Starting an expat assignment implies a new job and a new home. Those are key components of this change of life: culture differences at work and often a new work rhythm, a brand new work/life balance, a new home often chosen on line or hastily with a relocation agency (sure you have a great city view, but the water doesn’t always make it to the 53rd floor…. Don’t you wish someone had brought this to your attention before?). But change does not stop at this. The social aspect of a life in a country, different than the one you come from, is undoubtedly the most challenging part.
In general, a change of life and country can be much harder for the “trailing spouse” than it is for the working partner. Whereas the working partner will naturally get opportunities to socialise in the new office or work place, be introduced, be asked to join dinners, the partner that follows with the luggage and with or without the furniture, can quickly suffer from isolation and rapidly feel de-socialised. Along with the difficulty to recreate a life and routine, to meet new faces and recreate a social life, the trailing spouse often also experiences the negative perception of those that see him/her like the “lucky” one that enjoys a fancy sabbatical abroad, free of obligations. But when asked, the following spouses mainly perceive this situation as a downgrade, for the first few weeks at least.
That was my case, 5 years ago, sat on my sofa, wondering where to start. Three countries and a bunch of boxes later, here is what I learnt, or what others kindly taught me.
Explore your neighbourhood.
Walk the streets around your new home, whether it is an apartment, a house or even if you stay long term in a hotel. Look for all the sort of place you feel you may need, cafes and restaurants, good shops, cinema, bakery, your closest supermarket or deli. Yes you are abroad and expected to embrace a new culture and new experience, but the museums can wait. First you need to build your nest. Create a routine and as soon as possible greet and smile to the people in your selected new favourite shops. For you will find it very comforting that soon enough, they recognise you and greet you first. This is a sign you have created your first new habits. Lots of good things will come from that. The principle is to make the unfamiliar become familiar as rapidly as possible
Look for blogs and websites.
Your newly found restaurant or café has a Facebook page? Why don’t you follow it and see who are regulars? Some may happen to come from the same country as you. Local websites and blogs are also a great way to start networking and following who does what. I have two charming neighbours who became friends thanks to one writing a blog about her new life as an expat and the other following that blog while preparing for her move. The latter eventually contacted the former, and as they got to live in the same city on the other side of the world, they eventually started meeting for coffee and becoming expat friends.
Start to network via Facebook, What’sApp, Instagram
Facebook is usually a very useful networking tool for expats (and yes, some will recommend LinkedIn, but unless you are looking to network professionally…) thanks to its very long list of groups, per city, per language, and mainly a LOT of groups for expatriates, students abroad and any and every person looking to meet people of other cultures. It is almost certain a group of expats already exists for your city/country of destination. Join one, or two, introduce yourself, and a few happy souls will jump in to tell you they have come in the same circumstances as you and will happily meet you round a cup of coffee.
Besides groups, Facebook also has an event near you option, promoting markets, festivals, open door days, and all sorts of other theatrical/musical events. Spend a few minutes going through them, and by the time you finish, you will realise your event calendar is already starting to fill up.
What’sApp is more used as a proximity tool. When you move to a new place, and you start meeting a few people, do not hesitate to ask if they know of local groups, often used by parents of a school, employees of a company etc. Colleagues at work, or colleagues of your spouse, are likely to be added. If you have children, the international school parents probably have a What’sApp group to share information quickly and ask questions, share tips. Those may not be direct meet and greet groups, but they help your integration, you have access to information, and have reliable answers shared by people who, more often than not, share your experience and your apprehensions of moving to a new place.
Instagram is a more generational App, you are on it, or you are not. If you have an Instagram account, make sure to tag your photos with the city you have moved to, and search similar tags. This is more of a slow process. Realising you are regularly sharing posts from the same iconic café as a couple people that describe themselves as expats, or relocated in the area, is an opportunity to seize. Meanwhile, following photo galleries of people in your new hometown will rapidly highlight nice places to see, nice food to try, events happening.
The Language is half of the solution
Join language classes. First of all because the language barrier is a real barrier. Not an absolute one, as some major cities around the world are so cosmopolitan that people seem to get by in all sorts of languages. However, people who join language classes are more likely to be in the same situation as you, foreigners in a new land. The classes usually bring you more than just grammar or vocabulary, they help you figure out some basics about your new host country, its customs and its codes. And they give you a first surrounding of people who will share with you the frustration and the excitement of learning to communicate in a new country.
Meet your spouse’s colleagues.
Your working spouse is going to be integrated in a new company or work environment that is rich with potential encounters. From local employees who may have wife or girl friend who would be delighted to show you around, to other fellow expats who will have experienced your first difficult steps too. And because work is such a stepping stone to integration in a new environment, why not look for an activity yourself if your status or visa allows it. If in your case work is not possible, volunteering can offer a nice alternative to some.