10 May 2012

Expat Survival Kit II: The Toolbox

In my last post I gave a lot of general principles about moving to a new place, especially abroad, and how important it is to build a life when you get there rather than just sticking it out until you move on--but I gave very little information about how to do that. So, for my Inner New Expat, who read that post and wept, "but how? How do I make friends, and find the grocery store that carries Grape Nuts at less-than-extortionate prices, and figure out how to spend the hours I used to be at work?", I present:

The Expat Toolbox

The following are the actual items you will find in your Expat Survival Kit. Some of them are actual, and you can find/buy them. Some of them are metaphorical, and that's the hard part--you'll have to figure out how to create those for yourself.

(Note: most of these are geared toward the person who's not moving for his/her own job. If you move with a job in your own place, several of these issues--how to meet people; where to get advice; how to spend your days--will take care of themselves. I assume. I've only ever been in the position of moving sans day job.)

Before You Go:

I.  Guidebooks
You might as well start with the fun stuff. Pretend you're going on vacation, only this time you don't have to worry about "Three Day Itineraries" or "Top Ten Must Do"s because you'll be able to go see/do whatever cool stuff, whenever you want. Bask in this idea for a while.

II. Novels/Memoirs
While you're picking up your guidebooks, spend some time in the bookstore or library collecting books set in your destination. Maybe it's just me, but I find reading narrative gets me into the spirit of a place better than even the best guidebook.

Of course, it helps that both places I've prepared to move to have been literary powerhouses. (Though the downside of Dublin is that, historically, her writers have written mostly about how miserable it is there and how much they or their characters want to leave. Thank heaven for Roddy Doyle--and if anyone knows any books that present Dublin as a grand place to live, please pass 'em on.)

IIa. Movies
See II. Same principle, but even better, because you get to see the place!

Once You've Arrived:

III. Comfort Food from Home
Food is important. Eating doesn't just fuel the body; it gives the soul a sense of security. You'll have a lot of fun trying out local foods in your new home, but when you're at the end of your rope--and you will get there--you'll want that familiar-from-childhood comfort food you used to take for granted at home.

This one's tough, because you probably won't know what you'll miss most until you get there, can't find it, and miss it. This is where the next item comes in handy:

IV. A Visit from Your Friend from Home
This has to be scheduled very carefully--far enough from the date of your move that you can accommodate a guest, but close enough that the two of you will have the fun of exploring together. Not only is it incredibly reassuring to move knowing that in just a few weeks you will see a familiar face, but having a friend coming also means you have someone to bring you whatever you've realized you can't live without, and can't get in your new place.

V. Comfort Food from Your New Home
Your grocery store can be your friend as well as your biggest source of frustration. Take a break from trying to find the foods you're used to, and find the foods you're really going to miss when you move away from this new place. For me, it's sharp cheddar and tomato chutney on whole wheat; and ready-meal curries; and Turkish delight; and bite-sized chocolate rolls.

I once overheard a bunch of American college students getting very depressed in Sainsbury's because they couldn't find Hershey Kisses. I took pity and told them where to get them (the gourmet store near their dorm, of all places), but I still wish I'd told them the much, much more important secret: forget Hershey's anything and grab a selection of 1/2kg Cadbury bars. What's the point of your year abroad if you don't go back telling people, "oh, I got spoiled by real chocolate in Europe--American chocolate just tastes so bland in comparison"? (Even though calling Cadbury "real chocolate" is stretching the truth--it's still better than anything you can get at a grocery store in the States.)

VI. Club Memberships: if you're on a really good expat package, your/your spouse's company might even pay for these!

VIa. The Gym
Because exercise is good for you, and you suddenly have time for it. Also because endorphins can be your new best friends, until you meet some human best friends. And, not least, because finding your new favorite foods and building your new social life is going to involve consuming a lot more calories than you're used to.

