When you decide to live abroad, your adventure starts long before you arrive in your country of choice. Planning to live abroad is almost as harrowing as living abroad can be. And the planning phase requires just the right mix of preparation and faith.
Anticipate resistance from even your wildest of friends
When I decided to live in Chile for a year, I was surprised that some of my most adventurous friends and family members discouraged me from going. Simply remember, when you announce your intentions, expect opposition.
Caitlin Lanier, a freelance writer and editor who spent a year in Chile, also experienced resistance when she first announced her intentions to live in Chile. “People told me it was a crazy plan. They told me to be prepared to never walk home alone. But there was nothing they could say that was going to stop me. I wanted an international abroad experience.”
Megan Carroll, a traveling teacher who lived in both Pakistan and Indonesia had this to say about preparing for her stays abroad. “Everybody tried to stop me from going to Pakistan. They were concerned with my safety as a single Christian American woman. But I firmly believed it was where God wanted me to go. I had also been convinced a few years before to not live in Morocco, so I was especially stubborn in my decision to go to Pakistan.”
Another teacher, Rachael Colvin, who teaches sign language in Fremont, California, decided to live in Germany for a semester. She comments, “My friends could not understand the idea of learning about a culture through experiencing it.”
If you are determined to live abroad, consider buying your round trip ticket before telling anyone, especially if you are easily swayed by others. It makes the conversations easier.
Have savings to rely on
Having a reserve of cash is very important. Being low on funds is normally scary, doubly scary in a foreign country. Even if it takes a little more time to boost up your cash flow, take that time now.
A lot of travelers decide to teach English to make money. If that’s the case, having a TEFL or TESOL certification can make it easier to get a job. However, even if you have a job lined up, you need to protect yourself against unforeseen delays. Some English teachers have had difficulties in foreign countries being paid on-time and accurately.
Lanier, who taught English with an institute in Chile, explains, “Due to the bureaucratic system of trying to get a work visa in a foreign country, it took about a month to get paid. We had to live off of our savings that entire time. We didn’t get our ID cards until two months after we started working. Some other teachers didn’t get paid for the correct number of hours. Since the paycheck didn’t have a summary of hours on it, and their Spanish was limited, they had difficulty disputing it.”
Decide for yourself the amount you need to feel comfortable. You’ll need extra funds for the times when you might get overcharged for simple items, pickpocketed on the subway, or if you come down with the flu and can’t work. Having extra available to cover you can make your stay abroad experience a much more comfortable and enjoyable one.
Accept that you will experience a steep learning curve
You can read a lot of books on your country of choice, and you should. It will give you crucial background information on its history and culture, but nothing is like being there in person. For example, I read many books on Chile. The Chilean accent was a reoccurring theme. Despite reading about it, I was still surprised by how indecipherable Chilean Spanish was compared to the Mexican accent I learned in high school Spanish class.
Colvin had a similar surprise when she went to Germany. “My German teacher in America was very cheery. I expected Northern Germans to be like her. They were not at all like her.”
Lanier laughs at her ignorance. “I was geographically naïve. I thought I would be able to take a ferry to Easter Island. But it’s a six-hour plane ride away from Santiago. I also thought I could hop down to Patagonia for the weekend from Santiago. Again, it’s a much farther distance than I had imagined. Plus, with teaching English, I didn’t have as much time to travel as I thought I would.”
Carroll went to orientation before she headed to Pakistan and learned basic information about living in a Muslim country. A few months after her arrival, she attended another orientation. “I went to Lahore for the weekend. It was very helpful to get more complete information about what I could expect as a woman foreigner in Pakistan. I was able to ask better questions once I was there.”
If you can, make friends with the locals who can guide you through the unspoken cultural rules. You might need to know for instance the best technique for using the squatting toilets, or you might not understand why the locals keep cutting in front of you in line. Having someone to help you with those awkward questions is priceless.
Bring a few of your favorite things
Expect to miss items—and food—you never thought you’d miss. For example, in Hong Kong, I craved potatoes like I was one meal away from starvation. In Chile, I was starved for novels in English that didn’t cost $40. Other travelers I know missed a certain shampoo brand and fashion magazines in English.
Colvin explains, “I missed being able to talk to my family at any time. I missed how easy things were in America. I also missed Mexican and Chinese food. German Mexican food was horrendous!”
In Pakistan, Carroll missed the ocean and American clothes. “I only packed conservative clothes like long pants and shirts. But I realized I missed shorts and tank tops. Even if I couldn’t wear them outside, I wanted to feel more comfortable at home.”
Bring a few items from your home country to cut down the initial feelings of culture shock.
Learn to let go so that you can pack lightly
How do you decide what to bring? How do you narrow down a life into a suitcase or two? Really, that question loomed for me. I had an apartment, a car, cats, even a dog. Once I found caretakers for my animals, it became an exercise in letting go. What would I really need in my new life that I couldn’t get over there? The day I realized that all I would ever really need was a laptop for my job and for entertainment (music, DVDs, blogs, etc) and a camera to use as a way to explore the world, the packing became easier.
Lanier offers a few simple items to bring, “I think three must-have items are earplugs, a rain jacket, and a multi-use antibiotic for digestive issues. You’ll use them.”
Carroll explains that packing for Pakistan was very different from packing for Indonesia. “When I went to Pakistan, I packed a lot of clothes for culture and weather, a Bible, and my top 10 DVDs. After that experience, when I was packing for Indonesia, I packed special items from home instead of a lot of clothes. I packed a quilt my mom and I had made together and a tapestry from Pakistan, photos of my family and friends, along with sweat pants and shorts. I packed items that would make my apartment in Indonesia feel more like home. The rest I knew I could purchase once I arrived.”
Create an exit strategy…just in case
When I was planning for Chile, I wanted the ability to return home at any time if I hated it. I arrived with a round trip ticket already purchased (and without a work contract) so that if things went awry, I could return home immediately.
Other friends of mine signed up for programs that placed them in jobs at an English institute with a one-year English-teaching contract. The program also reserved a hostel for them until they could find more permanent housing.
Most travelers at least secure a round trip ticket and then adjust the return flight date as needed. “I planned to go to Germany for only a semester,” says Colvin. “I extended my return flight for another six months once I realized I wanted to stay longer.”
Lanier concurs, “I had enough money for a change fee to adjust my return ticket. I always had a plan to come home, and I used the return ticket date as a guideline, a date I could change as I needed.”
Besides a return ticket, make sure you have a place to return home to just in case. Will your friends let you crash on their couch for a few weeks? Your parents? Having a “just in case” home ready makes it an easier transition back into your home life.
And here’s some additional words of wisdom:
“Give yourself time where you let yourself speak your first language. It gets tiring having to work to understand and to express yourself. I got tired of answering the same questions about who I was and where I was from. I missed English. I started renting movies in English to give myself a break.” –Rachael Colvin
“Try to be respectful of customs. Keep in mind, you might be the only American they ever meet. They will make conclusions about your country based on their interactions with you. Make a good impression if you can.” – Megan Carroll
If you keep these tips in mind, you’re bound to enjoy your planning with confidence and have the best time in your new country.