7 lessons learned from being an expat in 3 countries in 12 years

expatTwelve years ago, after meeting my future husband traveling, I left the U.S. to live in Europe. I spent four years in Munich, Germany, three years in Cambridge, England, and am now in my fifth year of living in Zurich, Switzerland.

In that time, I’ve learned a few valuable lessons about living in a foreign country, something which can be frustrating, scary and uncomfortable, but also exhilarating and enriching.

By the way, the insights I’m about to share apply not just to those moving or living abroad but can apply to anyone who is moving to a new place, be it in the same state, region or country. I certainly found most of these to be true when I moved from L.A. to New York. 

1. Come with no expectations

Of course you will have certain expectations of what a new place will be like — and chances are you’ll probably be wrong.

All your preconceived notions about a place are based on other people’s experiences, stereotypes about that country and its people, and your own assumptions.

The actuality of a place can be very different from your preconceived expectation of it. For example, when we moved to Zurich, my husband, who’s from Munich, just four hours away by car, assumed it would be just like Germany. It’s not, and he found this very hard to reconcile. I, on the other hand, had no such expectations and have been able to accept our adopted country much more readily than he has.

So remember, only when you have lived in a place will you actually know what it’s like to live there.

2. Be open

Instead of coming to a new place with expectations and assumptions, come with an open mind.

Every country will have their own systems and ways of doing things. Although it may seem natural to you to do something a certain way, because that’s how it’s done at home, and that’s how you’ve always done it, it’s not necessarily the best way, and it’s certainly not the only way.

Rather than comparing, embrace the differences.

Be open minded to the other things on offer in your adopted country and take advantage of them: a new culture and traditions, new flavours and cuisine, new experiences.

Be open to the possibly of staying there longer or shorter than you initially thought you would. Be open to sharing your story with other people. Be open to asking for help. Be open to meeting new people. Be open to getting rejected.

Be open to making mistakes — it’s like you’re a child feeling his or her way in society, learning what is right or wrong, and needing to be told what is okay and what’s not. If someone tells you off for doing something wrong, be open to their perspective, and don’t take it personally.

This is, after all, part of the whole experience of living somewhere new. If you’re not open to new opportunities and perspectives, your experiences will be less rich and rewarding.

3. Be respectful

You are the outsider. You shouldn’t come into the country feeling like you own the place. Or that you are better than the locals because you might be coming from a place that is richer, a first-world country or whatever.

Like being open, be respectful and appreciative of the differences. The people who live there have their traditions and their culture and their way of doing things. And most of them are very proud of it and may not know any differently.

Respect that; don’t be the foreigner who flouts tradition and customs and rules in a new place because they feel it doesn’t apply to them.

If you want to be a somewhat integrated part of the society you are in, respect the ways of those around you. You can poke fun or vent about it, but don’t be disrespectful. You will only give yourself and your countrymen a bad name.

4. You will figure it out

It can be completely overwhelming at first. And very, very frustrating. You won’t know how anything works: shopping, banking, transportation, housing, schools, health and insurance, etc.

This is all part of the experience of integrating into a new society with different social norms. You’ll make mistakes; you’ll get it wrong. It’ll feel uncomfortable not knowing how to do basic, everyday things.

There are still times when I want to slap my forehead and say, Oh, is that how it works? Like my English friend who moved to America a couple of years ago. For months she wondered why public mailboxes were so few and far in between — until the day she learned that she can leave her outgoing mail at her own mailbox and the mailman will collect it when he makes his rounds.

Bottom line: If you hang in there, you will get the hang of things.

5. You will make friends

When going to a new place, many people are worried about leaving the security of their social circle. They wonder if they will be able to replace the friends they have.

The answer is no, you won’t have the same social interactions and friends as you had before. But you will find other people to hang out with. You will find friends and build a new social circle. You could even have a better or more rewarding social life than the one you left behind.

In fact, the more places I go, the easier I find it is to make friends. When I was younger, I was very hung up about my ability, or lack thereof, to make friends. I thought I was pretty awful at it because I’m shy, have a hard time making small talk, and it’s not my nature to go up to people and just introduce myself and start talking with them.

But now, I have no qualms about moving to a new place where I know no one. Because from experience I know that I will make new friends, because I always have.

The one caveat is that you do have to make an effort.

You do have to accept invitations to do things with colleagues or classmates or people you meet. You do need to initiate the introductions and invitations sometimes.

If you really don’t know anyone, you do need to get yourself out of your home and do stuff in order to meet people. The best way, I would say, is to do activities that you enjoy or interest you, with meeting people as a side effect of this, not as the goal. Even if you don’t know the language yet, there are usually English-language and expat groups, classes and clubs you can join. For example, Meetup.com makes it really easy to find local group happenings with people who share similar interests.

6. Be patient

With all of the above, remember to be patient. You won’t learn the language, figure out the system or make friends overnight. It may take weeks, months, even years. It’s an ongoing process. So don’t be too hard on yourself.

But I guarantee if you regularly push yourself out of your comfort zone, things will come together.

Perhaps have a notebook, in which you can write about your journey. Then when you feel frustrated or uncertain about something new, go back and reread what you’d  written a few months ago. You’ll be surprised how much you know now and how far you have come. And you’ll realize that, with time, you will feel more comfortable and capable in your adopted home.

7. Be forewarned about reverse culture shock

Once you’ve widened your horizons, it’s hard to go back. You will start to look at your own home country, your countrymen, your traditions with new, often critical, eyes.

This is inevitable because you have become a different person and have gained new perspective. So if you plan on going back at some point to your home country, be forewarned that the going back could be just as difficult as the coming over, and you will undoubtedly experience cultural shock all over again.

The longer you are away, the more severe this will be, because, remember, as you’ve been getting used to a new place and changing over here, your home country and the people over there are changing as well. Or, also very likely, you may find that the problem is that the things, and particularly, the people, have not changed as much as you have or have expected them to change.




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