Top 6 Rules For Living Abroad

I confess. I am that annoying person who claims themselves to be an internationalist. Except in my case, it’s true. To give you an idea, my youngest daughter has 3 nationalities and I have lived and worked in 6 different countries for at least a year. Along the way I picked up a few languages and an appreciation of how hard it can be to adapt to a different culture, let alone to thrive.

With more than 2 billion of us on Facebook and unlimited access to global information, goods and services, there is little doubt the world has shrunk. But, has it really become easier to live abroad? As the world learns more English, watches American content and British football, eats Indian curry and Chinese food, we have become a truly global society, but are we also becoming more similar? I think not. Culture has deep roots, and while some things are familiar, or ‘same-same but different’ as my friend used to say, living in a foreign country is very different than visiting for a week, and there are difficulties in every international move, whether you move to Hong Kong, Nairobi or to Rio.

Here are a few of my survival tips:

  1. Never judge a book by its cover. This sounds obvious, but people in every culture really do have a different way of expressing themselves. Some are overt, some have hidden meaning, others are too direct. Even when its direct, there is usually a hidden meaning and cultural nuance that takes a while to understand. For example, when an American invites you to dinner with the family before you even arrived in the US, chances are 95% this will never happen; they are merely being polite. When a Brazilian does the same, expect to go on a Sunday and meet the entire family. In some cultures, when people are very direct, even to the point of being insulting, it means they like you. In others, you can take their word that they meant the insult. The point is the nuances differ wherever you go. The quicker you pick up on them and study them, the easier it will be to integrate in your new culture.
  2. Eat local food. Yes, local food can be hard to shallow. I remember the first time my wife had Dutch licorice and ate raw herring, I think the word disgusting came to mind. In Turkey, the first time I had ‘Ayran’ a local yogurt drink, I was expecting something sweet. When the salty drink hit my pallet I nearly spewed out my food. Over time, I came to love it. Experiences like this can make you appreciate the diversity in local cuisine. More importantly, they serve to strengthen the bond between yourself and your local friends; nothing bonds quite like sharing a local meal with a drink or two, just ask Anthony Bordain, who built his career on this insight.
  3. Don’t be the person to say ‘back at home, we did it like this.’ People don’t care as much as you think. Don’t get me wrong, at times an insightful comment about how things are done half way across the world may resonate well. However, most of the time it just serves to annoy your hosts, who are more than liable to think – if it was so much better there why don’t you go back? By being abroad, there are things you will come to understand and appreciate about your home country, but it’s usually wise to keep these to yourself.
  4. Find a balance in your friends. Wherever you find yourself in the world, there will likely be a thriving expat community, and for most people these communities will be a great resource for local knowledge and may even lead to some lifelong friendships. However, while convenient and worthwhile, to truly thrive in a foreign country, invest the time and effort to make sure at least half of your friends are actually from the country you find yourself in. It is more difficult, but in my experience it will definitely pay off.
  5. Don’t look back. After every international move, the temptation is to share daily updates and messages with friends and family back home. It’s never been easier - whether through snapchat, WhatsApp groups or Facebook. However, the more of your free time you spend trying to hold on to what you lost in the transition, the more difficult it will be. I am not telling you to ignore them, just to be disciplined in your communications. They can be a great shoulder to cry on and reference point to share your good times, but they are also a constant reminder of what you’ve had to give up in order to move. The more you are ‘present,’ in mind and spirit, in your new country, the easier it will be. Trust me, true friends will still be true friends, even after not speaking for a year, and family, well, will hopefully always be there.
  6. Be patient. Great things do come to those that wait. The truth is, usually it will take more than a year to truly assimilate and appreciate your new culture. Adhere to the previous 5 points and this may come a little quicker and the transition a little easier, but remember everyone has bad days. Don’t be too hard on yourself, take a day off, relax, enjoy, and try to remind yourself why you choose a foreign adventure in the first place. I guarantee that with time it will enrich your life!
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