So You Want to Live Abroad?

Nothing sounds more exotic and glamorous than packing it all in and moving to another country. For the British, history has demonstrated that expatriation is practically hard-wired into the cultural genetic code. In the last four hundred years at least, countless numbers of Brits have moved abroad to live and work as soldiers, sailors, and colonials of all persuasions. In the 21st century, more Brits are moving to foreign countries than at any time since WW II.

Clearly, it’s an idea which is eminently doable. If you’re daydreaming about the idea, or even taken the first steps towards a goal of living abroad, you’re in good company. But is it a reasonable dream? And, do you have what it takes to make it happen and successfully too?

People considering living abroad need to ask themselves a few key questions at the outset, according to Adam Hems, who runs an Internet chat group for British expats living all over the world (see http://groups.yahoo.com/group/British-Ex-Pats/).

“Do I really know what I’m getting myself into? Have I been there before, stayed a week or two, met some people I will be living with or close to?”

Hems believes these are some of the questions expats-to-be must ask themselves before moving. From the tales posted on his chat group, he reports that most people’s expectations about the experience didn’t come anywhere close to matching the reality, mostly because they were unprepared.

“So many people were clueless as to what they were getting themselves into” says Hems, a 34-year-old Technical Director for a high tech company based in Dallas, Texas.

“Most are really glad to be where they are now and each thinks they have chosen the best part of the world to live in by far. However, they certainly weren’t prepared to feel the culture shock,” he says.

From short term employment at one end of the spectrum, to a long term decision to emigrate or retire at the other, the decision to live abroad can be prompted by a wide variety of reasons. Lifestyle and financial rewards motivate some; political dissatisfaction at home propels others off the British shores. Still others want to expose their children to the greater world. It may be as simple as searching for better weather.

And then there are the runners: living abroad to follow (or escape as the case may be) a lover, a marriage partner, or suffocating family.

“Going abroad for some is like ‘ditching’ school,” writes Roger Gallo, the living abroad guru and author who owns and operates EscapeArtist.com, a treasure trove of advice, articles and information for people living, working and retiring abroad. “It’s like sneaking out the window of an intolerably boring classroom and swimming away to a distant island.”

Running away may seem like a good idea at the time, but it’s amazing how your troubles or dissatisfaction travel with you. Upset, for instance, with the politics of Tony Blair’s Britain? Consider this comment posted by a British expat living in the US (who incidentally, ran away from a messy divorce.)

“Trust me, we have Bush here in the US who is far more frightening,” she writes, requesting anonymity. “Brits back home may think they have it bad, but honestly, it’s nothing compared to other places.”

Another member of the chat group, also requesting her name not be used, agrees that Brits often don’t know how lucky there. She can’t wait to get back to the England after being abroad since 1997.

“I would also urge anyone considering a move [to am English-speaking country like the US] to really think about it very carefully. Many people think that because the language is similar, then everything else is too. Well, it isn’t. Culturally, we are miles apart.”

To those not willing to jump without a parachute, there’s tons of advice from scores of people who have gone before and done so successfully.

“Living abroad can be one of the most personally enlightening and enriching experiences that life has to offer,”writes Celeste Heiter on the web site of the popular resource TransitionsAbroad.com.

“But to thrive in a new and unfamiliar culture, and to get the benefit from the time you spend there, you must have a broad sense of perspective and an unconditional willingness to let go of your expectations and immerse yourself in the experience,” she believes.

Everyone in the know on this subject agrees that a reality check before packing it all in should be done. Consider including the following areas in that checklist:

How independent are you?

There won’t be family nearby to help you through the dark days of setting up a household or finding your way around. You may also be alone on your birthday. Can you handle that?

How are you set financially?

It takes money to move and set up a household, even a modest one, in another country. Expats who have moved around the globe a few times also report an interesting phenomenon called ‘flying money’. Cash sifts through your fingers like the sand on that new beach you adore.

How’s your health?

You may complain about health care in the UK, but wait until you see the inside of some local hospitals. It will make you appreciate what you left behind. Be sure to be in good health before embarking on this adventure.

Do you love to travel?

If you don’t, the experience of living abroad may only be experienced by half. Once you have made the move somewhere, there’s usually a plethora of travel opportunities nearby (even the new country you’ve chosen). If you’re a stay-at-home type, perhaps you should, well, stay at home.

How adaptable are you to new situations?

It takes time to set up a new life in a new country and things don’t always work as you expect. Can you go with the flow? If not, don’t go.

Do you have a strong sense of adventure?

Not everyone is brave, but usually a sense of adventure can trump fears. But the desire to check out new things and go where you have not gone before, must be part of your own personal inventory of skills.

How resourceful are you?

If Plan A doesn’t work, are you willing to move effortlessly to a Plan B? If you want to live abroad successfully, resourcefulness will help you modify plans to fit the occasion. Flexibility is another trait you will need to call upon.

Do you like people?

Congeniality is an absolute must in a foreign setting. No one is going to beat a path to your new door. The ability to make friends and put yourself out there with new people will be a valuable asset.

And one final piece of advice: never embark on a move abroad without packing your sense of humour. If you leave that behind in the UK, you’ll be in big trouble the first time something happens which you are not able to laugh about and carry on with your life.

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