On being properly and realistically prepared for expat life
What to expect when you’re expatting, and why preparation is SO important to prevent the possibility of ‘expat failure’, ie returning home sooner than expected.
There’s obviously a lot more to this topic than I’ve covered in this episode, however, any information is better than no information in this subject!
Being properly prepared for expat life, and going into it with an open mind, managed expectations and reining in your assumptions will give you a really good basis for making your expat life a fabulous and successful one.
Looking at a few reasons people move overseas, and a few key reasons expat life may not work out for some. Knowing about these in advance helps you prepare and be aware.
I’ll share some tips for success, to help you positively prepare.
Please scroll down for the transcript
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Welcome aboard the Expatability Chat podcast, helping expat parents navigate the challenges of moving and living overseas. With Carole Hallett Mobbs, Expat Life Mentor and Consultant and founder of ExpatChild.com
Hello, welcome back to Expatability Chat. I'm Carole, and today in Episode 10, I want to talk to you about what to expect when you're expatting and why preparation is so important.
Preparation is important so that you go into this with your eyes open and can be fully prepared for any obstacles that you may come across. The reason I want you to be so prepared is because if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail. And I'm going to talk about something called expat failure in this episode.
You want to live your life overseas and you want to have a fabulous time. You want your family to have their best life. And so this means going into expat life with a certain mindset and knowledge. Getting clear on some topics I'll be covering in this episode will help you with this and it will give you the best possible chance of expat success. I'll run through some of the main reasons people move abroad - in basic terms. And I will also take a detour through some of the experiences that may cause your expat life to go sour.
Knowing about some of these in advance will help you prepare and to be aware. And then, of course, I'll share some tips for success, because that's what I'm here for. And this will help you positively prepare.
A particular part of this topic has arisen a lot over the past couple of weeks. The bit about assumptions and expectations. Assumptions about other people, about life, about expat life are the main areas where failure happens. It could be your failure. It could be their failure. Whatever. Assumptions hurt people, most likely yourself, but also other people too.
Being properly prepared for expat life and going into it with an open mind, managed expectations and reining in your assumptions, will give you a really good basis for making your expat life a fabulous and successful one.
In order to fully understand what to expect when you're expatting, let's take a look at some of the reasons most people move overseas, as this has a basis on what to expect and whether you're likely to cope well with it all.
These reasons broadly fall into two categories; and they're known as the 'push pull' reasons. A push away from one country, due to a stagnant or uninspiring job market. It could be due to danger. It could be due to the lifestyle; economics, for example, the high cost of living there. Or it could be a pull towards another country, a pull towards an assumed easier life. That easier life may mean a low cost of living, a safer environment, a better place to bring up your children.
Sometimes people look to escape their current life and start over somewhere else. Which is fine, but only depending on what you think you're escaping from. You need to be clear on whether your new destination will provide a truly better life for you and your family, or if you'll be taking your troubles with you. Moving overseas is not a magic cure-all wand. You will still be the same person. Your life will still be your life, just in a different location. You may think the grass is greener on the other side of the sea, but it's still grass, it's just different grass.
Another reason I hear for moving overseas a lot, particularly from Brits, is for better weather. OK, fair enough. The British weather is legendary the world over, mostly inaccurately, though, as being constantly raining 24/7, 365 days of the year. It's a bit of a flimsy reason, to be frank. It rains in other places, too!
And if you're going for somewhere warmer, have you ever experienced constant, searing daily temperatures of over 35 degrees centigrade, and usually hotter, every single day while you go about your daily life? Not on a beach holiday for a couple of weeks where you don't have to work, do the school run or shopping.
After the Push-Pull reasons, we can narrow it down a bit further. And we have personal or business reasons for moving overseas. Personal reasons, maybe things such as we discussed before, the chance of a better life, curiosity, adventure. And the key point here is choice. When you move abroad of your own volition, you're making a fairly well informed life choice. Whether you're emigrating for good or travelling around the world and settling somewhere for a few months or so, you usually have a chosen country, which you know something about, or perhaps our family and friends there. You're following your dream.
