Friday, 18 May 2012

Expat Excellence featuring Lexi Mills

This week, we have tips, tricks and ideas from South Africa-based expat Lexi Mills, on how expats can get the most out of their time abroad.
                              A Guide for Expatriates

Source: Creative Commons/Inky Bob

Living abroad doesn’t have to lead to homesickness after relocating if you are aware of certain facts about a country. This is something I learned the hard way when I moved from South Africa to London when I was 18. I was young and forced to move by my parents for a job, so I didn't know what was in store. For example, I wasn't prepared for city life, finding that the tube system was much more confusing that I anticipated. Similarly, I wasn't prepared for how cold Brits are compared to South Africans.

Moving abroad is a transition for anyone. I wouldn't wish the same experiences I had on anyone else, so I thought I'd share my suggestions to ease the transition. So here are tips, tricks, and ideas for expats who are hoping to get the most out of their time abroad.

Do your homework
Sure, once you learn you will be moving abroad you probably start searching about everything imaginable on the web. But are you searching for useful information that will ease your transition, or are you perusing the nightlife scene in the area?

Extensive research will prepare you for life in your new home. This includes everything from exploring the housing market to familiarising yourself with the languages spoken in the area. 

Here are some of the most important topics to research before your move:

Documentation
Maybe you're one of the lucky expats whose employer sent them to a new destination, taking care of all the legal documents required. However, you might be one of the many who decided to take the leap and try your hand at living in a new country. Good for you! If this is the case, though, make sure you know what legal documents are required and obtain them before you arrive.

Too often I hear of people trying to wing it. For example, I had a friend from the States just fly into Amsterdam in hopes of finding work once there. Bad move. He was detained in the UK airport and now can no longer travel to Great Britain for up to 10 years. His dream was cut short, but yours doesn't have to. Know how you can become a legal expat, because trust me, you don't want to deal with an "illegal alien" brand for the rest of your life.

Housing
Many people go to a hostel and try to find housing once they arrive. While this isn't the most horrible idea, you should definitely have an idea of where you want to live before arriving. Look extensively into the different neighbourhoods and research facts like safety, transportation, vibe, and so on. One great way to find out from a local is to connect with local bloggers. They are easy to find on the Internet and usually love engaging with new people, so ask away to find the best neighborhood for your needs.

First, you should have a minimum of three months living expenses and one month emergency expenses before arriving. Do not just wing it financially, especially if you don't have a job secured beforehand. You may have to prove to the country patrols that you have sufficient funds by bringing a bank statement from your local bank.

Language
You may be one of the fortunate expats to be in a country where your native language is spoken. However, you may be one of the expats who are faced with the culture shock that comes with not being able to communicate effectively.

This happened to me while studying abroad in Madrid – I expected everyone in Spain's capital to speak English, only to realise once I was there that they didn't. I'll never forget the cryfest I had while trying to purchase a mobile phone my second day there. So make sure you know which languages you can expect to hear. If you aren't familiar with them, at minimum make sure you have a way to translate important phrases, such as "help" and "hospital."

Healthcare
The healthcare system may be very different where you are going than it is back home. Know how to go about getting coverage and get it as soon as possible. Do not risk injury while uninsured in a foreign country where you may have no support system.

Similarly, make sure you know which vaccinations are required for your new area and get them before leaving. If you take long-term medications, make sure you know what it is called in the new country and how you will go about refilling your prescription.

The Job Market
Regardless of if you have a job or not, stay up to date with the job market. You don't want to have to come home because you couldn't find a job. In some countries, immigrants can only hold certain jobs so as not to affect the locals' job security. Be aware of trends and have a game plan. And while you're at it, consider staying up to date with all local news, including everything from local elections and weather/safety warnings. It will not only make you better prepared, but it will help you feel more assimilated quickly.

Support System
Do you know anyone where you are going? If so, make sure you know their contact details. If not, consider finding local support systems before leaving, including your country's embassy and organisations populated by your country's citizens. The last thing you want to do is to get to a country and not have a way to quickly find help when you need it.

Disconnect once you're there
Living abroad, while challenging, is one of the most rewarding experiences. So don't waste it. Immerse yourself in the culture. That means sign up for local interest groups, chat up everyone you meet, and be available. Don't wallow in your flat and Skype with family and friends from back home. In the most extreme cases, you may even want to hold off on installing Internet in your home, which will force you to make your way to local coffee shops or libraries to connect – meaning you might happen across your new best friend or significant other.

Embrace the differences
No matter how well adjusted you will eventually become, you will notice differences right away. Rather than approach it with negativity and cynicism, embrace the differences as a learning experience. Try everything and learn to let go of little annoyances, like not being able to find your favorite candy bar in your new home. If it helps, band together with other expats (find them on the Internet if you don't know them already!) and support each other. For example, to this day I find it difficult to let go of my cravings for some local packaged delicacies from South Africa. Thus, I looked for a way to spread awareness and get facts – where can I find these foods and am I the only one like with these cravings?

How did I do this? I was fortunate enough to work at an agency that represented a South African business. I rallied my client South African Hotels to conduct a study compiling what foods South Africans in London miss the most. I found it extremely therapeutic, and it helped me connected with like-minded expats from back home.

You may not have the same resources at your disposal as I did, but this shouldn't stop you. Scour the Internet for the food you are jones-ing for, and if you can't find it turn to forums to connect with other individuals with the same sentiments. You never know, you may be able to petition a local store to get them to carry your favorite native delicacies.

Remember, the expat experience is one you will never forget. It is an amazing experience that has its ups and downs, but with these tips, I hope you are equipped to take the journey with as little hardships as possible.

About the author

Lexi Mills is a PR professional in London via South Africa. When not connecting with interesting individuals, you can find her exploring London's culinary scene, looking to fill the gap that is missing in her typical South African diet.

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