Two years ago, I packed up my life in Baltimore and moved to the Middle East. My now-husband’s job relocated him to Abu Dhabi and we joined the millions of Americans who live as expatriates around the globe. Summarizing our time abroad feels like trying to fit an ocean in a bottle, but here are some considerations we’ve learned regarding international relocation:
1. The beginning is uncomfortable.
There is a definitive adjustment phase, around 3 – 6 months, during which you’ll probably feel totally inept at everything. Basic chores like buying groceries or doing laundry are complicated challenges in a foreign country. You might feel lost most of the time, and will likely forget little things like your keys or phone because your brain is working overtime trying to make sense of what is no longer routine or familiar. Unlike a vacation, you’re trying to settle in and get things done while disrupted routines are exacerbated by changed expectations in culture and norms. To help mitigate this:
2. Learn the culture and language of your host country.
If possible, learn them before you board the plane. Follow expat blogs, join community Facebook groups (in our experience, these are the best expat resources), and read local news articles. Being informed about local customs and norms will help you feel more comfortable navigating your new home and also prevent inadvertent offenses that, in some cases, may be illegal.
3. There’s a period of time where things suddenly feel…normal.
There’s a phase in living abroad where all of these unique and exotic experiences become routine. This is the sweet spot between feeling like you’re on an extended vacation and packing up to move again, during which you’ll feel more comfortable and even settle in a bit. Some expats live abroad for decades but if you’re only there for a few years, don’t take your situation for granted. Make an expat bucket list, invite visitors and play tour guide, and cultivate adventure as much as you can. Because:
4. It might be the best thing you’ve ever done.
Living abroad is rightfully romanticized as an inimitable experience that will expose you to worlds you’d never have known otherwise. You’ll meet people from diverse backgrounds, travel to places you didn’t know existed, and consider new viewpoints. Professionally, international experience can help your resume stand out. Moving to a new country also offers you a glimpse into your own personality quirks – the constant in this experiment is you, and what things rise to the surface and what falls away under extreme changes are valuable lessons in personal growth.
5. But your heart will break.
After just two years, we are moving back home this spring and nothing prepared me for how it would feel on this end. Despite initial frustrations and loneliness, we found a group of friends and a routine that began to feel comfortable just in time to say goodbye. These relationships are the most difficult to leave but we now always have friends that feel like family in far-flung places. Living abroad was an intense set of experiences packed into a brief amount of time, and we’re grateful for all of it. For the rest of our lives we can always say that at one point we lived abroad, and there’s always a chance we may end up overseas again.