Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Thoughts for people considering a move abroad

It's been one of those up and down expat weeks. My first niece is getting prepared to make her grand entrance into the world in Vancouver. I'd really like to be able to swing home for a bit to give a loved one some face-to-face cheerleading. The realization that most of the people I spend most of my time with in Shanghai are going to be leaving in just a matter of months has hit hard, too. It's been rainy, the dog regressed a bit after we were gone for the weekend, the air quality is back to dangerous, dental bills were much higher than we were quoted...just one of those weeks.

None of this makes me regret coming here, of course. After spending way too much time watching "Let it Go" covers (Christina Bianco and Lexi Walker are to blame for about 2 hours of non-productivity on Wednesday...) and chatting with friends in Canada, I'm getting back into my student-dog mama-housewife groove.

But it has gotten me thinking about the choice to live away. In our case, to live 7-15 timezones away from our family and best friends and to live off one income while paying for courses for me. This isn't the first time we've chosen the expat life and it probably won't be the last.

A friend of mine in North America recently got in touch to ask for some guidance as she decides whether or not to take a contract in a rural Third World context. She had worked hard to get the job offer and it seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime. But when the reality of moving to the other side of the world and leaving behind urban western life hit, she started to question whether it was such a good idea.

From my own experience and seeing what expat friends have gone through, I told her to think about:

The family & friends you have

One of the major reasons friends have cut contracts short or don't accept them at all is related to family. Life doesn't pause when you go away: people get sick, people die, people are born. It's a tough call that we all have to make before going away. Are you okay with supporting your ill parent via phone/Skype? Will you never forgive yourself if your nieces and nephews grow up knowing you as a face on a computer screen? This year and next, we'll be missing some friends' weddings in Canada and Ireland because of the distance.

Our nephew did his part by being born just before we left the UK

If you're moving with family, what is the job situation for the adults? Will one partner not work? Trailing spouses (or the euphemism of the day "family relocation managers") face their own challenges, sometimes pausing their own careers and facing the stresses of maintaining an identity. 

I don't need to remind any parent that the destination has to offer an environment that they would want their children to grow up in. Some friends have decided to leave Shanghai because they have small children and the air quality has diminished since they first moved here. Education, safety, culture...these issues suddenly become way more important when impressionable young future creators are part of the package. 

A couple of years ago I was confident I was going to be offered a communications position for an NGO in Ghana. They told me I wouldn't be able to bring the Irishman with me. I withdrew. For me, I know the life I want includes living in the same place as the Irishman and I would regret separating. Even now, as I go through another round of job hunting headaches, I am so glad I followed my gut rather than fill my resume. Other married friends we know are temporarily split across continents to save money for their future. That's what they've worked out is best for their family. What's best for yours? 

The family you want

One of the big reasons that people decide to go "home", even with fulfilling jobs and in living in an environment they enjoy, is that they want to start a family. The dating scene when you're an expat can be quite dire. People are coming and going all the time. As my friend is single and wanting to look for a relationship, I reminded her that dating in a rural context can be really tough, especially when she doesn't plan to stay for more than 2 years. If she's not willing to potentially put a big pause on dating, she's likely to regret moving away.

If you have a final destination in mind where you want to settle down and want to have kids, keeping in mind that you eventually want to "get sprogged up", as one of my friends likes to say, is important when considering timelines for going abroad. If you are partnered, you may want to give birth/adopt/settle down in your home environment, closer to family and friends. Especially when hitting late 20's and onward, thinking about settling down isn't about selling out, it's about not having regrets.
I guess it worked out okay

Of course, many of us find our partners because we left. Thank you husband who once moved to Canada for a "temporary" 9 month stint! A few of my friends have met their partners (and one fiance!) in Latin America in the past year or so. It does happen, but if you're going to regret meeting only a handful of fellow singletons over the course of your stay abroad or want to start a family soon with grandparents nearby, keep this mind when looking at jobs and flights. 

Your lifestyle

Like to go clubbing? To the cinema? To bars? To a fully equipped fancy gym? To familiar restaurants? Depending on where you move, these might not be available. What will you do to fill your time?

I admit when I moved to a small community in rural Guatemala, I didn't think about this enough. Living by myself, with no internet, in a long distance relationship, lacking in friends, I was often bored. Really bored. The appeal of reading for 5+ hours a day faded quite quickly as my social butterfly persona was starved. I went from an energetic, out-going 20 year old to shy and self-conscious when faced with a massive language barrier. I needed to suck it up and work towards the lifestyle I craved, namely, a social one*. (Or, maybe, not take a job in a rural area in a language I had no experience with.)

Since then, I've reflected on what it is that keeps me sane on a day to day basis: feeding people, going out for drinks, visiting museums and galleries, and continually meeting new people. Because of this, I wouldn't move somewhere again where no one spoke a language I didn't have a basic grasp of (thankfully English, French, Spanish, and Mandarin are all on that list now!) and I wouldn't live in a rural area. Other, more linguistically talented, adventurous or introverted people, are better suited to quickly learn a local language, take social risks, and/or spend large amounts of time alone without sending weird, depressing postcards and letters to friends around the world (sorry about that, y'all). 

Carousels are also very important to avoid culture shock

Even if the opportunity seems wonderful, it doesn't mean that you'll regret turning it down or be able to enjoy your life while you're there. There's a difference between getting out of your comfort zone and crossing a line where your quality of life suffers unnecessarily. International adventures may look fun in photos but if you can't reconcile the sacrifices to your family and go to bed every night feeling like you're missing something, it probably isn't worth it. 

For my friend, no matter how much of an honour it would be to take that job, she can't take it lightly. Whether she takes it or not, I know that she's kept these considerations in mind and is unlikely to regret her choice.

My wonderful friend Leslie Campbell, who has lived in rural Indonesia for the past year and a half, offers a semi-counterpoint

"There is also something to be said for the often excruciating growth spurt you go through after finding yourself in a cultural/lingusitic/professional/etc context you weren't quite prepared for beforehand. Flexibility, open-mindedness and a sense of adventure go a very long way, but the stretching process can be quite a painful one.

It certainly isn't for everyone, not least the faint of heart, but in my experience the more difficult the journey the more you gain personally from making it to the other side in one piece. [as over-trodden and clich├ęd as it is]

I suppose that's easier to say as someone who's just finishing up and preparing to go home after a long term stint in a lifestyle context that is about as far from what I envisioned for myself in my mid-20s as it's possible to be (Full disclosure: I was singing a different tune 6 months ago). Nonetheless, I think that spending the last 18 months clubbing, going to fancy bars, gyms and new restaurants would have yielded an approximately equivalent amount of happiness but a tiny fraction of the personal and professional growth. But maybe that's just me."

*this did happen in the end but I got sick and was sent back to Canada within a month of making friendships. Shucks. 

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