There’s nothing more exciting than packing up your life and buying a one-way ticket to a foreign land, right? OK, maybe crazy is the better word. But whether you've joined the Peace Corps, transferred to Jakarta, or just decided to backpack around Europe and "settle down" on the DL, one thing’s for certain: the life of an expat, while adventurous and liberating, can be incredibly stressful.
In an effort to help aspiring -- and possibly anxious -- globetrotters, we chatted with a bunch of expats around the world to find out exactly what they wish they'd known before making the big move.
Even if you’re leaving for a two-year commitment abroad, you don’t need two years' worth of stuff. Stores do exist outside of the US. Also, living in a non-Western country might change your feelings about material goods, and help you reprioritize what's important in life. Then again, it may also make you long for every pair of Jordans you’ve ever owned.
Give yourself time to settle in
Integration is not going to happen overnight. Take at least three months to observe the culture around you and settle in. Most importantly, say yes to things you may not necessarily be inclined to, especially if you don’t have any friends. Like moving to a new city in the US, or starting a new job, it takes time. Be patient. Also, maybe download a bunch of movies before you go?
Be open to new things
Can't say this enough: be ready to experience new foods, people, and customs. That’s the ultimate reason you're moving abroad, right? Oh, you're running from the law? Never mind, then.
But don’t feel like you have to immerse completely
As in, like, don't feel obligated to jump into a weird sex party just because you're lonely and nobody back home will answer your Skype calls. (Unless you're already into weird sex parties.) The day-in, day-out challenges of living in a different country, dealing with different cultural norms, and speaking a difficult language will wear you down. So, be prepared. But there's a big difference between being willing to try a new experience and being the one American dude who's waaaaay too into Japanese drumming. Don't lose yourself in the name of integrating, but be open to the differences a host culture can offer.
Know that learning the language WILL be hard
Unless it's Spanish and you took it in college, 'cause then it'll probably be easy. But if not, make an effort to at least learn the basics immediately; people will be a lot friendlier if you show an interest in their native tongue, and it will help ease everyday interactions. And remember, every country has its own sayings and slang -- there's bound to be some miscommunication, even if you've spoken the language for a long time.
Making local friends changes the whole game
You’re not moving abroad to hang out with Americans. Befriend the locals. They will help you find a place to live, a job, a ride when you still can’t afford a car, etc. Not to mention, help you gain access to things foreigners wouldn’t necessarily be able to.
Prepare to laugh at yourself. A lot.
This is key. Insane things happen, and a lot of it you may never understand. True story: while trying to say “pineapple” to a coworker, you might instead say “F**k your mom.” Everyone will laugh, and you should too. Let it go and grow. Also, don't try to have relations with your coworker's mom; it's a bad idea.
Find out what your new country doesn't have
Can you fill your prescriptions abroad? What about your favorite food? Sometimes a jar of peanut butter helps after a hard day of culture shock, but guess what? Nobody eats peanut butter! Think ahead about what you might miss a lot and make sure, if you have to have it (like those meds), it can be gotten.
Research your new home before arriving
Sounds like a no-brainer but know a little bit about the culture, the history, the geography, and important public figures of the country you're moving to. If you can speak intelligently to your new friends, neighbors, and coworkers about their nation (even if it's in a horrible accent), they'll be much more welcoming and hopefully, depending on the country, less anti-American.
If you only visit big cities, you're gonna miss out
For example, if you’re in Spain, you’re going to see Madrid. That's obvious. But don't forget to travel up the coast and hit the smaller towns in between, as well. You can learn so much more about a country when you interact with people who don't meet tourists very often, especially if you speak the language.
Unfavorable attitudes about Americans will come up a lot. Don't take it personally.
Just as Americans make unfair generalizations about people from other countries (like the French!), you’ll get a lot of misguided opinions about us. Books, movies, and the media tend to distort the way other cultures view Americans, as if we're all cut from the same cloth. In Brazil, for example, many think that Americans are cold and selfish because we don't hug and kiss enough when we greet each other (little do they know it's because we're rich and our parents never showed us enough affection. JK!) Just be aware that there will be confusion and/or offense taken at some point.
Know where to access help
And have a plan. Whether this means knowing where to go if your "flat" (see, we're already getting into it) gets robbed, or which hospital to go to if you are ill. Self-care is huge.
You will miss people (and huge life events) back at home
Get ready to miss new relationships, bachelor parties, Super Bowl parties, weddings, new babies, the works; and slowly you’ll discover, which of your friends will and won't stay in touch. It takes a lot of effort to maintain relationships with people back home, and sometimes you might be the only one putting in that effort. But remember: notes, postcards, and Facebook messages go a long way.
Don't take cultural differences personally
People might seem closed off, which can make them appear rude or disinterested. But that's not necessarily the case. They may give you a brutally honest answer, and tell you bluntly that your urban mullet isn't a flattering haircut. It could just be the culture. Employees at stores or restaurants might be distantly polite, on their cellphone or talking to friends, but never making small talk or checking in to see if you need more mustard. Don't sweat it -- it (most likely) doesn't have anything to do with you.Then again, it could. Either way, get over it.
Perspective is key
Remember that good and bad things happen everywhere. No matter what you're doing, and where you are, you'll have your share of ups and downs -- it's not always directly related to living abroad.
Also, people can suck anywhere
No matter what the country's culture towards tourists/outsiders is, one thing will always be true: there are nice people in every country, and there are assholes in every country.
You’ll be alone. A lot.
So buckle up. But while there'll be a lot of quality alone time, you'll also learn to love everything about yourself. You'll gain a ton of confidence. You won't think twice about doing things on your own, and you'll, no doubt, start to find yourself on all kinds of crazy wild adventures. Being uncomfortable for an extended period of time in a place far from home will give you a perspective that you didn’t know you could have.
Similarly, expect to be really bored at times
It’s not all moped adventures and torrid love affairs. Whether it's spending an entire day waiting at the airport for a delayed flight, or sitting in the corner at a party where no one speaks English, living and traveling abroad can get insanely boring at times. It's unavoidable. But if you can use that downtime to catch up on your latest blog post (although not while you're at the party, please) or write your grocery list, you'll have more free time later on to do the fun stuff.
Buy an unlocked cellphone and a local SIM card. It’s way cheaper.
A lot of service providers in the US will try to sell you a cheap smartphone with a “great overseas plan.” It will be insanely expensive compared to a plan that will cost you the equivalent of $10 a month in the country you’re moving to.
Make your time count
Time will fly by, especially if your stay is for a limited time. Make sure you make the most of your overseas adventure, and do everything you set out to do.