10 tips to cope with moving countries as an expat

by leeshakumar

The year 2012 brought a significant change in our lives as we decided to leave India and shift to South Africa for my husband’s new role there. With the sudden change came a bucket full of anxiety, questions, stories and decisions. Leasing a house, buying cars, school transfers, currency conversion and fundamental understanding of local laws, we had a fearful lot on our plate.

We realized that every step and every decision needed meticulous planning and execution.

Two months after moving to Johannesburg, once the rush and excitement of shifting started slowing down, we found ourselves discovering and figuring things out on our own. From the nearest McDrive to the far away cafe serving artisanal coffee, the best breakfast joints to elite steakhouses, the road to discovery was long and beautiful.

This is the beauty of expatriate life. Despite being daunting, it is an exciting adventure and one that creates a lot of new memories and learnings.

Four years after returning from Joburg and settling back in India, many prospective expats often reach out to us for cues on how to make transitions smooth. This blog post aims at covering some basic pointers.

Tips for settling in a new country:

  1. Leasing a house

A cosy house in a beautiful locality is the vital key to settling in. This is where you will wake up, and this is where you will retire every evening, put your feet up and find your space in the new world surrounding you. Home becomes centre-stage to being happy.

Johannesburg has beautiful golf courses and estates built around the greens. We found our home in one such Golf Estate,  where we had the most memorable time for four years.

We zeroed down on this estate by keeping in mind our top priorities, which included a high level of security; proximity to school, work and shopping areas; and a cultural variety of residents.

eagle canyon golf estate, Johannesburg

My Tip:

Research estates and properties and take your time to zero down. It’s convenient to stay in a serviced apartment until you finalize.

  1. Feeling at home in a new country

Despite the trouble of packing, we had shipped our furniture to Johannesburg to feel more at home with familiar objects. Family pictures and traditional furniture not only made us feel comfortable but brought in an exotic vibe for our new friends to talk over dinners.

In my opinion, it was a better decision than taking a fully furnished apartment; however, this may vary from person to person. Make sure to carry sentimental belongings or other unique items that you hold close to your heart to make your new home feel like home.

My Tip :

My favourite items on this list are family pictures, pillows and kitchen utensils. I carry my “comfort” pots and pans everywhere!

  1. Driving and transport

In a new country, being independent is essential and therefore,  so is driving confidently. Invest in a few basic lessons on traffic rules, speed limits, safety and traffic manners. For example, it’s customary in South Africa to nod your head or wave your hand as a thank you when someone gives you the way. Unlike India where honking is a common sign to ask for passage, in South Africa, it is considered extremely rude.

Once comfortable, daily grocery shopping, or driving out to meet friends becomes stress-free.

Furthermore, make yourself comfortable with the public transport available in the country of residence: bullet trains, cabs, Uber or cycling.

My Tip :

Some countries accept an international driving licence from the home country for a specified period.

Procure one from your home country to help with the initial settling in period.

  1. Social Life:

Over four years, we made many friends. Conversations led to connections over a mix of Indian food and South African Braai (barbecue). Weekends were times to meet new people, host dinners and get to know global perspectives from different people with different nationalities.

Slowly and steadily, the friends became family. Till date,  they are our extended families living in different continents with a soul connect. Looking back, our proactive approach in hosting dinners and brunches helped us build a social network and settle down.

My Tip:

Learn the acceptable way to greet people in that country, e.g. handshake or a kiss on the cheek. Do not shy away from teaching them yours.

Always accept invitations and make time for interacting with new people.

Learn about local culture, food habits and meal timings before inviting people over.

  1. Local language and tradition

South Africa is known as the rainbow nation, evident through the many different spoken languages, variety of culture and vast ethnicities. We chose international schools for children but also ensured they learnt the local Afrikaans language. This helped them build communication skills and feel included in the local community. There was a fun element in being able to speak the language with the style and accent only a Jozi would.

Time proved that language by itself could be a solid bond between people who otherwise have very little in common.

My Tip:

Learn small words and phrases that are important in day to day life.

  1. Spending your free time productively

I love the positivity and energy that learning something new brings.

While on a dependent visa, I couldn’t pursue my medical career in South Africa, so I decided to invest my time in learning French at Alliance Francaise. All these years later, I’m grateful for that one decision,  as I know I have picked up a skill for life. I  enjoy watching French movies, help my kids with their french studies and I am very comfortable while travelling to French-speaking countries.

Apart from languages, you could also take a course in any skill you would like to pursue and hence I urge you to use the time to develop new talents. Some examples of classes could be photography, interior design, cooking, writing, etc. I have a friend in Japan who is learning Ikebana, and I am sure she will love to bring this talent back to India.

  1. Exploring the city

I would usually go online to check what events were happening in the city. My friends and I made it a point to keep up with the art fairs, concerts, book reading events and weekend markets. There was always something new to discover at these markets, and I often referred  to them as “happy places with happy people.”

life around cafes

  1. Travelling

We did a lot of travel. It varied from a weekend break to a game park to long drives covering the Garden Route to travelling overseas to nearby countries. We ended up discovering untouched parts of the country and became experiential travellers for life.

I feel it is very important to take breaks from whatever one is doing to travel, have a change of environment and some introspection time. It is a great investment for one’s mental health and happiness.

My Tip :

Use every opportunity and resource to travel. Use travelling to discover yourself and the world around you. Make it a meaningful part of your life. It is worth it.

9. Online expat community

Get in touch with the online expat community. They usually create platforms for various events and form a support group.

  1. Returning to the home country

Once a year we would come back home to India. I feel it was essential to keep my children culturally rooted and abreast with their mother tongue.

It was also a time for the entire family to get together and bond over Indian street food, stories from different parts of the world and their new experiences.

Though it may sound easy, moving countries and adapting to changes in lifestyle are hard emotionally. The rewards are lifelong.

One becomes more open-minded, tolerant and knowledgeable. However, before reaping these rewards, it is crucial you make the move with an open mind right from the start. Just think that you have suddenly been gifted wings to fly and take off. A whole new world awaits you.

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