Moving overseas is a momentous operation. But it does not need to be a miserable one! There are many things that you can do to make your big move easier and happier. Before I made my first big overseas move, I worked for a company that operated internationally. As part of my job, I briefed and trained interns who were heading overseas for a few months or years. I learned a lot in the process and soaked up insight from my husband, who has made five major international moves in his life. And when I finally had my chance to go, I learned for myself what it’s like to transition cultures and countries.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way. Everyone has different experiences, and I’d love to hear your stories and insights in the comments, too.
- Expectations. This is the single most important thing to consider when you’re moving overseas, especially if you’ve never visited that place before. The truth is, your expectations define your experiences. They are the biggest culprit in relationship breakdown and disappointment in general. Before you go, write down your expectations so that you know what they are. Read them over and remind yourself that you have a 99% chance of every one of those things being different than you think! For example, I was totally convinced that I would get fresh mangoes off the tree every day in Sint Maarten. Not so– everything is imported. Try to prepare yourself for this sort of thing. Have as few expectations as possible. Be open to new and surprising things, and make it fun.
- The big fights. One side effect of leaving is that you will find yourself experiencing tension with the ones you love most. Don’t worry; you’re not losing your mind. This is normal– and knowing that makes big blow-ups avoidable. The inclination to fight is your subconscious’ way to make leaving people easier. Obviously, it has the opposite effect. Remember that the people you are leaving are experiencing loss, too, as they say goodbye. Have grace for others, and ask them to have grace for you.
- Saying goodbye. Saying goodbye is hard, but closure is important. Let people know you’re going. Meet with friends and make plans to keep in contact.
- What you need to pack. What you need to bring? Probably nothing more than yourself and your passport. Of course, your clothes and books are nice to bring, too. As you prepare to go, redefine “need” and “want” in your mind so you can judge what will be helpful to you and what will be cumbersome. Be sure to bring a few things that will remind you of home– maybe some photographs. Don’t spend a ridiculous amount of money toting the entire contents of your home across the ocean when you can replace it for cheaper when you get there.
- Your first day. The last thing you should do when you land is go to your new home and surround yourself with American (or Canadian, or whatever) things and people. Even if you’ve been on a plane for fourteen hours, try to spend your first couple hours on the ground immersing yourself in the culture. Go shopping. Take a walk downtown. Ride the bus. And remember that the faster you force yourself to adapt to a new time zone, the faster the jet-lag will wear off.
- Staying sane. Culture stress is a real thing. Some people feel it quickly, others don’t. Generally, most people experience the “honeymoon stage” for about three months and then go downhill from there. Rock bottom is at two years, and then things start to look up. However, charts and graphs can’t define your experience. This journey is what you make it, and somehow you’ll have to survive the bad days and the homesickness. Go exploring, try out restaurants, shop where the locals shop. Journal regularly, and start a blog so your friends back home can follow your adventures. Skype friends and family regularly. Write lists of what you love about this place. Write lists of what you hate and turn them into positives.
- Take care of yourself. Unfortunately, people take advantage of foreigners. We see this in our home countries, and it’s just as true anywhere else. Being taken advantage of can range from being quoted the “white price” on buses to date rape and muggings. Learn what the safe and dangerous places are, get to know local prices, and don’t take unnecessary risks.
- Feel what you feel. Not what you think you’re supposed to feel, not what your boyfriend thinks you should feel, not what a “strong” person would feel. Adjustment is hard. And that’s OK.
- Have Fun! With all of these points on how to survive an international move, it might sound like I think moving overseas is a drag. But transitioning to a new place can be a lot of fun! Enjoy yourself. Take a thousand and two photos. Try things you’ve never done before.
- Community. Without community, you will have a tough time feeling at home. Build community with other expats in your area. Make friends with locals, too. Both are essential for being truly integrated in your new home. Find a church, find a club, invite people over.
- Get involved. Becoming part of the community and culture around you will bring you joy and save you from many days of loneliness and wishes of a return ticket home. Some of my friends and I volunteer a few days a week to tutor kids with a local program. This really was the best thing we’ve done on this island– we were all feeling a little lost and isolated until we started focusing on something other than our own lonely selves. A sense of purpose brightens life anywhere you are.
- Understand the culture. The best gift you can give to yourself is the ability to understand the place you are living in. Learn the basics– how to properly greet people, what is decent apparel, and how to get around. New cultures can be frustrating at first, but remember that just because things are different it doesn’t mean that they are wrong. In the end, you’ll have fun as you achieve little cultural victories and begin to be able to understand and use the new language or dialect around you.
- Be a good expat. Represent your country and culture well. I wrote a blog post on this that’s worth reading.
Looking for more? Here are a few other posts from my blog that you might find helpful! You can also check out my list of favorite expat blogs.
- Worst Shopping Trip Ever
- Saying Goodbye
- Love Where You Live
- Missing Friends Back Home
- Reasons I Like Living Overseas
- Dear American Tourists
- St. Martin Travel Guide for more specifics on travel and moving to Sint Maarten/ St. Martin