Encountering a couple from my hometown who were visiting on holiday led to a conversation on how wonderful it must be, being an ex-pat and living here. I was back and forth on the topic. Yes, it is great being here in this lovely country, but no, it’s not all rainbows and lollipops. Since then, I’ve re-run that conversation and have some thoughts if ever asked again.
Living abroad can be transformative. For many, it starts out as a feeling of being on an extended holiday. Being a foreigner makes the new locale mysterious; as if every avenue, museum, bar, park, or encounter is a chance to explore and traipse the edges of novelty. But as with all fantasies, over time ex-pats acclimate. What was once unusual or quaint, metamorphoses into the daily routine. Perhaps it’s like the 5 stages of grief. The quaint becomes quirky, the quirky irritating. One eventually settles by accepting one’s new home.
And it is generally at this point that the ex-pat starts feeling nostalgic and searching for substitutes. In my case, it was finding Coleman’s mustard and brown sugar. (The latter, I discovered can be sourced from Asia, who knew?).
Many of the challenges have been solved by having an internet connection, a locally acceptable credit card, and banking with a company that offers it services for reasonable fees. However, other elements key to being a successful long-term overseas resident, require changes to one’s attitude.
Not all people are alike, but all of us will find ourselves confronted with challenges. In being overseas, these might fall into the following buckets -
- Engagement - socialising, knowing what is trending, participating in the public discourse
- Healthcare - when it comes to one’s body, we look for people we can understand and trust
- Safety - being able to read the signs and ensure that no harm can come to us
- Bureaucracy - knowing how the system works, how to stay on the right side of the authorities and get the rights and services needed
- Work - having the means to make ends meet or just stay mentally engaged.
Not all of us need the same level or form of engagement. Some of us are perfectly happy with our own company. But still, all of us need stimuli. The internet has made that much simpler as it is overflowing with English language content.
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Still, wanting to interact with others is also important to many ex-pats. Being overseas, there are enclaves. Even among people speaking a common language, like ex-pat Americans living in London. But many locals want to practice English and hear about what foreigners think.
On the internet, there are forums such as quora and discord. There are also sites that promote local events, such as here, on the thedubrovniktimes.com as well as the obvious platform, facebook.com. One forum worth noting is meetup.com which helps to match up people (meeting face-to-face) with similar interests. This might be programming, wine-tasting, hiking, sailing, or retirement planning.
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Finding practitioners even at home can be hit-and-miss. Many people rely on recommendations. But when it comes to relying on say, the national health service, it can feel like the doctors at times struggle to explain. Just as at home, talking to the local ex-pat community is probably the best way to find trustworthy clinicians.
Some aspects of healthcare, like dentistry, has been going international as dental tourism has become a lucrative practice. Offering inexpensive, western level services that can also offer great holidays has become an added element when hunting for a holiday.
Completing the insurance forms though can be difficult and should be part of one’s checklist when considering a physician.
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Being able to read a situation, even at home, is tough. We generally know the neighbourhoods to avoid. We also develop mental models about what constitutes an unsavoury character. Doing such in a foreign situation is not so easy. Looking for cues from others is one skill an ex-pat should develop.
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One of the greatest irritants of society is having to interact with some sort of authority, be it a utility or government. Like safety, being a foreigner requires looking to others for cues. For some, corruption is a way of life - being able to tell when and how much is hard to estimate. Some services can help when you need to interact. Again, look to the local community for help.
Finding work, especially if you do not have a command of the language can be hard. While one might have started as a professional, on secondment, finding one’s next job is not as easily done. With some companies, location has become less of a barrier. Being able to work remotely, though it might require more flexibility, is a growing option. Some ex-pats have succeeded in landing jobs back home and found ways to work remotely.
Locally, some companies actively recruit professionals and will accept lesser local language skills or not being accredited by the local professional body. But, not everybody is a professional or has a professional skill that is in short supply. When this happens, one might consider alternative types of work. Finding native English speakers from whom to learn, fortunately, is in demand.
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Some sites help find remote work such as data entry, coaching, therapy, problem solving and analysis. Upwork, for example, lists many remote jobs; some for professionals (such as Java developers). And this article has some other ideas.
As with all things in life, there is no sweetness without the bitter. We cannot appreciate how fortunate we are without perspective. And part of the sweetness is finding ways to make things work. Hopefully, the ideas listed here help.