You may be following a cultural dream. Many Brits dream of moving to Australia, whether they've actually lived there or not. And you can choose when to move and where to move. You may choose to move with two suitcases or a full shipping container. The key point, as I say, is that you have choice in most things.
If you move abroad for business reasons, you may be transferred on a permanent or temporary basis due to one family member's job. Some organisations do manage dual transfers, but these are quite tricky to work out, especially if you're working for different companies. It's easier if you're both working for the same company. But still, don't assume that you will be able to get a job.
You may take a permanent job abroad and emigrate, or you may go on a temporary transfer as an expat. For example, we go on what are called postings and they're usually for around three or four years.
Choice is often missing from this move. Yes, you may apply for a job overseas and choose where you go, but if you're transferred, you may not get a choice in where you relocate.
In our situation, our choice is limited to the jobs that are available at that time for my husband's specific role. So we may have a shortlist of three countries that we can move to and that is about it. We don't get a choice of home. We rarely get a choice of schools, although that's getting better.
But we actually don't find out where we're going to live until we arrive at the door of the house. With choice, you do have some control. You may have existing knowledge of a country, for example, and what the potential lifestyle there will look like.
Much more thought and consideration usually goes into permanent relocations. After all, you're moving your entire life somewhere new. You need to make sure it's right because you are going there permanently. You are emigrating.
With an expat assignment of only a few years there's less pressure in some ways and much more in others, by the way.
Oh, and there's another reason for moving and living overseas, too. And I like to call that 'accidental'. How can you accidentally move and live overseas? I hear you ask. Well, you may fall in love with somebody from another country. You move countries to be with them, become fluent in the new language so that you can actually talk with them and you integrate into the community fully.
Oh, I do like a good love story. Or perhaps you fell in love with a certain country while you were travelling around and never left. Japan is full of people that fit into this category.
So that was the reasons that people move overseas and there are many, many, many more. But those cover the main ones that I'm talking about today. So now I want to talk a little about something called expat failure and why understanding what to expect, properly preparing and getting rid of assumptions and expectations is so important.
It's to ensure that you make the right decision for you and your family and to prevent what's rather negatively called expat failure. The definition of expat failure is early repatriation. Basically, you move back to your home country sooner than expected.
I hate the phrase expat failure, but it's something that's used in the corporate world and I'm taking it for today. It could be a plan C, for example. So how many international assignments fail? And obviously I'm talking about the business side of things here for a moment.
One study estimates the failure rate of overseas business engagements as an average of 50 percent. Does the location of your move have a bearing on these failure figures? Well, apparently, yes. The same study quotes the failure rate in developed countries of between 25 and 40 percent. But in developing countries, this failure rate rockets to as high as 70 percent.
What about the reason for relocation? Does that have an effect? Well, yes, I believe it does. If you've had all the choice, then you're more than likely to have researched thoroughly and known what to expect. If you just sort of move because you want your career to get better - so you just take any relocation that's offered to you - it may just not be the right place for you. From a business point of view it may be that the company employed the wrong candidate. The person moving for their job may be absolutely excellent for the role... In their home country, but truly awful in the role in a different country and a different culture. Their work attitude may, frankly, suck. Their intercultural intelligence may be awful.
It's called 'cultural inflexibility' and can have dreadful consequences. It's about cultural expectations and how we deal with them. What it means basically is expecting everyone to share our beliefs, our reasoning, our attitudes. It may be the done thing to shout and swear in one office environment in one country, but completely and totally cringeworthy in a different culture.
And it's not just applicable to the working partner either. I remember hearing some expats in South Africa ranting to a shop assistant about how they just cannot get turkey and cranberries for Thanksgiving. They were really cross at the poor shop assistant and simply couldn't understand why Thanksgiving would even be a thing in South Africa.
So you get the idea. Cultural inflexibility. Another form of expat failure, if you like, is business incompetence. And this is basically down to the business. It could include things like cost cutting. Ones I've also seen when the company reneges on its promises. You're promised the earth to get you to accept the move, but then it doesn't appear. This is fairly rare, although I did actually get asked to move to Belgium for a contract with Orange back in the 90s with wonderful salary and accommodation. But on the train, on the way back, my agent received a message to say all of that was removed and was I still interested in taking the job for less than I was already earning in London? So the answer to that was obviously no, but at least I found out before I moved.
