Working Abroad: How to Transition to Your New Life
It was my first day on the ground for a new job in Thailand. After sharing a meal at the main office, one of the HR program coordinators pushed a paper across the desk for me to sign and handed over an envelope filled thick with local currency. She said, “This is to start your life here. Let me know if you need any help finding housing or if you have any questions.”
And that was it. I walked onto the Bangkok subway with a giant wad of cash ready to start my new life. But in reality, I was overwhelmed by where to start.
Moving abroad for work can be daunting—and during your transition, things aren’t always set up perfectly on the ground. If you’re working outside of an office (like in a rural area or at an organization in the field), it might even be more challenging to feel at home. Here are my tips on how to start a new life and make a smooth transition to your new job abroad.
Seek Housing That Fits Your Comfort Zone
One of my colleagues living in a rural area would often call me distraught: “There is a gecko the size of a watermelon in my kitchen sink right now—can I stay with you for the weekend?” And my small studio apartment became the place to get away from housing horrors.
Housing really matters, whether you are working at a corporation or in the Peace Corps, and you have to make sure that your accommodations work for you. Consider your must-have amenities and your deal breakers (like no hot water or toilet), the neighborhood you want to live in and that which you would settle for, and a price range that's feasible for you. If you are being provided accommodations or are housed in a rural area, make sure to check for leaks, locks, and any other issue that might create problems, and notify your office right away.
If you decide to start your search at home, you can try posts on Couchsurfing, expat Facebook groups or message boards, and listservs, and it can also be helpful to ask colleagues or alumni of your program who may have stayed in the same community. If you are going through a local real estate agent, know that it might not be as easy as House Hunters International—while it can be a convenient option, you might be only shown a few options that the agency has a relationship with and pressured to make a decision quickly.
No matter where you settle, though, know that your housing options will be different, but you should always feel comfortable and safe in your surroundings.
Choose Transport Wisely
My morning commute used to involve steadying myself on the back of a motorbike with one hand, grasping a juice pack with the other. It wasn’t that I enjoyed darting in between cars in stop-and-go traffic, but it was the only way to get to work on time. Taxis would take hours to get anywhere in the daily traffic. While looking back, I probably should have considered my safety, motorbikes were just a way of life in Southeast Asia.
You’ll have to decide what mode of transportation will be most efficient to get you to work—whether it’s subway or monorail, group taxi or van, bus, commuter train, whatever. A lot of times, this is trial and error, and things you normally wouldn’t consider the best way to get to work back home will get you between places a lot faster. In Burma, for example, I got around with an everyday bicycle, and in Trinidad I got around by a Maxi Taxi (a public van), which cut down my commute time.
While it may seem intimidating when you first get there, trying different means of transport will make life a lot easier in the long run. In a few months, you’ll know the best routes as if you were navigating your home city.
Become Part of a Community
Having a strong network can really help you take the first step to making things feel like home. Being part of a community is a way to make friends, find travel partners, and even gain some mentors who have been in your shoes before.
The good news? Networking abroad isn’t as difficult as some cocktail mixers back home. Among other expats, you’ll always have something to bond over: You are, after all, in the same country for a reason. Whether you’d prefer to connect with people at fundraisers, at religious services, or over a pint, be open, and make small talk with everyone you meet. And make sure you stay open to everyone and their stories. Trust me: There are people I befriended over the course of my time abroad that I never thought I’d become friends with, but we’re still in touch today.
It’s also important to step outside the expat bubble and become part of the larger local community. Take part in local holidays and community events, and get to know people in your office and neighborhood. I often met close local friends by becoming a regular at a certain restaurant or food stall and being involved in local charities. And I would use every meeting with a new person as an opportunity to improve my language skills, helping me find many new friends along the way.
Balance Cultural Expectations
In South Africa, a friend was telling me about a new foreign CEO of her company. “She may have a great resume, but no one likes her,” she said. “She manages us like she is in her own country; she doesn’t understand the hearts and minds of our people.”
As I continue my work in international settings, I consider this a lot. Before you take any position, you must learn the norms and values of your new colleagues, and adjust your working style and preferences to work in this new setting.
Start by making an effort to learn the language (even a little bit will help), and really begin to understand the values of the people. Take any opportunity to share a meal with colleagues or engage in small talk—being visible is key in the office. Make sure you listen a lot to help you get your bearings of how things work. And, most importantly, always speak with patience and respect, even if you are getting frustrated or don’t understand.
Also, as I learned early on, try not to stress out. You are in a new culture, things will be frustrating, you will make mistakes—and that’s all OK. Setting up your life abroad will be a lot easier if you can cut yourself some slack and learn to laugh at your mistakes.
Stay in Touch With Home
Ever have that colleague or friend who was constantly on the phone with a significant other while on a trip? It can be tough to deal with, and it seems like that person's always missing out on a new experience.
But, you don’t want to be the person who simply disappears, either. One key factor in setting up your new life is to stay in touch with the people you care about back home. While you’re exploring and traveling, it will ensure that you have people to reach out to when you need support, are in a jam, or just feel lonely. Whether you set up weekly Skype dates, start a subscription based e-newsletter about your travels, or create a blog or Facebook post that people can post feedback on, find ways to keep communication lines going, and definitely don't fall off the face of the Earth. Remember, there will be a time you come back home from your work abroad, and you will want to make sure that you keep your relationships strong.
At an alumni reunion for our co-workers in Thailand, many of us were reminiscing about our experiences and realized that we all felt the same way when we left the office with the envelope of cash in our hands. When talking with our director, she explained that they let us free in such a way because they knew that the people they selected were capable—we didn't need hand holding, and we could pave our way in our new country. And even though it seemed impossible at the time, we all managed to succeed in our work there.
And, don’t worry. You will, too.
Photo of plane courtesy of Shutterstock.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author