Living abroad | My advice before immigrating

“Life might be difficult for a while, but I would tough it out because living in a foreign country is one of those things that everyone should try at least once. My understanding was that it completed a person, sanding down the rough provincial edges and transforming you into a citizen of the world.” – David Sedaris

I urge all people considering a move from their home country to somewhere abroad to read this before they do anything. I sure as hell wish someone had told me most of this before I left South Africa for Canada. Not that it would have changed my mind about moving, but it would have changed my expectations, probably my approach and inevitably helped this year of adjustment into my new life.

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Immigration is not a walk in the park (for most people).

And I’m not just referring to the tons paperwork, costs and admin involved, because there’s a lot of that too. But mainly once you move, you uproot your entire life, leaving your loved ones behind; to start your life all over again, in a very different culture and climate.

Do not take this decision lightly.

This is not something you can just decide on a whim. Do your due diligence. Read up on everything you can. Consider the cost of living, healthcare costs, property prices and your potential earnings (minus taxes). Realise that initial set-up costs are going to stall your entire life. You might not be able to travel, you may have to make do with one car shared in a household and you may take a year to fully furnish your house. Be sure you really want this. Be all in or nothing because if it doesn’t work, it’s not as simple as just moving again.

You’ll need a year or two to just settle in.

Be prepared for the time it will take you to settle down – some need much longer than others to truly call your new country ‘home’. It’s an individual process dependent on so many factors. Don’t expect it to happen any sooner and don’t pressurise yourself to settle faster. Give it time, you’ll need it.

Consider why you are moving.

You should be making this huge decision for the right reasons. Long term reasons. And it has to be worth the move. Trust me, you’ll need to know exactly why you made this move and remind yourself over and over. In fact, maybe write it down and keep it somewhere accessible (This will become important later).

Strained finances make this much harder. 

Come with a plan based on all your research and enough money to survive the adjustment period. Plus extra, for just in case. Shit happens. And so do unexpected expenses. You don’t want to be caught in the dark in a foreign country.

Know the reality & be realistic.

If you can, visit the country you’re moving to in the worst weather, and do not play tourist. Go and see how the locals live, work, play and shop. Know what you’re getting yourself into and critically assess whether this lifestyle is what you envision yourself excelling in. Is this a life you can live? These are hard questions, but it’s the time to ask tough questions.

Don’t presume to know any other country that you have not lived in.

Do not expect your new country to compare in any way to your home country. Every country, city and town has a completely different culture, mind-set, work ethic, educational system, housing and more. Most of it might even seem completely bizarre to you. This is called culture-shock and you’ll deal with it on a daily basis. Culture shock may be triggered by anything, but the usual culprits are the differences in living situations, food, transportation, and social mannerisms.

At first, the excitement of a new place will keep you going.

The reality of the move may only hit months later once the novelty has worn off. Like a holiday, you will reach a point when you feel like it’s time to go home. Except now, you can’t.

Your attitude is what will make it work, or not.

Be prepared for good times and bad times. You will have to adapt to everything, and you need to be open-minded with a good sense of humour and tons of patience! I’ll say it again, this process is no walk in the park, but your attitude could make a huge difference. Be proactive, be positive and do what you have to to make this experience better for you.

You won’t know it at first, but moving abroad involves a lot of risk and sacrifice.

In our case, what we gained in first-world proficiency, safety, travel opportunities and job security, we sacrificed in our day-to-day lifestyle, our culture and time with our loved ones. For each person it will be different. It’s a balance and, hopefully, it weighs down more on your new country so you feel like you made the right choice (most of the time). Nonetheless, there will still be days when you question everything. You WILL wonder what you are even doing here. It is normal and all part of the process.

It could also be the end for your relationship.

Seriously. Moving across the world with your boyfriend or husband or for your partner, will not make your relationship stronger (like in some fairytale or RomCom). This kind of strain can make or break a relationship so don’t move if you aren’t fully prepared for that kind of challenge. Your relationship might not handle it.

You’ll feel really, really lonely.

And that’s even if you are surrounded by many wonderful people. People in your town or city might gather to welcome you, but it will still be the loneliest, most alienating thing you have ever done.