So what are the repercussions of expat failure? Well, for the business, huge monetary losses, huge cost to the business. You'd think these companies would invest more in their staff and families? Because we make it a lot easier for the worker to cope with their new role in life. The personal repercussions can be much higher. There'll be a much higher personal cost and will affect everybody involved.
For example, you could have sold your house in your home country and have nowhere to move back to. You have to sort out the kid's schooling again. You'll be stressed. There'll be depression, upheaval. And even if you don't return home early, your stay in that country for the rest of your tour won't necessarily be a happy one, however hard you try. It may cause disharmony, depression and even breakdown - of mental health and relationships. So it really is vital to be prepared and plan and understand what expat life can be like.
The number one cited cause - in businesses, I should add, of expat failure is the family's failure to adjust or adapt. Or more pointedly, the accompanying partner being unable to fit in or settle. Yep, we get the blame again. This obviously only applies to families where one partner works and is generally relevant where the move has been for business reasons.
Apparently, and according to research, and I have also seen this for myself, business assignments fail more often as the trailing partner has to give up their career and this can build resentment and boredom.
We did give up our career for our working partner. We may go in assuming that we can pick up our career overseas, and we go with the assumption that this will be the case and it quite often isn't.
Why is it so hard for the accompanying partner? While the working partner leaps straight into their new, but old working life, if that makes sense? They know what they're doing. They know the job. The procedures are probably fairly familiar. They've got people to talk to. They've got a routine. They've got focus.
The non-working partner is left to deal with those day to day things that we barely consider at home: registering with the doctor, finding the school, finding food, which isn't always as easy as you might think. All of this, often with a language we aren't familiar with and absolutely no friends, family or support system in the early days.
Here's an example of one of my arrivals. When we first arrived in South Africa first thing in the morning, I've mentioned the two hour lecture in the house before that... After everybody had left and my husband had gone off to work, my daughter and I were left alone in a temporary flat on a secured compound in the middle of nowhere.
We had no car. We had no food. We didn't even have milk for a cup of tea. I literally had to walk around the housing estate, knocking on people's doors to see if I could find somebody home who I could persuade to take me to the shop and get some supplies.
Of course, once I got a car, I could be independent again. Yeah, lack of preparation, definitely, but not much I could really have done about it at that point. But we had expected some kind of support. It just wasn't forthcoming. Hah! Expectations and assumptions, my bad. Here I am telling you not to make them and I'm just showing you how I made them.
Other points to be aware of other things that may cause your expat life to be a bit of a drag. So we mentioned about the family not being able to settle being one of the reasons that expat assignments fail. Top of this list would be problems with the child's education.
Education is the toughest decision we have to make, and you may not have many choices at all. I will be running a whole series on expat education at some point, but for now it's important to note that not every child fits into the mould of a specific school. While everyone else's kids go to X school, your child may be better to go to Y school. Just don't be afraid to change schools for the sake of your child. You will damage them more by leaving them in a school that does not work for them.
Some countries do seem to be more welcoming to expat kids than others, it sort of depends on how that country or that city is set up. And if they're used to having a lot of expats. There's not really a whole lot you can do about that, I'm afraid.
Another problem could be no support system. In our expat life, we do have a kind of a support system in some places in the form of a community liaison officer. But this doesn't always work out as they have lives too.
Most people meet their new friends at work or if you're not working at the school gates. But that only works if your child is young and you need to take them to school.
You have to work very hard and proactively to build your friendship, circle and support system. Some people find this really easy. Others don't find it easy at all. And as I mentioned before, if you've had to give up your career, finding work in another country when you're not moving there for the job, is actually quite difficult. And this seems to be the issue I see most. So many people make the assumption - again - that they can just pick up the same career that they had at home. But this really isn't the case for many, many countries.
