The Expat Lifestyle: Expectations Vs. Reality

9 January 2014



The expat lifestyle is a real challenge. In the beginning while you’re still planning the whole experience everything looks so great, you are getting ready for an adventure and starting a new life in an exotic new location, but when you get there, things are never quite what you expected. While there are many perks in the expat lifestyle, getting the usual blues about your big move is a common situation to find yourself in. So, here are some of the most common expectations in the expat lifestyle and some practical tips on how adjust your expectations.


Shipping Goods


If you’re moving to a foreign place, then issues arising from shipping must be considered. We have all heard of horror stories of packages and cartons of personal items never being delivered, or being stuck at customs for years. So a good tip is to rely on a tried and tested shipping company with good references. Check with the Federal Maritime Commission if you’re shipper is registered. If relocating, make sure all your keys are in a safe place, and make sure all cartons are properly labelled in all four sides details of where it came from, and where it is headed. Avoid packing prohibited items.


Be aware of the laws in the bureau of customs in the country where you are currently residing and make sure that your packages don’t ring any bells for the government. This way, you have better chances in avoiding trouble or receiving your package torn open.


Traditional Holidays Away From Home


This is something that you should anticipate. As an expat, you will spend some holidays away from home at one point or another.  So when you move to your new country of residence (or even before you move) do your best to learn the culture. Try and observe how traditional holidays are celebrated in the country you’re staying in, if they don’t have the holidays that you’re used to - like Thanksgiving or even Christmas. Rresearch a way for you to celebrate the holidays on your own. Maybe try to arrange a party with your fellow expats who observe those holidays and you can also improvise with the traditional food served for the occasion, if turkey is not an option, perhaps roast chicken will do for the celebration. Learn to adapt,adjust and have some fun with the situation instead of focusing on the negative aspects. Wallowing on your own and feeling homesick won’t do you any good.


Food Issues


One of the major expat issues is food. As much as you think you enjoy exotic cuisine, once you have moved to a different place and foreign cuisine is on the menu, you’dbe surprised with how picky you could be. When moving to a new place, you might be inclined to try out what you’re used to like fast food franchises our five-star restaurants but that’s not always economical and in some countries it takes lots of effort to actually find a restaurant that serves food that you are used to. Don’t be surprised if you find a fast food chain you are familiar with and find that their menu is completely modified. McDonalds serve veggie burgers in India, Falafel sandwich in Egypt, Spaghetti in the Philippines and Gazpacho in Spain. KFC does not serve gravy with their chicken in Singapore and Japan. These and other changes on familiar fast food chains can come as a shock, but you can take comfort in the fact that their classics will always be there... but it may come with a different siding or sauce.


Food is a main factor for consideration when moving. If you are a vegetarian or on a special kind of diet, research about the country’s cuisine ahead of time and plan a way to make it work for you. Look at the most popular ingredients used in traditional food items, and check out any which may cause problems i.e. allergy towards certain spices. Gradually assimilate in your own household meals local dishes so your taste will get used to local flavours as well.


Toilet Issues


Toilets are not the same all over the world and while this is a fact, not everyone is aware of it, because...well it’s not really a very pleasant thing to talk about. Depending where you are moving, drainage and sanitation may be an issue. The best tip here is to bring sanitation items like a hand soap, wet wipes, or rolls of toilet paper to give you a semblance of your old toilet. If you’re not comfortable with the toiletries available in the local groceries stores or if the price for your toiletries is too expensive because they are imported, then you can buy these items in bulk whenever you return home.


Toilet etiquette of the country where you will be staying is something that you should also research prior to your arrival. This way, you will be prepared when you arrive and see that all the public toilets are “squatty potties”. Some countries use soap, water and their bare hands instead of toilet paper. Some countries also have a strict no flushing rule due to water pipe failures. These are things that you have to be mindful of.


Road Issues


If you’re coming from a left-hand traffic system and moving to a right-hand traffic, you can imagine the adjustments you’d have to make. Aside from learning to drive on the other side, you also have to be aware of the shift of traffic lanes when you are crossing the street. Know when to look to the left and when to look to the right, since traffic lights and pedestrian lanes are not very reliable in some countries.


Be sure to learn more about traffic, driving, road, and highway regulations wherever you’re staying. Have a GPS system installed on your vehicle if you’re planning to drive rather than commute. If you’re commuting, familiarizing yourself with various modes of public transportation is essential.


Language and Cultural Problems


This is a greater cause for concern for most expats. Getting lost in translation is always a problem. Keep a language guidebook handy and learn at least the simplest words. This will be very useful even in your work environment. Be mindful of your tone and the way that people speak, in some countries, shouting doesn’t necessarily mean they are upset. Familiarize yourself with the way that the locals speak, this way you can avoid misunderstandings. If you have time and money, enrolling yourself in a language class will also be of great help. Reading the history of where you’re staying will also allow you to understand, and even appreciate the culture of a country. Know more about basic social graces, and don’t be afraid to ask a trusted local on the prevailing attitudes of the culture you’re living in.


The Tourist Treatment


In some countries, being an expat can bring you unwanted tourist attention. Being stared at can be disconcerting and you might find yourself surround by locals who are intimated by you, or probably trying their best to simply please you. You might encounter a mob of street vendors when you pass by trying to sell you souvenirs and you may find yourself targeted for scams. A practical guide to addressing this expat problem is to socialize, understand locals on a personal level, but to remain vigilant and attentive to surroundings.


It’s not good to be overly paranoid about your safety, but you don’t want to be too careless either. Stay connected on the local scene and read up on local news. Don’t be insensitive with the locals and their culture and don’t be too sensitive on the way they treat you as well. Adjusting to the tourist treatment is purely based on the way you look at your situation, so just be positive without being careless. If you are treated as a tourist, just go with it, there are some perks with being a tourist as well.


Internet Dependency


For most of us, the Internet may be our only connection to home sweet home. Unfortunately, we can’t always expect a reliable connection in all corners of the globe. Internet dependency is part of the expat lifestyle, this is your only link to local news, family and friends contacts etc. So some of the things you can do to get yourself connected as much as possible is to read up on the best network providers in the country. This is something that you shouldn’t be stingy with. Try finding cable companies and see if they have packages that feature channels and tv shows from your own country, this way, aside from your phone and laptop, you can keep up with current events in your country.


You can also go out more and experience the country’s culture. Experience, as they say, is the best teacher and surviving or at least tolerating expat issues that may plague you will be easier if you’ve been there and done that.