20 Lessons Learned From My First Year as an Expat

“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”

~ Clifton Fadiman

As I sit back waiting for fall to get into full swing, I am reminded about this time a few years ago I was preparing for my first move abroad. My first move ever. It was a crazy time! The whole time rushed past me in a blur. There were documents, luggage, and my mind was trying to process more than it could handle. You never know what quite to expect when moving abroad, just that you should probably expect everything.

The first time you do anything, you will have lessons learned afterwards that can be applied the next time you try. Lessons learned are essential to continually improving. There’s an assurance of ability and insurance of doing better the next time around. Beginners aren’t experts and to let you in on a secret... even experts aren’t experts. It’s just a matter of gaining enough knowledge and experience and transferring all of the information collected into good judgments.

Photo By Benjamin Patin

Reflection is necessary because when you’re in the middle of it, it doesn’t quite click or make sense until you look back on it. And boy! There were quite a few things that made sense afterwards. Yet even in the middle, there was hands on learning. There were many moments where I was going “why didn’t I know this or do this before.” I figured I wasn’t the only one who felt like this or could benefit from learning through other’s experience, so I have summed up 20 lessons learned from my first year as an expat.

Take the risk. You never know until you try. Being a risk-taker can seem terrifying, but it’s the only way to get outside of your comfort zone. It’s important to test your ability and put your potential to the test. Once you’re outside your comfort zone, that’s when the real journey begins.

Be brave. And be confident. There’s no time be afraid (well there is, but you can’t make time for it) because fear will leave petrified in the same spot you’ve been trying to move from for the last five years. Have a mini breakdown, then pull on your gangsta shades and kick it into gear. In this new place, you will have many decisions to make and no time to be indecisive; so, don’t let fear hold you back.

Figure out how to budget. Budgeting is an essential life skill! You don’t want to have an awesome job in an incredible place, only to not have enough money to do anything, or worse, increase your debt. Many expats go out with the intention of paying off their debts back home. This is impossible if you cannot manage money. If you learn this skill, you may just be able to pay off your debt and fun at the same time.

Learn the language basics. Knowing the language basics of the country you’ll be living in is a must, even if you don’t have great command over the language. You’ll get it along the way. Don’t be afraid to practice with locals. They’ll love to help! Language is important because it helps you connect with the culture and the people. You will find that you’ll receive more help by attempting to speak the language of the country you’re in than berating inhabitants with your native tongue.

Make friends. It’s okay to make friends as an adult. As an introvert, this was something I struggled with the entire time! But, when you’re in a foreign place by yourself, you’ll need the help of others. Go to work parties, evening dinners and travel on group trips. You’ll meet some cool people.

Photo by Denys Nevozhai

Network. Now this is different than making friends. You have friends and then you have a network. This is not to say that your friends cannot be a part of your network. As you navigate your career path, it is important to make meaningful connections with people you can learn from, who can put in a good word for you, or potentially be your next employer. So, go out to company dinners, expos, and other events.

Enjoy getting lost. Some of the best adventures come from getting lost. This I did a whole lot of while living in Shanghai. It had more to do with being directionally challenged than not understanding Mandarin. I never regretted lost one time because it gave me some of my best pictures and stories.

Get the hook up before you leave home. There are different social groups that can help you through your moving process. Look up different communities or groups in the country you will be going to on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Facebook, generally, has the largest communities with individuals who don’t mind reaching out or going the extra mile for newcomers. By being involved in the groups you’ll have friends before you even land.

Don’t bring everything with you. Be that minimalist traveler. When uprooting your life to move to a foreign country, everything won’t fit into a suitcase no matter how hard you try—and I tried really hard. However, this can really bog you down. The same things you travel over with are the same things you will return home with, plus new purchases. Coming over with a lighter bag that includes the essential makes it easier to get settled.

Save beforehand. Most jobs offer cash advances when moving to help with settling in. This is indeed nice and helpful; however, it is important to remember that this is money you will have to pay back out of your own salary, and you will be seriously budgeting those first few months with a partial salary. If possible, it is better to save up for what expenses you will need to over in your home away from home, such as three months’ rent.

Photo by Joshua Earle

Memorize the exchange rate. You do not want to have to repeatedly stop with each purchase to determine the exchange rate, if you’re using foreign currency. It is easy to overspend on an international credit card when you underestimate foreign exchange rate and tacked on fees. Also, be aware of the trade climate between your home country and visiting country, as this is pertinent for knowing the best time to exchange your savings.

Get everything in writing. I cannot stress this enough. Unless you work for yourself and/or are a digital nomad, as an expat you’ll be working for a corporation. It is vital to get everything in writing. This includes benefits offered by recruiters, salary, orientation and onboarding information, schedules, repayment details for any promised reimbursements and the list can go on. It is best to have anything you want verified in writing or these things can be denied or become tedious to obtain later on.

Journal everything. Not only is journaling therapeutic, it will help you keep track of your emotions, activities, and moments while abroad. There will be so much happening that you won’t remember unless you write it down. I started journaling a month after I arrived in Shanghai and the books keep piling up.

Learn your contract backwards and forwards. If you do not know your contract like the palm of your hand, you can find yourself performing outside of your job descriptions and duties. Be informed, so you won’t be taken advantage of or underutilized.

Set aside self-care days. You’ll need days to reboot. You’re in a new place. This means new people, new culture... basically starting from scratch, and this can be overwhelming at times. It is important to take care of yourself to not become drained or swept away by life abroad. Self-care days are also helpful when you’re missing family and friends back home.

Photo by Erica Zhou

Don’t over shop. This was hard because impulsive shopping is a bad habit of mine. Even more so, I felt so compelled to buy everything because I knew when I returned home, these items would not be available. Still, I had to remember, one, my bank account is not set up like that, and two, other people have luggage to fit on the airplane.

Have your spot. This is a spot outside of your home to force you to get out and to get comfortable in your new city. It is easy to get trapped in the sequence of home-work-home. Once trapped in this sequence, it is easy to become depressed or a hermit. Getting out will force you to see the beauty around you and enjoy the new place without feeling suffocated.

Make time to explore the country and its neighbors. See as much of the country as possible. Unless you plan to stay the rest of your life, it is important to make the trips while you can. Mark out must-see destinations of your vising country and set dates to go see them.

Pay for the international phone service. I know this sucks. Keeping your phone running in its home nation may be expensive (In the U.S. it certainly is.) However, this can be invaluable. I struggled a lot with my move and one thing I promised my parents was that they would always be able to get in touch with me. Yes, we know that there’s Skype, WeChat, you can even make calls through Messenger now, but nothing beats picking up the phone and dialing or texting. So, I ran around with my U.S. phone and my China phone in Shanghai. Once you’re comfortable, you can always cancel the service.

Always have your camera ready. In essence, it’s the same thing as journaling. Be it phone or a small camera, have something ready to capture the moment. As a photographer, I recommend the later. Lugging around a large DSLR can get tiring, but I found the moments that I did not have my camera was, of course, when I wish I had it. So, I added some mobile equipment to collection for convenient picture-taking.

Photo By Rui Xu

Moving abroad can be hard, but the more information we have the easier it can be. The achievement goes beyond getting on the plane but persevering through all the new experiences.

How was your first move abroad? What were some of the important lessons learned you took away? Perhaps you’re planning to make that big step and start a new adventure. Did you find these helpful or are you now left with more questions? Let us know in the comments below.

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