We're back to expectations versus reality. Things that may stop you getting a job in a new country or carrying on your career in your new country are, local laws, visa issues, education issues, education levels. For example, you must have a degree to even work in a bar in some places,
There'll be different requirements for different careers. A highly qualified psychologist in the UK can't necessarily work in the US and so on. You may think that things like nursing and doctors are fully transportable jobs, but they really aren't.
So please research properly if your career is important for your well-being and please don't assume you can just pick it up where you left off.
State of mind is another major factor. If you are unsure about moving to a certain country, speak out before agreeing to the move.
You may be pleasantly surprised and this is more than likely. But if you're going with an unwilling or negative outlook, it's unlikely to have a happy outcome. Never move abroad, hoping it will fix any issues you have in your life or your relationship. It will not happen. In fact, it will probably make it a hell of a lot worse as the pressure on you is immense. Your life issues will follow you. And if you don't have a stable relationship, it is unlikely to get any better and it's more likely to get worse and end.
If you're moving abroad for a better life, you may get it, but you'll still have mundane day to day things to cope with. Apart from all the above, family stress back at home can make it really difficult to settle into your expat life. They can put undue pressure on you, whether intentionally, by not supporting your decision to leave them and plying on the expat guilt, which is a big problem and I'm going to cover that in another episode because it is so big.
Or they may unintentionally cause difficulties by - obviously they're not intentionally falling ill - but they may fall ill and need support from you. Still with family, some people are more family oriented than others. So if you are, you may find homesickness and guilt really, really hard to cope with. Weigh up the pros and cons before you commit to the move.
Of course, nobody can see into the future and how we're all going to cope with every aspect of expat living, but it's best to try and consider everything beforehand.
So what can you do to prevent expat failure? Well, the first one is to prepare, consider everything and not just the big conceptual stuff, like having a marvellous life in a fascinating culture with full cultural adaptation integration within a couple of months. That's totally unrealistic, by the way. Look at the day to day stuff. What about food allergies? Do you have a specific diet? What about special educational needs provision, health care. Research and then research some more and talk to me. Learn to read between the lines.
So I said research. You research, expat life by reading blogs by people in a similar situation to you. A single 25 year old moving to Berlin will have a totally different life outlook from a married 40 year old with four children relocating to the same city. So learn to read between the lines too. People only generally blog about the good stuff. It's pretty rare to find honesty about expat life online.
Analyse your expectations and assumptions. Are you expecting Christmas to be the same at home, for example? Why? You may be moving to a country that doesn't celebrate Christmas.
If work is important to you, make sure you properly look into the possibility of finding work in your destination country. Research your visa options. See if your qualifications actually can be transferred or if you need to resit some exams. You may have to get some proper licensing. Don't assume you'll waltz into a new job a week or two after arrival unless you have already found one before you move.
Don't assume every day will be a joy because you're living somewhere wonderful. It certainly takes the edge off, but there are still day to day chores to be done. Like all families, there will be many of 'those days', usually shortly after you've arrived, when you're all struck down with a stomach bug and can't muster the energy to remember the words for the meds that you need from the pharmacy. Trying to ask for diarrhoea meds in a foreign language is harder than you may think. And this is one thing you really don't want to mime in front of a shop full of people, I promise you... No! I haven't done that at all. What do you mean? And of course, you'll all get ill on the day when the shops close at noon.
And in some countries you will never, ever have full cultural adaptation, however hard you try. You may well learn to speak the language like a native, you will always be an outsider.
So manage your expectations. Don't expect everything to be as a holiday. Obviously you know that, I know you're not daft. Even if you've lived overseas before, don't expect this relocation to be as smooth as your others. You may have lived quite happily with your two and four year olds in one country and fully expect to have a similar experience in your new country with your kids who are now 12 and 14 years old. Not going to happen!
There is an expectation by yourself and by others that if you're used to living abroad, and especially if you're moving regularly, that you'll have no problem with this one. That isn't necessarily true.
I had more difficulty adapting to life in Berlin than I did to life in Tokyo. Totally different cities. One suited me better than the other.
Independence and self-sufficiency of incredibly important skills to have. People who, by their own nature are not self-sufficient or independent, will have much more difficulty adapting to expat life.
