Ten years ago I finally achieved my long-time ambition of leaving the United States and setting up home abroad. After three years in Europe, two in China and now five in Australia, I feel qualified to hand out some expat advice to my fellow Americans.
For the most part I haven’t looked back since taking that first flight but I do sometimes feel I would have benefited from the following nuggets of advice.
Here are the top eight things I wish I knew before moving abroad:
Everything Will Change
Of course, one of the reasons I was looking forward to traveling in the first place was the fresh experiences: the exotic foods, the unique climate, the colors and sounds of a different culture. I was reasonably prepared for that aspect of change.
What I didn’t think too much about was how the town I was leaving and the people I grew up with would change without me being there. It takes a lot of effort to maintain relationships when you’re living abroad. You have to realize that your adventures are only of limited interest back home and you need to make an effort to stay in touch with local gossip – no matter how dull it may seem.
Although I still enjoy going back to catch up with family and friends, it never quite feels like home – and probably never will again.
Moving Abroad is not a Vacation
My friends occasionally tell me they envy me for ‘living the dream.’ If only they knew! I used to have the same vision and while there is the occasional day when I can explore the lights of the big city, hike through tranquil woodlands or relax on a sunny beach, the majority of the time I am working hard to make ends meet (and save for my next adventure).
That means getting up to the sound of an alarm clock, dragging myself to work, grabbing a takeaway and then falling asleep before doing it all again the next day. Add to that the language barrier, illogical public transport systems and visa renewal paperwork and you get an idea of what my life abroad is really like.
Still, I wouldn’t change it for the world.
The World Seems Very Big and Small at the Same Time
Although I’m used to my new life now, my first few months were occasionally scary. I had always had friends in far flung places and I knew that they were available at the other end of a Skype connection. I figured that if I ever felt lonely I could just find the nearest Wi-Fi signal and dial home.
It was only after having been here a few weeks that I realized that the world may be ‘virtually’ quite small but it is ‘actually’ pretty vast. I couldn’t just jump on the next plane home and even calling friends was difficult because of the time difference.
Over the years, as I’ve got used to my new way of life, I have also realized how humans are pretty similar despite our surface differences. I now feel that I could eventually make a home wherever I traveled to next. The world suddenly seems small and manageable again.
It’s an Emotional Roller-coaster
If you haven’t guessed by what you’ve read so far, the entire experience has been a huge, life-sized roller-coaster. Meeting a new friend, seeing an amazing sight and overcoming a challenge fills you with a joy and self-confidence that is difficult to describe. On the other hand, living abroad has had me screaming in frustration at red tape, frightened for my safety in a strange place at night and sobbing myself to sleep after a particularly lonely week.
I guess, just as some people look at a fairground ride and say, ‘not for me,’ other people are prepared to accept the lows to reach the heights – at least that’s what I tell myself!
You Will Say Goodbye – a Lot!
When you move abroad, you will eventually make regular friends from your new country. However, the traveler within will always be drawn to other traveling spirits including expats and those who have always dreamed of traveling but never done it. A large proportion of those people will succumb to the bug and move on again.
I don’t think I will ever get used to the sadness and hurt that comes with saying goodbye but I do have one big consolation: I now enjoy a global network of kindred spirits who will always offer me a place to stay if I ever visit their country.
You Will Become an Anomaly
Travelers are a strange breed of people and I have only now fully appreciated why that is. When you stay in one place you get to understand the local culture. You know the music that people listen to, you watch the same TV series, you wear similar clothes and generally ‘fit in’ to one group or another.
As a traveler, you are detached from all of that. As a result you become a more authentic person, creating your own personal style. You listen to songs you like the sound of; you watch TV shows that make you smile and you wear clothes that you feel comfortable in. Since no one else is quite on your wavelength, you come across as someone completely unique – and even a little bit weird.
You will be an Unofficial Representative of your Country
When I said goodbye to Uncle Sam for the last time, I didn’t realize he had booked a ticket to come with me! Wherever I go, as soon as people find out where I’m from they seem to assume I have a direct line to the White House and a degree in American history. In hindsight I could probably have guessed that people would use my nationality as a hook to build a connection. If I could do it all again I would definitely have read the newspaper and a few history books before setting off on my travels.
And Finally – Costs a Lot!
When you’ve moved from country to country as often as I have, there is one fact of life that is unchanging: shipping is expensive! I have learned to live very minimally to ensure that I keep my shipping costs as low as they can be. Shipping is also very hard on your possessions so I recommend buying the best quality corrugated shipping boxes you can get hold of. Use a dedicated moving company or warehouse equipment store rather than going for a generic e-commerce supplier – arriving in a strange place with your favorite mug in five pieces is enough to tip you over the edge!