Being an expat has its ups and downs - hopefully mostly ups! Today, I’m sharing ten pieces of advice for any expat - current or future - to make the most out of the expat experience and lead a successful and happy expat life. I’d love to hear what you think - please share your own tips in the comments below!
1. Be open
This is the single most important piece of advice I can give to any expat, whether you moved abroad fully by your own choice or your move was the result of other circumstances, e.g. an overseas work assignment or accompanying a spouse or other family member. In the beginning, things might be a bit overwhelming – especially if you are moving to a country with a radically different culture. But being open is key – I can guarantee you that ending up in your own little bubble with little contact to the (local) outside world will eventually make you miserable, so my best advice really is to try and have an open mind towards whatever may be out there for you.
2. Learn the language
It is so very, very tempting to resort to English – trust me, I know, living in Scandinavia, where most people speak it nearly perfectly! But even if you move to a country where English will get you very far, I still think it is crucial to make an effort to learn the local language. Even if your move is only temporary, learning the language has so many benefits that it would be stupid not to try it. First of all, it brings you closer to the locals. People will see you’re making an effort, and most will appreciate it greatly. It’s also a great way to learn more about the culture and meet new people, e.g. in language school. Finally, I tend to think that learning a new language is fun, too!
3. Make local friends
Expats have a natural tendency to flock together, which is completely natural – we’re alone in a new country and are just getting used to how things work there, so of course we tend to stick to people with whom we feel we have a common base. And as important as it is to vent sometimes and share experiences (see point 5), I think it’s also really great to make some local friends (side note: expat friends also have a tendency to leave again!). It may require some effort – especially since making friends isn’t so easy once you’re out of school or college – but it will pay off and go a long way to make you feel more at home. Of course it helps if you speak the local language, but your local friends might even be interested in helping you learn it, like in a language tandem. I’ve met some great friends through MeetUp and Yelp - the Copenhagen Yelp community is very active, fun, and welcoming.
4. Try new things
This goes hand in hand with the very first point I made. The expat experience is a great opportunity to get out of your comfort zone and try new and exciting things. Go and eat that weird local specialty! Sleep in a hammock under the stars! Bungee jump inside a volcano (not sure if this is actually something you can do anywhere, but you get the sentiment)! Drink that local specialty brew that smells like it’s going to make you go blind! Go see that amazing waterfall/ monument/ landmark/ rainforest/ …!
5. Share your experiences
Some people, me included, are just very talkative and communicative. I can’t imagine going a day without talking to someone. When I get home from work, I immediately bubble over to tell my boyfriend about the day I’ve had. When I experience something great, I immediately want to share it with someone. That’s the main reason I started this blog – to share my experiences both as an expat and living in Copenhagen, hoping that people would find it interesting and helpful, and that they would in turn want to share their experiences with me. I love reading other expat blogs or blogs about Copenhagen (like these), and to me, sharing experiences is key to learning and moving forward.
6. Call your mom
Take this one as literally as you want – but what I really mean is that you shouldn’t forget that your expat life is also hard on the family and friends you left behind. Keep in touch with them, tell them when something great happens, vent to them when you have a bad day, invite them to experience your new home with you. Especially when you’re moving far away, keeping contact will be harder, with different time zones and all that. But today’s technology makes it easier than ever to keep in touch. Why not schedule a Skype call with the whole family every Sunday night? That way, even if you’re busy through the week, you’ll always have time to chat and catch up.
7. Push through the hard times
I’m not going to lie, at some point in every expat’s life there’s a point where we ask ourselves whether it’s all worth it, and there are those days where we just want to go back home and curl up under a blanket on the couch. And there may be cases where expats realize that it’s just not working for them, for various reasons, and they decide to pack up and leave. And that’s fine. I’m not saying you should stay stuck in a terrible situation. But I would strongly urge you not to take that decision on a hunch after a bad day. Sometimes it’s just that, a bad day or a bad week, and then you have to push through it. If all else fails, buy yourself some really nice chocolate and have a glass of wine with a friend, or call your mom. The world will look different tomorrow.
8. Don’t see yourself as a guest
You are not a guest. Your new country is your new home, and you should see it as such. I don’t like when expats talk about their “host country”, although admittedly I think that probably happens most because of a lack of a better word. Some Danish politician (probably from the right wing) recently said during yet another immigration debate that foreigners are guests in this country. We are not! This is our home just as it is the Danes’ – we live here, we work here, we pay our taxes here, we send our kids to school here, we celebrate our birthdays here, we get married here. This is our home, and we have every right to be here.
9. Integrate, don’t assimilate
In political talks about immigration, one key buzzword is always “integration”. Unfortunately, all too often, what some right-wing politicians really mean is “assimilation”. In my mind, integration is indispensable, whereas assimilation absolutely is not! Integration means becoming a functioning and contributing member of society, which includes learning the local language, understanding the local culture, adhering to local laws and social customs. It does not mean giving up your own culture or becoming as Danish/ American/ Italian/(insert your local country here) as you possibly can. The expat life doesn’t have to be a war of cultures – you can cherry-pick what you like and adopt it to your own life. There are no rules dictating what you can and cannot do. I mix traditions ALL THE TIME. My boyfriend and I host American Thanksgiving every year, even though neither one of us is American! We just like the tradition. Becoming a functioning member of society (= integration) does not mean you have to give up your own culture.
10. Be positive
One thing I’ve witnessed over the years, both from personal contact with other expats and from following blogs and other social media, many expats tend to focus too much on the negatives. Their country’s public transportation sucks! It’s impossible to find a job unless you speak the language! The locals don’t like foreigners! Of course, we’ve all had a bad day, and not everything will always be peachy, but I find those days so much more bearable if you have an overall positive outlook on things. Scroll through your Instagram and look at all the beautiful places you’ve been to. Browse through your Facebook to see all the fun times you’ve had. Think about all the great things you have planned for the future. In my blog, I focus on having a positive outlook on my life as an expat, and I think I’m doing alright (apart from the occasional rant!). The expat experience will be exactly what you make it, so try your best to make the most out of it in every way you can. You are on a great adventure!