Now have a plan B. It's not a failure if expat life doesn't work for you. Therefore, it's not an expectation of failure if you have a Plan B in place.
Expat life isn't for everyone and life has a nasty habit of throwing curveballs at you when you least expect it. And hasn't 2020 shown this?
At the very least, have some kind of plan in place for if you have to return home suddenly. Not because you're unable to adapt, this is more logical than that. But if, for example, an outside influence hits. Of course, this year we have a flipping, global pandemic chucked into the mix. But these outside influences could also be a revolution, terrorism, a natural disaster or redundancy, for example.
I was in Tokyo when the enormous earthquake hit in March 2011. Due to the foibles of my husband's organisation, we were unable to leave the country even if we wanted to, which we didn't. But many people did. And they had to leave everything behind very suddenly, including pets, and live in hotels in another country for a few weeks, which turned out to generally be forever.
The Lehman Brothers collapse had a similar effect a couple of years previously when people were laid off work overnight. When you're overseas, this often means an instant visa revocation, and that leads to a sudden emergency departure in very stressful times.
So know where your passports are. Have an emergency fund, keep your contact details updated and backed up. Maybe you even want a grab bag with a change of clothes for everybody. If you have pets, keep their vaccinations up to date in case you need to leave unexpectedly. Keep a bank account open in your home country if at all possible. It's notoriously difficult to set a new one up these days.
So let me give you some tips for a successful expat life now. What to know and what to expect when you're expecting.
Do expect some tough times. Life can be pretty tough at times, wherever you are. Expat life tends to highlight the tough times. Rider them out. If you're finding it really tough, reach out to me and I'll see if I can point you in the right direction.
Don't expect to love a place just because others do. Everyone is different. Everyone loves different things. Loads of people kept telling me how fabulous Berlin was and how much I would enjoy it. They were telling me how wonderful life in Germany would be for me. They didn't really know me that well. They kept talking about the wonderful beer, the sausages, how fun the nightlife was... I haven't been clubbing for decades and I'm not that keen on beer and sausages either.
It was the same with South Africa. "Oh the wine! Oh, you'll have so many wonderful wine tasting trips." Yeah, I don't drink.
Thankfully for me, the wildlife and the scenery more than made up for the missing out on wine tasting trips that I didn't want to go on. Do expect to love a place that others do not. Almost everyone had a hissy fit about us moving to South Africa due to the publicised violence. I loved it there. Yes, it is troubled, but there is so much more to the country than that. And the people were the friendliest people I have ever met on this planet. And I have met a lot of people.
What I think of a country doesn't matter. Neither should what other people think of a country matter to you. Make your own mind up. Do be open to this new life experience. An open mind is the best tool an expat can have. Don't judge, just be. And back to the school thing: don't be afraid to change schools if necessary. If your children aren't happy, you'll also be consumed with worry. If you do have an option of changing schools - and I realise that this doesn't apply to everyone - then please do so.
You do need to be proactive. If you're somebody that just sits back to let things happen to you, expat life is not going to work out well for you. You need to make your own life. Don't expect life to come to you. Get out there and make it happen. Join clubs, discover new hobbies, actively seek out other people to talk to. And don't be afraid to ask for help. If you are struggling, please do reach out wherever you can.
Please contact me if you are suffering, if you're having a hard time, I can help you. I'm here. I can talk to you.
So to summarise, accidental relocations seem to have the most chance of success, but all relocations can be successful if you do these things.
Prepare, it's all about preparing yourself well and knowing what to expect. I've only covered a tiny portion of it here.
Do your research and manage your expectations and do not make assumptions and realise that it is OK to call time if it's really not working out for you. It is not a failure. Failure is not acting in your best interests and that of your family.
As ever, there'll be links in the show notes, though, that you can contact me if necessary. And I look forward to chatting with you and I'll see you again next week. Take care.
Thank you for listening to the Expatability podcast, please check out ExpatChild.com for more free information and resources and follow me on your favourite social media. Don't forget to join me next week for another episode. Until then, bye bye.