26 November 2013

5 Tips for Moving Abroad: Part II. After You Arrive

Last week we talked about what to do before you take that giant step to move abroad. The good news is the hardest part is over (see last week's tip #2). You've said your goodbyes, you're finally on the plane and you can relax. Unless you're crying, but remember that's totally normal. Take a deep breath and get ready for your new crazy life.

1. Expect to be lonely. Pack accordingly.

If you talk to anyone who's moved somewhere without a built-in community waiting for them on the other side, they'll tell you to expect to be lonely. This is probably the best advice we got before we made our first move. Plan to get really good at doing something while you're sitting alone in your new place. I've heard of people teaching themselves a musical instrument, learning to knit, etc. Even if you're going with your husband, you'll still miss having a good group of friends. It takes a while to find them. It's okay. During our first move we didn't feel like we had good friends for a year. A WHOLE year (maybe more). And when we finally found them, I knocked off their knitted socks with my new harmonica skills. Obviously.

Your new best friend.

Bonus tip: Anyone has potential to be a great friend. For example, expats over 60 have got it going on. Look for them, be nice to them, maybe they'll let you hang out. It's one of the finest demographics around. 

2. Plan to acquire a puppy. Or small child. 

When you move to a place with a huge expat community, it's more difficult than you might think to meet people. When you pass tons of foreigners just like you everyday, no one's stopping you on the street saying, "Hey! You're American! Let's be friends!" There are many expat faces; you're not so special. Nobody cares. (Unless you move to a place like Kinshasa where when you see an expat walking down the street you're like: Who on earth is that? And why are they walking on the street?! I must meet this person.)

When we moved to Cairo, where there is an enormous expat community (or there used to be), I took the metro a lot. Here you can chose to ride on the Women's Car, or the "Mixed Car," which should really be called the Men's Only Car. Some days I took the Women's Car where they shot me judgmental stares at best, mocked my bare ankles and elbows at worst. It was a cruel car. In fact, a lot of times I preferred to risk sexual assault on the Men's Car than face judgment from the women. I think that says a lot about me.

So one day another foreign woman got on the Women's Car. I thought, Oh good, someone else for them to judge. You'll see what it's like, sister. And those mean ole Egyptian women did the strangest thing. They ran up to her and smiled and gushed and gave her their seat. Just who does this white woman think she is?! Then I saw her secret weapon: she had a BABY. Everyone wants to be friends with you if you have something cute and cuddly. Soon after, we got a dog. Our first and best friends in Egypt were the ones we met while our dogs were sniffing each other. Small children and dogs bridge cultural divides and help you meet people. Consider one or the other. Or both, if you really want to be popular.    

3. Settle hard. Settle fast.  

No matter how long you think you'll be in your new country, settle! Make your living space comfortable and make it your own as soon as possible. Think you might want a rug? Or plants? Or a lamp to kill the florescent lighting? Get them all now. It also helps to bring some things with you to put on your walls as soon as you unpack. Bonus points for the folks who bring their own concrete nails. Chances are you won't be dealing with American drywall. When someone shows up with a nice tapestry and concrete nails, you know this isn't their first rodeo.

Creating a comfortable living space is something you can control. Coming home to it will feel therapeutic when dealing with crazy cultural adjustments on the outside. See tip #4 .

4. Find a cultural consultant.   

You've heard a million times about culture shock. It's real. But what you don't hear is how it messes with your mind. At first everything seems weird. Then once you adjust to everything seeming weird, nothing is weird anymore. You've lost the ability to tell between what's normal and what's inappropriate. Because to you, it's all "cultural" and acceptable. Not true. Find yourself a cultural consultant. Ideally this is a local who you can trust to help you sort the culture from the weirdness. Here's an example from a conversation about 2 weeks after arriving in Congo:

Me: So my gardener says that my plants are dying and I should hire him to work more often so he can water them. That makes sense, right? My plants are withering. They need to be watered. 

Cultural Consultant: No, no. The rainy season is coming soon. There's no reason to do any extra watering. He knows this, he's trying to get more money from you.

Me: Oh right, of course. He's such a rascal! That guy also told me there's a "13th month" and I have to pay him double in December. That's ridiculous. He can't fool me!

Cultural Consultant: No, that's true. There is a 13th month. Pay him. He depends on it to feed his family.

Me: Oh right. Good call.  

Scam and cultural faux pas: diverted.

5. When life gives you a Kitchenette, make lots and lots of amazing food (or sit back, relax and make your husband do it).

There may be parts of your life over which you have absolutely no control. For example, assigned housing. Adam and I went from living in the most amazing apartment we knew we'd ever have, to living in a postage stamp with a kitchenette. That's fine. It's cultural. We spent a few months tripping over each other in the kitchen. Sharing the same 2'x2' counterspace to make all our meals. This type of a set-up might work great for some marriages. But for us it became clear that 2 cooks in a tight spot did in fact spoil the pot. And by the time dinner was ready we were just grumpy with each other over micro-managing finely chopped onions, hypothetically speaking.

So I backed out. Adam could have the kitchen to himself. I knew meals wouldn't be as great without my "crappily chopped onions," but whatever, he could make dinner alone and then beg for me to help when he got overwhelmed. What happened next was the greatest phenomenon of our marriage. He became an incredible cook/baker/chef extraordinaire, which also meant he had to take over all the grocery shopping because I just didn't have the proper "culinary vision." My favorite takeaway from our Congo experience will be a chef husband, followed by our two babies. In that order.

Perfecting his art. In a corner, behind a door.

Bottom line: Your house/commute/job/life in general may feel horribly uncomfortable and unworkable now, but wait and see what you can make of it.

Next week: Part III. After you return home. (Hint: Nobody's really that interested.) 

And if you missed it, here's last week's 5 Tips Before You Go.


  1. Having lived overseas, but never as a lifestyle "I'm just gonna move and do it" choice, this is all really good advice. It both makes me happy with my decision to settle in my home country and simultaneously, miss living overseas!

  2. I would also add- find a nice local spot for beers and people watching. That always helps me make a home in the midst of chaos :)

    1. Oh yes! I thought of you and your signature tip. Definitely a good idea.

  3. Thank you for this series! I moved to Qatar about four months ago and am really appreciating your tips, though I wish I could go back in time and read these when we were packing to move.

  4. Wow, this series couldn't come at a better time for me - 6 weeks into my move to Oaxaca, Mexico from New Zealand. I think th most important thing I have learned so far is to stay in the moment to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Thanks for your great posts!

  5. I just moved from Honolulu, Hawaii to the deep woods of Mississippi and even though it's a domestic move, I sympathize SO MUCH with this post! I got a puppy the first weekend and you're right, people like you more if you've got something cute. The culture shock even with a domestic move can really catch you off guard! Anyway, thank you so much for keeping it real and giving us new transplants some hope for a good transition!

  6. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences! These are really great! You did give some harsh truths about living abroad, which I completely agree with, especially loneliness. It's a common thing, especially if you move to an area where everything and everyone are foreign to you. I really laughed at that tip of getting a baby to get some new friends, but it does make sense in bridging cultural divides.

    Dave Borrell

  7. Exactly. I like your third tip. One way of getting comfortable right after moving is really to settle, which means that you have to make yourself comfortable in that new place as soon as possible. All the knick knacks you usually do, try doing them so that you won’t feel so foreign in that new place.

    Gabe Stirling

  8. Ohh great experience you had, Consider seeking an organization or soliciting the help of long-time expats to help you get your life abroad off the ground.
    Ask 12 best questions before you proceed to your overseas consultant


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