When you first saw the posting for that position abroad, it sounded like your dream job—literally. A graphic design gig in a resort town on some isolated coast for an up-and-coming travel company? A role as an account manager for the biggest firm in Madrid? A consulting job in western Wales? Heck yeah! Consider the bags packed, the airplane ticket bought, and bilingual dictionaries doggie-eared.
Starry-eyed and full of enthusiasm, you arrived ready to tackle the experience.
But soon, things changed. Your work involves a lot spreadsheets (not unlike that job you left behind). You feel like you live at the end of the world, public transportation is sparse, and you’ve already met everyone in town—at least twice. Or you’re intimidated by the craziness of a city outside of your window and, despite being surrounded by 6.5 million people, you feel lost and alone. Your fellow expats travel to exotic places every weekend, and your roommates lock themselves in their rooms, calling home at every available opportunity.
You’re bored, you’re lonely, and you’re in a completely new country. But before you start looking into flights back, you should know that feeling this way is totally typical. Even after traveling to nearly 40 countries and working internationally in seven, I personally still have to consciously push through phases of uncertainty as I adapt to life outside of America. Because of that, I know that you can overcome these feelings and turn your experience into one you truly enjoy. And the good news is that it’s even easier than you think.
1. Get to Know Your Co-Workers
Odds are you’re not the only person in your workplace who’s feeling isolated. But you’ll never know if you’re too shy to say something (since everyone in your boat is just as shy as you).
The solution is simple: Take charge! Send out a mass email, put up a bulletin post, plan an international dinner party, go play trivia at the local pub, or organize a day trip to the park.
But don’t only connect with other ex-pats. Ian O’Sullivan, owner of PremierTEFL, always encourages his foreign staff to go out of their way to develop relationships with their local co-workers: “The mix of local and international colleagues gives the opportunity to experience our country like a native. To be part of national celebrations, hang out at our homes, and experience life with our families.”
Depending on your company, you might be working alongside other people who are also new the country, and like you, were drawn to work abroad, so you already have that in common. With that in mind, you should be able to find at least one person to bond with—and that can make a huge difference in your comfort level in your new country.
2. Pursue a Hobby
Your time abroad shouldn’t just be about work—it’s about cultural and personal growth as well. More than likely, you’re interested in something other than the work you signed up for.
Whether it’s theater, book clubs, salsa dancing, drumming circles, or film; there’s probably a class, community, or place for you to go. Take a side job. Plant a garden. Paint a masterpiece (OK, masterpiece might be pushing it).
At the end of each week, you’ll want to feel like you did more than just eat, sleep, and work—that’s going to be true wherever you are on the map. Along with making you feel more engaged, it’s another great way to meet people.
3. Take Your Online Network Offline
Maybe you’re not good at approaching strangers, or maybe you can’t seem to find opportunities to meet people in daily life. That’s OK: You can turn your search online.
Check out sites like Meetup that let you network from behind your computer screen before meeting anyone in person. It’ll make the process less intimidating, and you’ll still come away with new local contacts.
4. Be a Part of the Community
People tend to say “yes” to people who offer help, so use that to your advantage. Find a business around town that caters to your interests (bookstore, medical clinic, animal shelter, and so on.), go in, smile bright, and tell the truth. Say: “I’m new here. I miss [books/helping others/animals] in my life. I have free time, and I’d like to to lend a hand.”
By volunteering, you’ll have something else to do, you’ll make a positive difference, and you’ll also meet like-minded people. Plus, who knows where these new friendships will lead?
Rosie Mansfield, manager of travel startup GoCambio, works with multiple international members staff annually. She shares: “The most successful [staff members] make it a priority to call their new location home… to join clubs, find their routine and connect with the familiar faces around them (whether it’s at the supermarket or gym).”
5. Try Something New
Maybe you can’t find a piano to practice on an improv group to get involved with like you did back home. Well then, why not try something completely different? After all, you’re in a new place, with new people, and a new mindset—what better time to try something out?
Go take a couple of language classes (it’ll help you meet fellow internationals and better communicate with locals), check out free seminars, or try your hand at pottery. Better yet, learn an art or skill indigenous to your locale. If you’re in Ireland, learn a traditional jig from the masters. If you’re in a Peruvian mountaintop town, learn to weave a rug. Dig into local history or architecture and soak up all the firsthand knowledge you can.
6. Keep the Bigger Picture in Mind
Finally, remember this: All jobs are temporary (if you want them to be). This isn’t a lifelong commitment, so take it as an intensive career development session in an exciting location.
Instead of counting down the days, shift your mind to your here and now. Remember the old you, who was super-excited to find a job abroad? Channel your past self and savor the culture, foods, and lifestyle. Be flexible and adapt.
Don’t just whine that you can’t get your favorite flavor of kombucha, that the oranges aren’t as sweet as back home, or that you can’t find capoeira classes. You came here to learn—not just a new skill, but about a new place, and about yourself as a person—and that’s exactly what you’ve been the given opportunity to do.
Before you know it, it’ll be time to start thinking about if you want to stay or return home. And at some point, the answer may be home. So ask yourself: Wouldn’t you rather head back with amazing memories and emails for all your new friends than a story about how you simply made it through?