I have been living abroad for quite some time now. My first move was from Kazakhstan to Russia. This was a big change, but the bigger one was on its way. Life in States and Finland had a significant impact on me. Overall, I’m happy and grateful for the turn of events, because I learned so much about who I am, what I like, and what I can. That being said, moving to foreign countries is also quite a challenging task. You have to go an extra mile, you have to get out of the comfort zone quite a lot and expose yourself to new things. It’s not always an easy experience, but always rewarding. So, I decided to put together a survival guide summarizing some tips and learnings on how to adjust to a new life if you move abroad temporarily or permanently. I thought it would be good for me and might be useful or interesting for others too.
- Be curious
This is the cornerstone of your journey. Start researching the place you are going to move to before your actual move. It’s fun to imagine how your life will look like in a month, in a year or even more and it enhances your creativity. It helps you to get accustomed to the place mentally and transition will go smoother. For example, I started reading “Depressing Finland” blog two months before we moved. It brought me so much joy and made me feel like I actually know what I’m doing 🙂 But don’t stop just there. Once you are settled in, go out and explore. When we are in a completely new surrounding, there is a lot of information for our brain to process, and you will probably feel overwhelm. Don’t get discouraged – it’s really interesting to observe and notice how your first impressions change over time. When I came to New York seeing skyscrapers for the first time ever was a grandiose experience. When I was living there high buildings didn’t look smaller to me, but the “awe” of initial excitement was gone.
- Accept things you can’t change
Let’s face it – we will not like certain things about our new place, and it’s normal. The magic land where you’d feel absolutely happy at all times, no worries-no problems country doesn’t exist. There will always be something that makes you nervous, uncomfortable, sad, something you struggle with. It’s easy if that “something” can be avoided. If you don’t like a local food, for example, make your favorite dishes at home or go to a restaurant of your choice. Certain cultural norms or more broadly social norms, certain way of doing things, local job market, education opportunities and so on are trickier, because they are part of the deal and it’s almost impossible to pretend like they don’t exist. What to do then? How to stay sane, keep loving your life and not being let down by things that upset you in your new home? Complaining, discussing them with friends and family, crying, swearing will make you feel relieved, but only for a while. Ask yourself if you could accept it at all, if this is something you can live with. Sometimes you are just not compatible with the place, and it’s ok. If it’s a short-term relocation, don’t worry much, because inconvenience is temporary. If you are planning to stay long-term, think twice. In my opinion, it’s better to keep looking for a place you fall in love with. If you found yourself in a land of your dreams, the best way to approach those things you don’t appreciate is by accepting them. It takes time, but at the end you are better off, because instead of focusing on how to change something that isn’t under your control you learn how to make the best of what you have. Honestly, this is the ultimate goal. For example, what sometimes irritates me in Finland is that to qualify for a position you need to have a relevant degree. Of course, I understand why it is so, and I’d definitely prefer to be treated by a doctor who has a medical degree rather than a background in engineering. But, in my opinion, to be able to work as a translator you don’t really need a degree or not always. Maybe you are bilingual since age 2 or maybe you have experience in this field. Same applies to the requirement of Finnish language skills. Everyone in the country speaks English, but you still need to learn Finnish. I was upset by these facts, but over time I learned to live with it. I was trying to focus on how to learn Finnish instead. This positive attitude helped me a lot. I still have some work to do in accepting some other realities of life, but I think it’s ok and I can do it.
- Have courage
I guarantee you – not everything will go as you planned. The movers don’t show up on time, cashier at the store will not understand what you ask for, bureaucratic procedures will take more time than you expected. The list is endless. A lot of things might get out of your control. The best you can do is to be courageous and active. Develop “I can do” attitude through practice. Some real life examples to prove my point. When we moved to Helsinki, the re-construction works in our building were on. Almost every day some stuff was happening. Electricians came to fix the socket, other workers wanted to check pressure in heaters, painters were telling me they need to keep the door open to polish wood. Needless to say, this made me feel very uncomfortable because I never was sure what’s going on. I didn’t speak the language. At first I was freaking out, but over time it became better. I learned some words, and even if I was still not sure about what someone was saying, I decided to focus on context and to use logic and common sense to guide me. If a painter tells something and points to the wall, the message must have something to do with this wall 🙂 At the same time, I started taking my chances and replying back. If I was wrong, I quickly understood it through face expression. Then, oh well. But it made me so happy every time I got something right 🙂 Don’t loose yourself and go forward, even if you don’t know where you go 😉
- Trust yourself and avoid stereotypes
Often times, when you tell someone you move to country X, you’ll hear something like this: “[name of the country]! Yeah, I heard something about it. It’s [insert stereotype here].” Remember I told you collecting information and researching is good? It is, but you shouldn’t trust everything you hear. Trust your own experience. Stereotypes are created to ease the tough task of understanding complicated institutions. It’s just easier to live in a world where everything is either black or white. Life is not that straightforward, though. If you really want to know more about the country, culture or people, you need to explore yourself and come to your own conclusions based on what you observed. For example, if you have been to Russia, you know that there are no bears on the street and people don’t drink vodka shots for breakfast (well, with few exceptions). You always need to decide for yourself as everyone’s experience is very individual.
- Look forward and stay positive
I wanted to name it “don’t look back”, but decided to formulate this as a positive statement. Sometimes, you have this feeling of wander. “What if…” What if I go back, what if I start there all over again, what if I re-join my family and friends in the place I was born, etc. We feel homesick and want to return. We want to come back to “normal” life. It’s ok to feel like that. Everyone has friends or family they miss. Some people miss their countries overall – culture, traditions, cuisine, you name it. Nostalgia has a tendency to mess up with your life quite a lot, especially at first, just after you moved. Well, there must be some good reason why you moved. Remind yourself about this reason – education, work, relations or else, it was serious enough to make you pack your stuff and go elsewhere. Keep focused and motivated. Believe me, this feeling will go back as soon as you settle in. Becoming part of another society is a commitment. It’s a decision that you should try to stick with. Also, the more you move, the weaker the feeling. Your inner self is getting confused about “home” concept, and life gets so much easier. Personally, I think I’m a lucky one. I was born and raised in Kazakhstan. Since the summer of 2003 when I finally left after helping my parents with packing, I never went back to the city I lived in for 15 years. I visited other cities though. I can’t say I didn’t have opportunities, but I decided it’s better for me not to come back to the city I used to live at. I was very homesick at first, but over time this feeling went away. Living in Russia was ok, but I never felt like I belonged there. Hence, no deep feelings whatsoever except missing family, but they are so close, I can visit any time I want. Really, you need to think about what you consider home and what exactly you miss (country or family, for example). Once you understand better the roots of your longing, you can find a better-tailored solution.
- Have fun
Find new hobbies, try things you haven’t done before, meet new people. It might sound like a common place, but a lot of people forget how important it is. Join expat communities or create one. It’s the easiest way to make friends, to network and to enjoy activities that you are interested in. None of that will come to you easily, and it might take a couple of efforts. Don’t stop until you find something fun and exciting. Did I miss anything in this short guide? Was your experience different? Feel free to comment on this post or shoot me a personal message on FB. Have a great weekend everyone!