My advice to new expats

Ah, jeez. So, I guess it has been a while since I last published a post around here. I didn’t really plan for this to happen and yet I don’t feel guilty. I’ve been sorting out some new and exciting stuff coming up, but I’m not ready yet to put it all out there – so lets just pretend that I never really stepped away from here, yes? 

I promise to share a post about what I’ve been up to while I was away as soon as things have slightly settled! 

I recently came across a brilliant quote from Chris Guillebeau about living abroad:

“Beware of moving overseas! It’s tough, confusing, disorienting… and ultimately, extremely rewarding. When you move back home, if you ever do, you’ll be a different person than you were when you first left.”

Chris Guillebeau, The Art of Non-Conformity

This quote made me look back at all the worries and insecurities I felt before becoming an expat for the first time in 2009, and made me realise that, out of all my decisions, moving abroad has been one of the best ones in my life.

Expat life in Switzerland and the UK has been an adventure in itself and, while I might not call myself an expert, I love giving advice to new London expats and friends moving abroad. Below you’ll find tips I wish I had known before I first left my home country (admittedly, I really didn’t know much back then!).

Invest in experiences over possessions

Lavaux, Switzerland

While it may seem tempting to invest your hard earned expat salary in furnishing your new apartment and making it feel homely, you should look at your time as an expat as an opportunity to not only explore a new country and region, but also a new you. Take this time to accumulate experiences rather than things. Because, well, even a bad experience eventually becomes a good story!

Try anything and everything that sounds interesting to you. Take a road trip to the next town. Start that french cooking class. Learn about the regional wine. Sign up for ice skating, architectural sketching, climbing. Join an improv group or a band. Become a volunteer or a mentor. Whatever it is that you fancy – give it a try.

But don’t just take my word on this: Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, has been studying the question of money and happiness for over two decades. His studies confirm that our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our things!

Learning the language is not easy

Cadaqués, Costa Brava (Spain)

Simply being in a new country will not make you fluent. You won’t just soak up the local language – even if you already knew a few phrases before landing (though – wouldn’t that be nice?).

Learning a new language takes time and dedication so the earlier you start learning and speaking the better! 

“Whether you learn it or not depends on your commitment, not on changing your latitude and longitude.”

– Benny Lewis, Fluent in 3 Months

One of my biggest regrets from my 2 years in Switzerland was not learning enough french to call myself fluent. I moulded myself into a thriving expat community, surrounding myself with others that either spoke English, Spanish or German (or a combination of any of those three).

I kept on postponing my lessons. Whenever I spoke french, I was conscious of my mistakes and cave man style and tried to limit its use to extreme cases only. When I finally began to open up and take the language journey more seriously, it was time for me to move to London.

So here’s my advice: start now – learn before arriving, speak at any opportunity, make mistakes and don’t give up.

Learn to laugh about yourself

Skiing in Lech, Austria

Never did a simple trip to the supermarket become as embarrassing as my very first attempt to ask for a bin bag in Lausanne. After walking around the shop for about 20 minutes, I lost my patience and decided to ask for help. I crafter a story about an item in the kitchen that stores things you no longer want that is later on picked up by a “big car”. At first, I received blank stares. Later on, laughs! Joining the laughs was what kept me going. 

As an expat (or, well, a foreigner), you are an easy target. You’re new, you don’t understand how things work, you have a funny accent, eat strange stuff (morcilla, anyone?) and have weird customs. Heck, even after years of living in the same country, you may still suddenly realise that you’ve actually been pronouncing something wrong for the past 25 years (that’s right – I actually spent 25 years asking for biscuits instead of biskits!).

You’re going to have many embarrassing moments (and usually want to run back home right after). Don’t act defensively – just laugh about it and move on!

PS: I also spent 25 years saying Greenwitch instead of Grehnitch and Edinburg instead of Edinburrá (which got me into a heated argument because – why?) and I still can’t get myself to say kei-oss instead of kaos (chaos). Oh well.

Surround yourself with positive people

Torres del Paine, Chile

You’ll find negative people anywhere – at home and abroad. You’ll have people back home telling you that you’re wasting your talent and potential abroad. That you’ll never be able to have the same career progression in a foreign country. In your new adopted home, you might encounter locals and expats that are tired of life and insist in telling you about all the things that are wrong.

You can’t avoid running into them, but trust me, when you’re still adapting to a new country, you don’t need all this negativity in your life. Instead, surround yourself with positive people who are flexible, open and up for any adventure.

These people will be your strongest pillars and the main reason you’ll make it through the toughest expat days – the homesick days (see more on this below).

Feeling homesick is normal

Masca, Tenerife (Spain)

 Maybe it’s the morning fog, the crowds, the commute and the constant stress. Maybe it’s because I can’t seem to get out of eating al desko (because that’s really a word). Maybe I miss the warmth, humidity and weekend siestas. Maybe it’s because I miss my small family. Or maybe it’s because of Facebook. Because I realise I have missed friends’ weddings, birthdays and baby showers and wonder: did they miss me? I don’t know what causes it – it could really be anything. All I know is that, even after nearly 13 years away from home, I still get homesick.

Homesickness is, indeed, quite widely spread among expats. From my personal expat experience I would suggest that, in order to get through homesickness, you understand the emotion, accept it as part of the expat experience and don’t let it sink you. After all, feeling homesick simply means you miss something or someone that you love!