Partly, because you don’t fit in anymore.

You will almost always feel like a foreigner. No matter how hard you try to adapt and assimilate yourself into local life, you won’t fully feel like you belong. It will be difficult to socialise and relate to people and you’ll feel like you’re the only one battling this huge obstacle. Sometimes, you’ll even feel like a failure for not fitting in. If everyone else is happy here, why aren’t I?

Homesickness is a thing.

The smallest things start to overwhelm you with homesickness. You’ll miss things you never thought you’d miss. You’ll long for home, and familiarity. You’ll smile with comfort every time you find some sort of treat from back home and you’ll creepily eye strangers in public if you hear even a hint of a familiar accent in their voice.

You will start to glorify home.

The homesickness peaks when you haven’t been back to visit in a while and you begin to forget all the bad things about home (and possibly even some of the reasons you left in the first place). You’ll see home in a new light, that light in which your new country may be lacking. Absence really does makes the heart grow fonder and more patriotic. TIP: Here’s where you repeat the reasons why you made the move in the first place.

Life at home goes on without you.

The realisation that everyone’s lives don’t actually revolve around you, and that they are all carrying on without you, will surprisingly come as a shock. This is probably because of all the dramatic farewells and goodbyes led you to think that your loved ones will miss you everyday. They might, but they will go on. Everyone does. And you’ll be reminded of this fact daily when you go onto Facebook or Instagram, and life has done just that – gone on.

You’ll miss out on a lot.

Exciting things will happen without you – friends will get engaged and married, babies will be born, and parties will be had – and you’ll miss most of it. It’s hard not to feel left out when you see Facebook photos. Being the one that leaves is always difficult, no matter how amazing the country is, missing out on these events, is often the toughest pill to swallow.

This is when you need to go on too. You need to start enjoying life. And just then you panic, because who are your friends now?

It’s difficult to make friends at our age. 

Making friends as an adult will make you wish you were in school again, when you didn’t actually have to think about it, you just sort of bonded with people. Trying to make friends as an adult can feel forced and unnatural, especially in a new place when you don’t quite gel with their culture. You might even initially resist the process. I mean why should you put in the effort? You have all the friends you need back at home. This would be your first mistake because Skype dates can only go so far and sooner or later, you’ll need a hug in person. You’ll need your person and unfortunately, your partner just won’t do.

The bottomline. 

Your jet-setting Facebook page might be the envy of all your friends back home, but you’re going to feel lost and question every life decision you ever made. You might even have a midlife crisis (or breakdown) every few months. You might become abnormally obsessed with having the greenest grass in the neighbourhood, or getting six-pack abs. Whatever the response to this huge life-changing event, it is normal. You’re allowed to miss your home country. But just be prepared for it.

Still adjusting,

Leigh

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3 thoughts on “Living abroad | My advice before immigrating

  1. I haven’t considered relationship strain before. Hm… I trust that my marriage is for better and for the worse? We’ve moved together twice. Touch wood. I think the moves have made our relationship stronger?

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    1. I think it very much depends on the situation, but in many cases I know (usually fellow South Africans moving with partners that are doctors and are going to work in Canada), it’s incredibly difficult on the relationship. It doesn’t end relationships, but I know many partners who have had their bags packed and ready to leave (but we all laugh about it now). Our circumstances probably differ a lot to yours. Most of the partners here, are unemployed housewives/stay-at-home-moms, in small rural towns, and feel a bit isolated while our partners work long hours. I read a really good blog/article on this topic actually, about “expat depression for the trailing spouses” and another particular article focused on reminding people that immigrating is more than it seems at first. I’m so glad that you have had such a happy experience! I know a few couples who have also been okay throughout the process, but luckily both partners could work and kind of just continue their lives in a different city. Thankfully, it hasn’t put ‘strain’ per se on my relationship, but we are so open and honest about everything we’re feeling and that definitely helps! Nor sure whether I can say the move, specifically, has made us ‘stronger’ just yet 🙂 but we’re only a year in! Still wouldn’t change a thing! Although, maybe I’d live in Paris too 😉

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