VIb. The Expat Club
The Expat Wife is such an institution that, in certain cities, a whole infrastructure has sprung up to support her. You can start googling before you leave: "American Women's Club" [city]; "International Women's Club" [city]; "expat support" [city]. This is what your first friends in your new home are doing.
Back-to-school kits assembled by volunteers--including me!
--for students at a local primary school
This was probably my least-favorite part of moving to London. I felt like I kept having the same conversation over and over, and it just got less and less interesting. But! Going to club meetings was an excuse to wear nice clothes every couple of weeks (otherwise I could've just lived in whatever I wore to the gym in the morning); club meetings and activities gave those early, endless days some structure; other members of those groups had some great advice on living in London (it's thanks to the Kensington and Chelsea Women's Club that I could tell the college students where to get Hershey Kisses); and--oh yeah--I met some of my closest friends. So while I'm not looking forward to renewing the round of "so, have you figured out how to work your washing machine?" chat in Dublin, I know this is an important step in figuring out how to feel at home in a place, including building real relationships with wonderful people.

VIc. The Interest/Hobby/Service Group/Class
While going to museums and having long lunches with your new friends can be fun for a while, every one of my American-in-London friends eventually discovered that we needed to find a way to invest our time, instead of just spending it. Especially if you move for someone else's job, without one of your own, you will probably discover that one of the aspects of your old life that you most need to replicate in your new one, is a sense of purpose.

In some ways, this can be the hardest part of integrating into your new community. Expat clubs are, by definition, very welcoming to newcomers; it can take longer to prove yourself in an established group of locals. I sang with my choir for almost two years before I started to feel like one of the gang, and during rehearsals for my second Messiah performance last winter, I found out my fellow sopranos refer to me as "the American lady" (and my Canadian friend as "the other American lady").

Being "the American lady" instead of one of a largely American group makes me feel more at home in London. This has been increasingly true as I've joined more and more non-expat-focused activities: my volunteer group is largely American, but through them I spend a few hours a week working with local kids and teachers; in SCBWI, the important thing is that I write for teens. I'll always be "the American," but it's important to keep putting myself in situations where what I'm good at--or, in the case of the yoga and cooking classes I've taken, what I'm learning--is vastly more important than where I came from.

VII. Slack
This is probably the most important tool in your Expat Survival Kit. Wherever you're moving, under whatever circumstances, you're going to need as much of this as you can muster. The various situations in which giving yourself slack will come in handy could be their own (very long) post, but here are what I think are the two most important:

You're not from here. No matter how much advance prep you do, how much you embrace local culture, you will never have grown up in this place. No matter how many similarities you can find between the place you've left and the place you've arrived, there are going to be big, important differences, and they're going to trip you up and make you feel like an idiot. All you can do is keep giving yourself permission to just be an idiot when necessary. It sucks to learn the rules by breaking them, but the important thing is that you're learning the rules. Every dumb mistake you make gets you closer to the day when things that seem so weird now, become second nature.

Your local support system is weak. You're under an enormous amount of stress and the people who usually help you through stressful times are several time zones away. Many of your usual coping mechanisms aren't available in the new place, and you haven't figured out what will replace them yet. This is going to break through in some strange and potentially embarrassing ways. Forgive yourself for the occasional breakdown--no one you know can see you sobbing in the grocery store, anyway.

As the most important weapon in your arsenal, slack comes with a pretty major caveat: if time passes and you find yourself stuck in a helpless, hopeless, negative rut, get help. Cities with expat communities have therapists who specialize in emotional issues related to relocation: call one (or two, or a few). If you're in a place without that kind of expat support, try out a few local therapists, or see if you can set up phone/Skype sessions with someone in a more cosmopolitan location. If you're truly in the middle of nowhere, talk to the organization who sent you there about ways others have dealt with the situation. Don't just resign yourself to hating your situation: the whole point of all this is building a happy life despite the challenges of living abroad, not just enduring the various ways living abroad can suck.

Of course, this advice is all based on me and my one (so far) experience with moving internationally. I'm sure I've left out some piece of advice that's been a lifesaver for someone else. So, expat friends and relatives (and friends and relatives of friends and relatives), what have I missed? What's the most important advice you'd give to someone on the brink of an inter-cultural move?

1 comment:

  1. This is all good advice even to those who are in a country they dont really want to be in and are there with no job following someone else. It is much more challenging when you dont speak, read or write the local language. I am currently living in Japan waiting to get back to somewhere else. I have been doing several of the things you talk about but it is doubly challenging struggling with a totaly foregin language.
    Try to persevere and learn something. It is all you can really do if you dont want to go crazy.
    Just a few thoughts from an old friend.

    A Perney