While moving to a new country can be both a thrilling and daunting prospect, here are some hard-earned tips that I have figured out after years of living abroad.
1) Research the country’s etiquette rules beforehand, but don’t dwell on them
There are many travel-savvy books on the market these days that offer insights into the cultural do’s and don’ts of a particular country. While reading these can give you an overall sense of the levels of propriety and a few idiosyncrasies of the culture in which you will be living, they can also paint an overly broad stereotype of local behavior and attitudes. For instance, these books may claim a level of modesty or decorum that was the norm 20 years ago, but not now, or one that still exists in the countryside but is not relevant to the modern capital in which you will find yourself. The bottom line is: take with a grain of salt any advice meant to tell you how everyone in a certain society thinks and acts.
2) Prioritize location over the accommodation itself
While you may be bowled over by a particularly luxurious villa in an out-of-the-way place during your housing search, try to think practically about your location. By prioritizing proximity to job, choosing a short daily commute to school, or positioning your home in an area with lots of things to do, activities to join, restaurants to frequent or people to meet, you will undoubtedly have a more enjoyable time abroad than if you are sitting alone in a beautiful but empty mansion. A slightly smaller or more humble choice of accommodation may make all the difference in your expat experience.
3) Go to as many social activities as you can and give them a chance
Many cities and expatriate hubs these days have social media groups and web sites detailing various activities and clubs to join. A particular nationality may also have its own society that offers events. Meetup.com is a good way to find groups of like-minded people with similar interests to you, both local and foreign. Try to throw yourself in and go to as many events as you can, at least initially. You may never know whom you will meet at a random drinks evening or cooking class. Even if you do not find a best friend through these encounters, simply widening your social network is helpful.
Expats have to get good at making new friends fast, and for the most part, friendships to evolve at a quicker pace than back home. There may be someone who takes a little longer to grow on you, though. When you are far from home, without the luxury of long-term friends and family about, give these ‘slow burners’ a chance. It may be that you hit it off with someone immediately, but it is also likely that someone may enter your close friend circle only after spending time with them on five or more occasions. Be open-minded about acquaintances and do not count someone out straight away unless there are serious warning signs to do so.
4) Stroll through supermarkets and catch some local television if you have time—you may learn a lot
I absolutely love checking out the local markets and grocery stores wherever I go. It can be helpful to note the kinds of produce, cuts of meat, and snacks that a certain country holds dear. It is also interesting to discover which types of food are prioritized in your new country based on the amount of shelf space devoted to it. In Egypt, for example, there is an incredible variety of beans and flatbreads on offer. In Norway, a whole separate room is dedicated solely to dairy. I noticed the unmistakable aroma of smoked pork wafting through a supermarket in Lithuania. These are all fun little clues into what daily life is like for the community around you.
5) Do travel when possible, but also take time to be present in your location
The temptation to travel all the time can be strong for expats. After all, they likely already had a predilection towards seeing the world anyway. While certainly the opportunity to travel is one of the main draws of expatriate living, keep in mind that some of the greatest lifelong lessons and experiences to gain from your time spent internationally can only come from living in a place for a period of time. It is fun to be a tourist and take hundreds of pictures, but it is often more fulfilling to take time to get to know a country and its people from the inside. This is the unique honor and privilege that an expatriate experience offers and one that should not be taken for granted.
Updated: June 29, 2015