Wow. Sometimes I just forget. Having spent more time overseas than in the U.S. since I turned 20 (crazy, right? I could hardly believe it myself when I just sat down to plot out the last 14 years of my life), sometimes causes me to lose a bit of perspective, so I need conversations like this to knock me back into reality. Moving overseas, particularly alone, and to a country with a foreign language and a totally different culture can be a really scary endeavor (especially if you don't know a single soul in that new place). I've always been one to view such a move as a grand adventure, but I realize not everyone approaches change and the unknown with the same expectation and excitement as I. So this conversation sparked a lot of thought about what tips I would give to someone who was facing a big intercontinental move with anxiety or at least nervous trepidation. Here are my recommendations for some steps that can be taken to make it as smooth and comfortable as possible:
- Ask friends and acquaintances if they know anyone in your new home. It really helps to have local contacts who will help ease you into the new culture and guide you through some of the more counter-intuitive bureaucratic processes that will inevitably confront you. It's good to hook up with both expats and locals. The expats will understand your fears and frustrations, and the locals can help explain how and why things are done in a specific way, and when necessary, lend a hand when you need a translator.
- Take language classes. I cannot reiterate how important this is!
- Force yourself to be an extrovert (at least in the beginning). Initiate conversations with anyone and everyone. Go to cafés and bars and talk to the people there. Ask questions. Get their contact details and follow-up - it's like dating for friends. It may seem awkward at first, but many a valuable friendship has been made this way.
- Don't cut yourself off from your friends back home. Social media like Facebook and Twitter allow you to follow what everyone is up to on a day-to-day basis, and Skype and Google Voice are godsends for the modern expat, helping one feel less alone (I remember the days when calling was prohibitively expensive and email was about the only way to stay in touch - and even that was a major advance on life before email). Also, encourage your friends to visit. It's wonderful to get a visit from friends or family, and it also gives you the opportunity to explore your new home like a tourist and share the bits you love with someone else.
- Explore! Don't just sit at home on weekends. Get out there and see things. Those complicated train schedules may be intimidating at first, but it gets easier every time, and before long you'll be an old pro. Plus, who knows how long you will be living overseas, and time is valuable. It would be a real shame to not make the most of your time abroad.
So, I'm seeing a common theme in my advice: you're just generally going to have to be brave! You may have to step a little outside yourself and your comfort zone. But this is precisely one of the reasons why I believe that living overseas (even if it's only a semester study abroad program) is one of the most enriching and personal growth-inducing experiences that a person can have. The experience will change your life forever, and in ways you might not be able to imagine now. Somehow, everything becomes easier... making friends, facing new challenges at work, navigating around unfamiliar places, speaking/standing up for yourself, reading maps, understanding accents and different ways of communicating, and even trying new foods and cooking! And that's just a sampling.
Be brave and give it a chance. Especially if the idea of moving overseas is anxiety-inducing and intimidating - the rewards will be innumerable.