There is a romantic notion of leaving America to become a world-traveling expatriate, having adventures in foreign lands and accumulating wonderful stories to share with friends and relatives. And while this is true to an extent, there also comes a point where the globetrotting Yankee has to take a breath, settle in, and deal with some of the mundane stuff never mentioned in an Ernest Hemingway tale.
Here’s a look at five things all ex-pats need to learn before making the move abroad:
Learn the Economy
Obviously, dealing with the money is one of the first things a foreigner should master. Beyond understanding the exchange rate and knowing the “right” prices for what you need to purchase, this also entails understanding the tax system as well as simple things like knowing where to pay your utility bills. Don’t assume that what you know as an American will help you navigate your way through another country’s economy or way of doing business.
Learn the Culture/History
Know where you’re going and understand the culture and history of the people. This will not only be appreciated by locals, who will invariably be happy to share what they know with you, but it will help you understand some of the customs and concepts that may be foreign to your American way of thinking.
Learn the Psychology
Every society has their own unique personality and identity that has been shaped over hundreds (or thousands) of years. What’s a hit in France may be a total insult in Peru. Take the time to read up on your host country’s culture and general psychology. Obviously, some mass generalizations need to be made and you will find all sorts of exceptions to any general rule regarding a nation’s collective psyche, but it’s good to process what some learned observers have had to say in this area. For instance, Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude is an outstanding book about the Mexican psyche that tackles subjects ranging from cultural identity to the logic behind regional slang.
It goes without saying that learning the language is essential to living well in a foreign country, but it’s almost equally important to understand the words and phrases not often found in dictionaries or computer translation programs. Personally, it took me quite a while to pick up all the phrases and expressions used by locals in Mexico, but when I did, it made the difference between the people seeing me as a visiting Gringo and a Gringo who was now “one of their own.”
Learn to Stay Positive
It’s not easy to live in a foreign country. After the novelty wears off, nostalgia can set in and frustration soon follows. You yearn for familiar foods and music and conversation in your native tongue. But if you’re dedicated to living abroad, you have to understand how to adapt. In your frustration, don’t dismiss your new home or its people. Remember, they’re being themselves and living their lifestyle. You’re the one who put yourself in a foreign land. Learn to accept that you’ve consciously made the decision to move and will have to accept some losses as part of the deal. If, at the end of the day, you feel that you’ve lost more than you have gained, then there’s always a way to get back home.