Travellers usually share several characteristics, especially when they have spent a large amount of time in foreign countries. They tend to be curious, adventurous, adaptable and, most relevant to this discussion, confident. Many move around the globe a bit and then think they might want to take things to the next level and actually go and live in another country.
Five years ago I made the decision to pick up and leave my country of birth (the United States) to live in Australia. Readers of this blog will know that my reason was personal: my husband is Aussie and that was enough for me to take the plunge. I’d lived in Paris and Singapore before, but only for a few months at a time. I figured it would be easy to relocate to Australia. It seemed culturally similar to the States and after all, I spoke the language, had made big moves before and was well-travelled. How difficult could this possibly be?
The reality was, in fact, quite contrary to my expectations. Sure, I’m a citizen now and have mostly integrated into society here in Oz, but I wouldn't call the journey easy. I won’t delve into my specific experience here because I’ve written an entire book on the subject of moving to Australia. But I will share some common myths about becoming an expat and explain how it can be very different from travelling. While I do think that some of the most difficult things in life can also be the most rewarding, I don’t think people should have to go into situations with false assumptions.
Myth number 1: I speak the language, therefore I will understand and fit into the culture.
You have a major advantage if you already know the language of your new home. But never assume that’s enough by itself. Countries (and even regions within countries) have different histories and their residents have unique viewpoints, backgrounds, opinions and ways of doing things. You’ll be able to pick up on these characteristics more quickly if you speak the native tongue, but you’ll still need to be aware of the things that are often unspoken.
Just speaking the language also does not give you instant access to every part of a culture. You are still an outsider, at least at first. People will have an opinion, maybe even a stereotype of you just because of where you originally come from. You will feel the division strongly from time to time. It can be very unsettling, especially if the differences between you seem very small or if you've been in the country awhile. When you're travelling, you expect your role and status as a foreigner. It is much more difficult when you're just trying to live your regular life.
Myth number 2: I have what it takes to be an expat.
I’ve intentionally tried to stir you with this one. Maybe you do have what it takes. I certainly don’t know. But you should be sure that you do before proceeding further.
Are you flexible, open-minded, a fast learner and a diplomat? Are you adventurous and willing to try new things? Is your relationship with your partner secure? These are all questions to ask yourself because, as I pointed out in the first myth, your new home is not going to be just like where you came from (or like it at all). You'll need to have and embrace these qualities for a much longer (even indefinite) period of time when you're an expat.
You will find differences that you may or may not like and adapt to. Businesses, banks and government-run organizations may function differently than in your home country. Products, services, holidays and the food you will be eating are going to be different. I could add to the list but you get the idea: you’re going to have to adapt if you want to get along. Your new country is not going to change for you.
Myth number 3: My career, lifestyle and/or financial situation won’t change.
If you’re moving to a new country because of a career opportunity, hopefully you’ve negotiated a great package for yourself and you won’t be taking a pay cut or having to sacrifice too much financially. If you haven’t, know that it isn’t always easy to find a job in your chosen industry in a new country. This will depend on your specific experience and where you choose to live, but you shouldn't assume you can just find the same job and salary as you had back home. You may also find that not all degrees and qualifications automatically convert to the same qualification in your new country. This can be very frustrating; especially for people whose career is everything to them.
Your lifestyle and financial status may also change. Salaries can be lower, taxes higher and currency values poles apart. The cost of living in your new country may be high. You must be prepared for these realities. The phenomenon of the ‘trailing spouse’ or ‘accompanying partner’ is also common in expat circles. This occurs when one partner has given up his or her career or put that career on hold in order to follow a partner overseas to a new country. The partner who has done this will be struggling to find a new identity and place in not only the home but a new environment as well. This can be particularly stressful when there is a language barrier because the working partner will be surrounded by colleagues at work and will have people to communicate with, while the other person is often alone at home.
Myth number 4: Moving overseas will clear the slate.
If you’re running away from anything in your life, moving to another country is not going to solve all your problems. You’ll still be you no matter what country you put down when writing your address on a form. If you have personal problems or a bad relationship, moving may actually make things worse because of all the stress you will pile onto pre-existing conditions. Putting a bandage on problems and hoping they will go away is not a solution. This does not mean that you can’t or shouldn’t move if something is unsatisfactory in your life, but just know that you’re better off dealing with the issue (with professional help if necessary) than running from it.
Myth number 5: I’ve always been social and had lots of friends, so it will be really easy to make new ones.
Being someone that people tend to like and get along with will definitely be an asset to you as an expat. It is certainly better to be this way than the opposite. But don’t assume that your personality alone will do the job. You’re going to have to be very pro-active and determined to make friends in a foreign country. In many cultures, people bond with others when they’re young and stick with those friends for life. Expat or online groups can help you a lot with making connections, but be aware that you'll be meeting mostly other foreigners that way, not the natives. I never mind meeting mostly foreigners when I'm travelling, but when you live somewhere you'll long to be part of the local scene.
Myth number 6: I won’t lose touch with my friends back home.
Can you stand being away from your family and friends for years at a time? Will you be able to handle losing some friends who aren’t interested in keeping up long-distance relationships? I’m certainly not saying that this is going to happen to you. But I also don’t want to give you a false sense of security that you can just leave your home country and expect everything in your life to be maintained remotely via electronic communications. With voice-over-internet programs, which weren’t as popular when I left the US as it is now, there’s really no excuse not to speak with people. But for some, it may just not be enough. Memories and friendships can fade if not nurtured and some people are more needy than others. Disagreements tend to intensify when long distances are involved. You won’t always be able to come back for weddings or to meet new babies. Family and friends may not be able to afford to come and visit you or even want to see your new place of residence in the first place. The only reassuring fact that I can share with you is that, in my experience, your true friends will still be there.
The bright side of all of this is that you're going off on a new adventure and you’ll need to make room in your life for new people. If you’re ever going to have a chance at being happy in your new life, you will need to let go of some parts of your past. After all, you become an expat for a reason and you should embrace that.
I don’t want to discourage people from moving abroad. On the whole, it has been a tremendously positive experience for me. Some people, however, expect that becoming an expat will be trouble-free if they’ve travelled a lot. I made a lot of assumptions prior to moving to Australia permanently; because my decision was based on my relationship, I have no regrets. But if you are thinking about going down this path, I encourage you to take stock and be sure you are prepared.
Are you an expat? How did you find the transition to living abroad?
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