Living Abroad Has Its Challenges

Living in a foreign country excites the imagination, ignites the adventurous spirit, and inspires you to explore. It can also scare the pants off you. Learning to live in another country is more than simply learning to get to the office, making yourself understood in a local language, and eating different food. You have to learn how to do many new things while unlearning old that have become second nature.  You must accept your new home on its terms – not yours.  Living abroad successfully also involves a subtle but important change in your expectations of yourself and others. More importantly, you have to cope with the loss of identity and familiarity and get along without some of the personal perks in your life that provide encouragement, meaning and FUN!

And so every now and then when I read a piece about an expat sent abroad who discovers that “it’s not what I expected” or the spouse gives an ultimatum “me or the job” as noted in this article on “What To Do When Relocating Abroad” in Forbes, I’m baffled. Was it the allure of Paris? Didn’t anyone tell the spouse that there may be opportunities to ride in Paris – similar to those in New York City – but that it’s not the wide open grasslands of Texas?

With the sheer cost involved, both financial and human capital, why aren’t companies more selective in choosing the right employees and working with both the employee and spouse/partner to make sure it’s not a career buster?  Most of the large corporations I consult with on global relocation and cross-cultural management issues have wised up to the importance of preparing professionals.  So, too, are employees.  Although a stint abroad can do wonders for fast-tracking your career as I wrote in my book Get Ahead By Going Abroad, it can also be a career buster if you turn down an assignment, leave early, or don’t adapt or adjust to deliver for the company.

According to HR professionals I’ve worked with, a spouse’s reaction to the relocation is the number one reason such international transfers are successful or not; a spouse’s happiness is critical to your ability to do your job.  I know. My husband was a “trailing spouse” – a terrible term – when we moved to Hong Kong years ago. He left a job as a researcher/writer at Washington, D.C.-based environmental think tank to follow me and my career. He had rough ride at first, trying to find a job working on environmental issues (no green movement in sight at the time) and so he reinvented himself as a travel writer. It was a great gig that took him all over Asia spending time in the Kingdom of Brunei, watching the orangutans in the forests of Borneo, and biking through most major cities in China.  But he had to make it work. He did it for me and, when my three years was up, he asked that I not extend or move on to Tokyo or Kuala Lumpur.  I agreed despite my desire to continue globetrotting.

I grew to appreciate that because we had left our network of family and friends behind, the two of us became everything to each other, which was a bit overwhelming.  Moreover, it’s usually even harder on the spouse because the employee has work, colleagues, activities – an instant culture into which to assimilate.  A partner has to begin everything from scratch – that’s tough enough with an in-country relocation and even harder in another culture, possibly even a second language.

But we can learn from others.  In Get Ahead By Going Abroad, I interviewed more than 200 professionals who moved abroad, soliciting common advice on issues critical to a successful stint working abroad.  One of these is to make sure that you and your spouse take a look-see trip if at all possible. Imagine yourself living there, how would your life fit into your new home city. What would be different, perhaps the same.  And then, once you move, another critical piece of advice involves how to handle your first week on the ground because many times this first week sets the tone for the overall experience, kind of like first impressions; they’re hard to get over.  To enhance a great first impression, make sure you do the following six important things the first week on the ground without going into the office, if at all possible:


  • Nail down your personal must haves, be it a gym, a massage therapist or a particular brand of coffee, appreciate the importance of those “little things.”
  • Make contact with at least one other international contact, who can be an on-the-ground source of information and assistance.
  • Make sure you have at least one local contact, because sometimes only local help will do.
  • Familiarize yourself with the transportation system be it your own car, the subway or a system of commuter trains.
  • Set up house with the clothes you have, photos and stock the fridge to begin to make it like home.
  • Explore your new home, get a feel for the place, stroll the streets, be a tourist.

But it doesn’t stop here. There’s practical advice on the first month, the first year and so on – even practical and tried-and-true tips on ensuring a successful return.  Others have done it and successfully. Why not profit from their experiences to ensure the best outcome for your international assignment. It could be the difference between fast-tracking your career and fast-talking to save it.

Original Appeared on Huffington Post on Nov. 16, 2010.