Expat counselors offer advice and strategies for adjusting to life overseas
By Elizabeth Roberts
A recent survey by InterNations, the expat networking group, shone a light on the biggest problems that can cast a dark shadow over life overseas. We asked two women well-versed in helping people to deal with such woes, to offer some advice.
Dyhan Summers runs a Delhi-based psychotherapy practice, Expat Counseling and Coaching Services (expatcounselingandcoaching.com). Through face-to-face and video conferencing sessions, Dhyan, who is from the U.S., helps members of the international community find solutions to the challenges of living abroad.
Yelena Parker, a Ukraine-born, London-based regional director for a mobile technology firm, has lived in America, Switzerland and Tanzania. She used her experience of being an expat to write Moving Without Shaking (movingwithoutshaking.com), a guide to successful expat life.
1: I miss my personal support network
Yelena: “Maintaining your friendships and family relationships will require more work. It is easier to leave than to be left behind: you are the one who should take the lead on sharing news, asking for and offering support.
“If you use social networks, people will get your updates, but don’t assume that your social life online can replace one-to-one interactions. Set schedules and make commitments with people who are important to you. You could get in touch using a messenger service like Viber or WhatsApp or schedule video sessions on Skype to feel like you are getting some face-to-face time despite the distance.”
2: I am worried about my future finances
Dyhan: “Once you’ve made the decision to lead an expat life, even if it’s just for a couple of years, future finances need to be a part of that decision. Assuming you’ve thought about this going into your move, there’s no need to keep revisiting it. It’s one of those circular thoughts that lead nowhere.
“If you find your anxiety level around future finances is too high, then the decision to live abroad needs to be revisited. I suggest you meet with a financial planner prior to making your decision to live abroad.”
3: I am single, and the expat lifestyle makes having a relationship difficult
Dhyan: “This is true. It is difficult to be single and live abroad for a variety of reasons. For the most part, among working expats, the vast majority are young families. There are some single expat career women, but very few single men. I suggest that my single expat clients gather information about a new posting to see if it is ‘single friendly’.
“Talk to other single people at a posting, see if there are activities for singles, and what the country attitude is toward singles, before making a decision to accept a new posting.”
4: I need to adjust to a different business culture and I don’t have a professional network here
Yelena: “Learning about a new business culture can be very rewarding or very painful. Keep an open mind and be flexible. Don’t expect that the local business people will adjust to you. Hold your judgments, learn what’s appropriate and works best from other expats and your colleagues.
“There are many blogs and books that can help you with the basics for pretty much any country you have moved to. For networking, try a mix of online and face-to-face activities to cover more ground in a shorter period of time.
“Start by tapping your online contacts such as LinkedIn and Facebook friends. Have they lived in the location you have moved to? Have they worked with someone from that location? Ask for introductions, don’t be shy. Identify industry events and groups and start attending early after you move.”
5: I have trouble making new friends
Dhyan: “This is the lament of most expats at one time or another. The expat bubble is such that people cycle through, usually for two- or three-year stints. So if you’re in a country for longer, chances are that you will have friends leaving, and some expats say that after a while they don’t even want to make new friends, as they will only leave. I’m reminded of the adage, ‘It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.’
“If you’re finding it difficult to make new friends, I suggest finding something you feel passionate about that involves other people, a sure-fire way to make lasting friendships. Whether it’s learning a new language, taking a class or volunteering, it doesn’t matter what it is. Just make sure that it involves being around other people, as there’s nothing like bonding over a common interest to pave the way to true friendship.”
6: The language barrier is a problem for me
Yelena: “Spend as much time as you can afford and use free or inexpensive language learning tools to get started prior to your move. Consider getting a language tutor who is open to work with you on Skype to save time. Once you move, you won’t have much choice but immerse. Don’t resist it. Making mistakes is better than not trying at all.
“Explore local meetup groups focused on language learning. Consider exchange-tutoring someone in your language in exchange for them helping you with theirs.”
7: I have had trouble with culture shock
Dhyan: “One thing I always counsel my clients about is that culture shock is a temporary phenomenon. Sooner or later the culture shock phase morphs into your new normal. During this period, try to keep an open mind.”
8: My partner/family doesn’t seem happy with the decision to move here
Yelena: “Let’s imagine that moving back is not an option for you and your partner so you have to adapt to your new home country. Your partner has to start building his or her own support network. This will take time. Are you in a new language environment? Make sure your partner takes language classes.
“Identify any support groups for expat partners – these exist in many locations. Does your partner need to find a new purpose, create a new plan? Consider recommending an expat coach to work on new life goals and plans to achieve them.”
9: Moving abroad has been bad for my mental health.
Dhyan: “There is a lot of stress and pressure to succeed when you’re an expat, particularly a working one. For some people this can be too stressful. At times, either the working partner, the accompanying spouse, or the single expat can feel overwhelmed, depressed or anxious.
“If this happens, and persists over time, I suggest seeking professional help. You can either Google counselling for expats, or consult your embassy for a list of mental health professionals in your host city.”
10: I am tired of expat life and would really like to settle down
Dhyan: “There comes a time in every expat’s life when it’s simply time to go home. Sometimes this is triggered by a milestone, such as the birth of a child or illness of an aging parent. At other times, you’ve had enough of the expat lifestyle and it’s just time to settle down.
“When stability seems to be beckoning you home, it is often wise to heed the call. My advice to my clients who are repatriating is to welcome this new phase and see what opportunities it can bring.”
Credit: The Telegraph, www.telegraph.co.uk