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27.3.12

Going Native

We get a significant amount of email around here along the lines of, "How do I go ex-pat?"  That's akin to asking, "What flavor of ice cream should I like?"  The answer is about as individual as it gets.

What we can do is go over some of the things to consider and hopefully come up with some to-dos when it comes to making such a move.

It happens quite frequently throughout history, where a large number of people up and leave a country for financial, political or social reasons.  Pre-war Germany is a good example.  A great number of folks didn't like the direction the country was taking and decided to bug-out.

It's happening right now in Europe and the States.  A great number of people have, or are considering leaving for more hospitable climes.  If this describes you, then let's explore the options and problems.

The very first thing you need to do is decide to leave or not.  Maybe you think you've done that already, but I mean put all marbles in the circle and see how the game looks then.  You are talking about leaving pretty much any familial and social connection you have.  This is not just moving across the country, this is a major effort to come home, or for folks to come see you.  Are you ready for that level of commitment?

Going ex-pat is a commitment.  You have to want it bad enough that you will suffer pretty much anything to make a go of it.  The first few months will be incredible difficult.  There are a thousand small adjustments to be made in your life, from language to food to people you associate with on a daily basis.  You will feel very isolated and strange until you get enough language under your belt to be able to hold a polite conversation on a variety of topics.  Nothing will go the way you expected and planned for (see planning), and even tasks such as hooking up water and electrical service, or getting a local SIM card for your phone can be traumatic.

You will also be seen as a tourist and treated as such, paying quite a bit more for things than the guy next to you.  Everyone will appear to be digging in your pocket until you can show that you are there to stay, and that takes time.  I've spoken a number of times in past articles about the difference between a traveler and a tourist.  Becoming an ex-pat requires, in no uncertain terms, that you be a traveler.  You have to love the process as much as the product, or you WILL wash out.

As for planning, well, I've lived and worked in five countries (outside of Texas, that is).  The best advice here is dump everything you think you need.  Pack one suitcase with a week's worth of clothes and a few pictures and go.  Don't bring the house.  You can get that wherever you're going.  If you can't leave it all behind, then don't go.  You will want to remain as mobile as possible until you are secure enough to start collecting stuff again.

After you dump all the stuff, triple the amount of money you figure you'll need, excluding transportation to your new home.  You'll need to get set up first, and that's going to take some cash, no matter how you slice it, even if you're going the cheapest possible way (tent, backpack, etc.).  Even then, you'll want a hot bath once in a while, and that will take a hotel room.  Avoid credit cards, as paying bills is a hassle you don't want while you're getting settled.

However you plan to make money in your new home, be sure to have at least three options.  More than likely, you'll be on Plan C before things really start clicking.  I'm already on Plan G in just four short years.  One very good source for ideas on making money is a book called, "Reinventing Yourself Overseas."  It's in the Amazon portal in the right column.  Excellent book with a lot of great ideas and resources.

Some popular ways to go about living are teaching, writing and translating.  These happen to be the three things I chose, with international trading as a sideline, plus whatever other opportunities come along.  Keep in mind that having a large toolbox of capabilities will improve your chances tremendously.  Language and business skills will go a long way, along with some marketing experience (both for yourself and for an employer).  What you need to think about is what can you do that will be rare and/or in demand in your new land.

Using things like LinkedIn helps.  You'll find discussion boards for various countries, with the occasional job opportunities popping up.  BE CAREFUL!  There are a lot of scams offering jobs to ex-pats.  Thoroughly check out any prospects.  One popular source of dependable jobs is the hotel and leisure sector.  Some folks have pretty good luck with the diplomatic route.  Just remember, if the employer is legit, they generally don't ask you to put up any money.  They pay the way.

The discussion boards will help you learn the ins and outs and ups and downs of your destination.  You can get inside information on visas, legal issues, housing, cheap places to get necessities and places to avoid.  You might also make a connection or two so that someone will know where you are and how you are doing after you arrive.  Having one or two phone numbers for folks nearby is like gold.  The traveler's code is that we watch out for each other.

If you're going cold, you'll need to plan on border jumping every so often until you get settled in.  Depending on where you are, this can be a brisk walk or an arduous odyssey.  I've spent many a night in an airport, train or bus station for this little chore.  Keep in mind that most countries don't mind you job hunting (as long as you got bank), but if you start working without a permit or visa, you can scare up some trouble pretty fast in most places outside the US.

A final bit of advice: if you're not willing to dive into the local culture, you won't be long there.  By this I mean avoid tourist places and spend as much time as you can afford learning the language and the social graces.  Being polite and a good sport will open a lot of doors and mark you as one of the gang.  Being a good sport means trying some new food, no matter what part of the animal is comes from, or joining in a social event like Friday night basketball in the neighborhood.  Show that you're willing to be part of things, and let folks get a laugh here and there at your expense.

This is both necessary for your integration, and provides protection.  If trouble comes, your fellow ex-pats won't be much help, but your neighbors will be.  They'll stand up for you and help you should things get a little rough.  This has proved to be an invaluable tactic time and again.

The faster and better you can communicate, the more opportunities will come your way.  If you can politely greet people, ask for things and be appropriately thankful, you'd be amazed at how fast you will fit in pretty much anywhere.  This usually amounts to learning about 10 or 15 phrases, so we're not talking about a major effort for big payoffs.

I've read a lot of articles about going ex-pat, and few have covered these rather important considerations.  They don't often dive into the gritty reality of making a real go of it.  The biggest mistakes I see people make are being overly attached to stuff, not having backup plans, and being afraid to let go and really immerse in the new culture.

Of the places I've lived, I've never gone there before I moved there, and in only two cases (Ireland and Spain) was I fluent in the language before I stepped off the plane.  So it can be done.  It is NOT easy, though, and I don't recommend it for anyone but the most hardcore travelers.

This is not the executive transfer for a year type gig.  This is a serious attempt to leave an old country and enter a new one for good and on your own.  There won't be hazard pay and bonuses and free rides.  This is creating your own opportunities and making your own choices in life.  The odds are stacked against you and the hardships are plenty, but the rewards are indescribable.  It is rugged individualism writ large.

There's plenty of other considerations, and you can find a lot of articles covering them in depth, but as I said, not many bring up these particular topics.  To boil it all down to a nutshell (and mix a couple of metaphors), reduce as many variables as you can, then have as many contingencies as you can muster for those that remain.  In all cases, be prepared for the unexpected, and learn to trust your instincts and your self.

Becoming an ex-pat, or more appropriately, a transnational citizen, can be a richly rewarding choice and one that is bound to broaden horizons and leave indelible memories. If you want it bad enough, it's yours.  But isn't that true of everything in life?

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