What advice would you give a new expat? Or, otherwise, what are your worries as a new / future expat? 

25 thoughts on “My advice to new expats

  1. Experiences are what make us who we are and determine what we do with our lives. Possessions do not do this. You are spot on in investing in what really matters!

  2. Thanks Kate, I was definitely needing to read this. Such wise words! I am myself about to engage in my second expat experience and I start stressing as I seem to forget that I already went through this 15 years ago. Still, after all this time in France it feels as if it were my first time! Next destination is Kenya for 3 to 5 years, I will definitely do my best to learn the local language, that was a very good point! I am so happy I did it with French. Que tengas una feliz estancia de vuelta a Canarias!

  3. Great advice – especially about laughing at yourself. I feel like it’s the only way to survive! I might have to bookmark this for when I’m a few months in my expat stay and feeling sorry for myself haha.

    1. I used to write it down on a post it (no joke!) – when the expat life gets tough is usually when we forget about how important it is to “stay light”.

  4. Great to hear from you again 🙂 my two cents for expats is be patient with yourself. Life is infinitely harder outside your comfort zone and it’s so much healthier if you accept that! I’ve actually found that you can enjoy all the little ‘hardships’ of living in Vietnam, like inflated expat prices, standing out like a sore thumb, lack of fully functional washing machines…it’s what make the experience.

    1. Thanks, that’s a great tip! It takes a lot of strength to accept all the daily challenges we face as expats but it’s definitely the less frustrating and way healthier choice.

      1. maybe your are interested in my blog, too. i am new here and so my blog is a little bit empty but soon, it will be better (:

  5. I’ve just stumbled across your blog and Im so glad I did! Next month I’ll be going to work in the States for three months and I’m quite scared. Three months doesn’t seem a long time but I’ve never been that far away from home for that long. I liked the part about homesickness because I know I’ll definitely feel like that at times, so thank you!

    1. You’re welcome and congratulations, that’s one big fat step outside your comfort zone! If for any reason you feel like you don’t belong, just remember that your stay has an expiration date. Though I’m sure that’ll not be necessary – you’ll probably love the experience in the States, meet a lot of interesting people and might want to extend your adventure 😉

  6. Me ha encantado leer esto y no puedo estar mas de acuerdo en todo! Y me ha hecho mucha gracia lo de que no puedes tener una carrera igual de exitosa fuera de tu país … Puede que eso sea verdad para mucha gente pero tristemente no para la mayoría de españoles tal y como siguen las cosas en este momento. Irse al extranjero ofrece muchas oportunidades y ventajas que en España son impensables (al menos ese ha sido mi caso 🙂 )

    Mucha suerte con todo lo que tienes entre manos! Beso!

    1. Hola! Muchísimas gracias, Irene. Estoy de acuerdo con que España, desgraciadamente, sigue siendo una excepción a esto. Las oportunidades que nos ofrece irnos fuera son muchísimo más grandes que quedarnos (al menos en muchos de los casos!). Ojalá cambie en un futuro cercano, que ya poco a poco va siendo hora de que vuelva a ser l país al que todos quieren ir a trabajar 🙂

  7. All of these are so true. Especially surrounding yourself with positive people. Hanging out with other expats who just want to go home can be a real drain.

    1. Yes! Even things that you hadn’t notice before or may not even bother you that much begin to affect your mood just because someone else has pointed them out to you. I’ve had the best times with people who were curious and interested and positive about the place we were living in (which doesn’t mean that they were idealistic – they just chose to be positive).

  8. great tips, especially the one about surrounding yourself with positive people, but
    I think that should apply to EVERYONE, not just expats!! Who needs negative people?? I also live abroad, and have done for over 20 years, and still get homesick. Its mostly at Christmas time that it hits the worst

    1. Yes, that’s true. There’s always some negative nancy somewhere – but it makes it particularly hard when you’re already having a tough time adapting to a new home. Ah, I hear you about homesickness during Christmas – it’s the hardest time to be abroad!

  9. Hi Kate, My concern is mostly language as soon it will be Arabic and the difference for me will be huge… have always got by with Spanish, Dutch, German or the use of interpreters but not this time! I won’t be able to read my own bills so I need to get going with my learning. I also hate the “getting settled” in part.. the appliances, the cell phone, the Internet. Once that is all done, I will feel more than comfortable… I hope. 🙂 Off to Cairo in August with my daughter. Happy blogging and travels, Cheryl

    1. Wow. I agree that arabic is definitely much tougher than Spanish / German /French etc – it’ll take a while to begin to understand your bills, but arabic is such great asset to have on your CV (and sounds beautiful, too), it’ll be worth it – happy learning!

  10. I agree with you Kate! We should invest in experiences than the possessions; though the later seems more appealing. I still smile over the memories from my experiences.

    1. Exactly! Whenever I lose or break something, I’m upset – but this feeling fades fairly quickly. In contrast, whenever I’ve missed out on a great experience, I rummage through it way too long, wishing I had just taken the plunge.

  11. Glad to have you back in the fold Kate. I completely agree about the garnering of experiences over furniture and things. Sure, some things are nice but a cooking class or road trip through the alps are far more memorable.

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