Moving abroad is equally thrilling and terrifying. It’s an opportunity to call another country home, learn a new language, and foster your own independence. It also means you’ll be far away from friends and family, will be surrounded by a completely unfamiliar culture, and will need to build a whole new community.
Whether you are moving for a job, for school, for a change of scenery, a combination of the three or none of the above, one thing is certain: it will be an adventure. Last year, I moved from San Francisco, California to Zurich, Switzerland – two cities that couldn’t feel more different. As I approach my one-year expat anniversary, I’ve been thinking back about the process of moving and living abroad. If you are in this boat, here are a few things to keep in mind.
1. The Paperwork Will End.
Becoming a legal resident of a foreign country does not happen overnight. Be prepared for more paperwork than you thought possible, and get comfortable with dealing with bureaucracy. The visa applications are only the beginning.
There will be paperwork for apartment rentals, for shipping your belongings, for setting up a bank account, for receiving a driver’s license, for background checks, and maybe even for joining the loyalty rewards program at the local grocery store. In Switzerland, each of these included an appointment in-person, and most of the paperwork required an accompanying photo. Remember: it’s all worth it, and this too shall pass.
Make sure you have an ample amount of passport photos (it’s always a good idea to have a couple extra on hand) and embrace the legal introduction to your new home.
2. Making New Friends is Tough, but Doable!
As a freelance writer (and as a self-proclaimed social introvert), this was one of my biggest challenges: making new friends. If you have moved for work or school, your colleagues or classmates might be your primary social group, but if not, it’s time to branch out.
Every country has a different social scene, but no matter what, you are going to have to put yourself out there. Maybe through a city-sponsored networking event, or a blind set-up from a friend of a friend, or a language class, or a Meet-Up event (Meet-Ups happen all over the world). You can even try a Friendship App! It won’t happen all at once, but slowly, you’ll find yourself building a community.
3. But, Don’t Forget About Your Friends Back Home.
Maintaining relationships while abroad takes effort. Make WhatsApp or Skype dates (literally: put them on your calendar, just like you would a work meeting) and keep them.
This might mean you have to wake up early on a weekend or stay up late to accommodate time zones but do it anyway. Little gestures like sending hand-written cards go a long way. Rediscover the lost art of a personal email.
I’ve recently started a virtual book club with my college friends. We meet once a month via Google Hangouts to catch up, drink wine (or coffee, depending on the time zone), and discuss the month’s read. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of your new life, but it’s important to make the effort to stay in touch with the old.
And of course, there is the hard reality is that you might lose friends. You’ll be surprised by those that reach out, and also, from those that don’t. I’ve learned that this is okay, too.
4. Celebrate the Little Victories.
Learn to recognize and celebrate the victories, no matter how small. It takes courage to move to a new country, and that courage sometimes manifests itself in ways that you would never even notice in your home country.
Of course, the first time you successfully communicate in a foreign language is a big deal! But so is the first time you navigate a route on public transportation without needing the help of Google Maps. Or going to a networking event where you know absolutely no one. Or figuring out the bagging system at the grocery store. Or the first time someone on the street asks you for directions, assuming you are a local.
There might be days where you want to cry in frustration, but if you take a step back and acknowledge all these seemingly small wins, you’ll see that they start to add up.
5. Laugh Off the Mistakes.
Moving to a new country is a bit like living in Newton’s Third Law – for every small victory, there is an equal and opposite faux pas.
I spent a month saying “Bitte!” to everyone I passed, thinking that I was saying “Hello!” Bitte means please in German, while Grüezi is a casual way to say hello. They both sounded exactly the same to my untrained ear, so I was cheerily saying “Please!” to everyone I met. I was mortified once I discovered my mistake, but then just had to laugh it off. What else can you do?
You are going to feel like a misfit foreigner for a little bit. That’s OK. Lots of things are going to get miscommunicated or utterly lost in translation. That’s OK. You’ll need to ask really dumb questions about really simple things. That’s OK. One day I walked past a sign that was blinking the phrase “Amused and Confused,” and that has become my motto to encapsulate the expat process. Feel free to adopt it as your own.
6. Accept that You’ll be Homesick.
Establishing a life and community in a new country doesn’t move neatly in a straight line. It’s possible to absolutely love your new life and the experiences it brings while being intensely homesick and to feel these opposing emotions at what seems like the same time.
It’s hard to miss out on big events, like weddings or graduations, or even the small humdrum ones, like weekend brunch or movie nights. One day I’ll be walking on air because I can feel my Swiss life clicking into place, and other days I’ll wish I was back home where things are easy, where everyday tasks aren’t difficult, and I can feel like myself without having to try.
Everyone has their own way to combat homesickness. For me, I let myself feel a little sad for a bit, and then I go for a walk in the old town or along the lake, reminding myself why I’m here in the first place.
7. Embrace the Adventure.
Living abroad is a life-changing experience. It’s an opportunity to discover a new country, a new language, new food, new culture, new people! It will take time and effort and getting out of your comfort zone, but one day, you’ll feel like you belong. It will become a home. And that’s a sense of achievement that will stay with you forever.
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