So, you want to become an Expat ……
Becoming an expat is an amazing experience. It’s exciting and a fantastic opportunity. Before you make the leap though, there are many things to think about before life as you once know it is about to change.
Depending on where you go, will depend how much change you will experience. For me it was the Middle East. It doesn’t matter how much you read and think you understand about your new destination, just know that everything you took for granted and probably didn’t even think about is at times going to feel like pulling teeth.
The first month of arriving in your new destination is best described as a complete whirl wind, information overload and at times utter frustration. Tasks that we normally consider simple and basic are often complicated and at times, difficult. This really needs to be understood because nothing is like it is back home, not to mention the language barriers and cultural differences that you begin to experience.
All the way during this on boarding process, you are also learning your new job and who’s who in the zoo. Hierarchy and status are important elements in the Middle East and are expected to be respected. It’s a little daunting and intimidating at first and can throw you right off balance – although you tell all your family and friends back home that you are fine. Just learning how to get a taxi or a driver to get you to and from places is frustrating enough – again the language barrier is very difficult to comprehend especially for Westerners where most of us only speak English and perhaps ignorantly expect everyone else to also.
It’s generally around the fourth week where you wake up and just don’t feel yourself. You can’t quite put your finger on what’s wrong but you start missing your family and your friends back home. If only you could drop into your local pub for a drink with your friends or your favourite coffee shop for a flat white. No one even knew what a flat white was when I first started working in the Middle East, although that has recently changed now. Supermarkets are full of products that you’ve never seen before and nothing seems to taste like it normally does. Trying to cheer yourself up a little, you decide to do a bit of retail therapy, but clothes shopping is again in a range of sizes that you are not used to and shops like CUE and Portmans don’t exist. That feeling that something isn’t right continues to overwhelm you – that feeling is called homesick. Everyone gets it to some degree, but the good news is it passes.
The weekend is Friday and Saturday and Friday is when most locals go to the mosque and then meet with their families for lunch. Nothing opens until well after lunch so this is also the best day to practise driving because the roads are empty and trust me driving in the Middle East is like nothing you have ever experienced before. Then there is Ramadan which runs for one month. Ramadan is an extremely important time for all Muslims. It is the month when the Holy Quran was revealed to Prophet Mohammed. Each day during Ramadan, Muslims are expected to fast from sunrise to sunset and to refrain from ill speech and wrong doing. It must be reiterated just how important this is. While non- Muslim’s are not expected to fast, they are expected to respect this holy period.
Living as expat throws you right out of your comfort zone, it doesn’t matter how confident or self-assured you are. Eventually you begin to get used to all the cultural differences and start to experience some of the best times of your life. For me it was all the different cultures and meeting people from all over the world. Imagine being at a dinner table of twelve with ten different nationalities. I found this incredibly enriching and absolutely loved the diversity of the people. Then there was the travel to all the different countries. I could be in the UK or Europe in seven hours. And let’s not forget the tax-free salary. I really, really loved that.
Before long you find yourself adapting and understanding that working in such a diverse and multicultural environment means the way you approach things need to change. For me it was learning to accept that the way I worked back home in Australia was not the way I would continue to work abroad in the Middle East. The way you speak, the way you deliver and communicate information begins to change. Even the way you dress is different. There are no strappy tops, short skirts or transparent clothing. Shoulders are covered, dresses and skirts become more modest and greetings are more formal. You definitely don’t greet Muslim men with a kiss on a cheek as so many of us do in the Western world. This would be considered completely inappropriate. Again, you adapt and get used to this and start to learn and grow and experience a different culture.
Perhaps the most difficult part of being an expat is when you return home. For me I had been living and working overseas just short of a decade. Coming home was a whole new experience. I kept thinking everyone else had changed but in fact it was me who had grown and changed. I had become international. Although I consider myself Australian and Australia will always be my home, I miss the life of living abroad with my international friends I had made from all over the world.
Read my next article on repatriation.