culture shock isn’t a fear of difference, or a failure to accept it. It’s the way your mind reacts to suddenly having to think in a different way, devote more attention to routine tasks and process a whole lot more information than before.
Writing in The Telegraph, cultural psychology expert Joseph Shaules notes that culture shock is when ‘culture stress’ becomes overwhelming.
Culture stress happens, in part, because many aspects of ‘normal’ life suddenly become much more demanding and mentally draining than they did at home. ‘Your mental batteries get depleted from focusing your attention and solving problems. More than exotic customs, it’s the difficulty of accomplishing everyday tasks — looking for shampoo or using a foreign ATM — that tires your mind.’
All these things you used to be able to do automatically back home now take much more brainpower and this quickly becomes exhausting. Combined with the fact that you might not feel at home, and therefore safe and relaxed, and it’s not surprising new expats often become overwhelmed.
It might not be possible for you to avoid culture shock entirely – it’s a result of your brain processing all the new stimuli you’re feeding it – but you can certainly help to minimise its negative impact on you.
According to Vivian Chiona of Expat Nest, the first step is to accept the process.
‘Be aware that you will go through this, and that this is okay,’ she writes. ‘It is a process of adjustment, which means that it has a beginning, a middle and an end.’
Vivian suggests that you establish a network of local contacts to help you build some roots in your new home and to provide you with a source of comfort and support. Getting to know your new culture also helps, as it demystifies some of the things your brain may be struggling to process.
Finally, remember that you have support back home. Vivian advises that ‘keeping open communication with friends and family can reduce anxieties about the new culture and help you reflect on how best to deal with these anxieties yourself.’
Becoming an expat is a big step and there are challenges that come along with that. However, you don’t need to let your fears hold you back. Many people have been in the same position as you are now and have taken the plunge.
There is nothing wrong with feeling nervous, but once you’ve decided moving overseas is definitely for you it’s time to conquer those nerves and get started with your expat journey. By taking the time to read up on the solutions to these common problems, you’re already much better prepared than you were to deal with them.
Keep up the research and you’ll be ready for whatever overseas life can throw at you.
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