Thinking about working overseas?

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

You never know when your company might require you – or ask for volunteers to work – with an office or a branch overseas.

Moving to a foreign country might seem like a dream come true— or it might be one of the most difficult and frustrating experiences of your life.

There are some practical considerations you need to take into account when you’re planning to build your new – and for better or worse- memorable shift in lifestyle.

I lived in Beijing, China for a year. To put it mildly, every aspect of life could not be more different than life in the USA. What is considered edible – and how to eat it – is only the beginning.

If you are going to Asia, practice your use of chopsticks.

Besides that, here are few more universal suggestions;

1. Do some homework before you go

Consider every aspect you can, from weather to transportation, social options and potential entertainment.

Some companies provide housing – some with other ex-pats.

As much as I like spending free time with others with my cultural background, I prefer spending as much time as possible with the locals.

You won’t learn much about the culture if you don’t spend time with the natives. And go out of your way to meet them right away.

Learn a few rudimentary words if you are heading to a non-English speaking country.

You probably won’t need very many, but your effort, as clumsy and awkward as it might be, will be appreciated.

If you can learn two or three words a day, in just a few months you could have a pretty solid sense of how the language works – the locals will more than likely be thrilled to fill you in on the subtleties.

Also, unless you are headed for Liberia or Myanmar, you better review the metric system.

Yes, the United States, Liberia and Myanmar are the only nations NOT on the metric system. It’s a long story….

2. Act like a grown up.

For whatever reason, Americans abroad tend to get a little wild. Remember that everywhere you go, you are a representative of America (and your company).

Do your best to avoid perpetuating the stereotype of the “ugly American” – the rude, boorish jerk with too much money and too little courtesy.

Remember that you are a guest. Keep your rude and condescending words or actions to yourself.

3. Visit before you move

It may seem obvious that you should visit your potential new home first, but I mean a real visit—preferably more than one—not just a vacation.

Try to experience as much of the area as possible. Visit in different seasons so you know what it would be like to live there year-round, not just in the most pleasant seasons.

Explore different neighborhoods. Stay in different types of housing. Maybe you’ll like living in the middle of a city, with cafés, shops, and theaters within walking distance, or prefer the inter-cultural experience of a small village or neighborhood.

What you think you want, or what you are accustomed to might be very different than what you discover – and may be forced to accommodate yourself to in this new chapter of your life.

Living anywhere on a regular, everyday basis is very different from visiting for a vacation.

Consider your needs and preferences when it comes to access to food, spare time or social activities.

Computer delivery by bicycle- you never know what you'll see on the streets - especially in China.   Photo: Morf Morford
Computer delivery by bicycle- you never know what you’ll see on the streets – especially in China. Photo: Morf Morford

4. Check out shopping, services, and cost of living

Research this with your preferred lifestyle in mind. You want to be comfortable and not dependent on having things sent from home. Can you find the shampoo, laundry soap, and medicines you regularly use? What about lamps, cotton sheets and towels, appliances and tools? Walk through the grocery stores and see what’s available. Don’t assume a big-box store in any given country has the same items it does in the U.S.

Many countries have Costco, Walmart or McDonalds – but that does not mean that they will have the same products you expect back home.

Is there a hairdresser, vet, access to schools or public transportation? What do internet, electricity, and car/house insurance cost?

Some Scandinavian countries have a sales tax of over 100% on private automobiles. Are you ready to negotiate commuting by public transit or bicycle?

Will your cellphone plan work? I’d recommend a phone package with an international plan if you have friends or family back home.

5. Do some research on the healthcare 

For most of us, this can be a deal-breaker. You’ll want to explore thoroughly what medical service infrastructures exist in the town or area where you’re going. What kind and how many doctors, labs, and dentists are there? Do they speak English, take insurance, work with a local hospital? Is there ambulance service? Take the time to visit hospitals or clinics, doctors and dentists, and check out prices and available services. In this case, asking on local internet forums can be helpful to set you in the right direction.

6. Get your personal papers in order

On a routine daily basis, few of us keep track of our essential papers besides our driver’s license and wallet, but  when you’re a foreigner, birth, marriage, and divorce certificates may be required for many, many things. Update or renew your passport and driver’s licenses, then make copies to keep in a safe place, and don’t forget to leave a copy with a relative or trusted friend in your home country.

Bringing a pet? Find out what they’ll need to cross the border and make arrangements for any useful or required vaccinations for their new home

Canal in Copenhagen                                     Photo: Morf Morford
Canal in Copenhagen Photo: Morf Morford

7. Investigate Money Matters

Figure out how and where you’ll do your banking. You may be able to take care of your banking needs online and with your ATM card. Thinking of opening a new bank account in your new home? Find out before you go if that’s even possible—or necessary—and what the requirements are.

8. Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!

Get rid of those clothes and shoes you never wear (or that don’t fit), all those extra dishes and glasses, older pots, or small appliances you never use. Go through every closet and drawer—and then go through them again six months later. But, having said that…

9. Keep Some Sentimental Items

When you’re thousands of miles away from them, things your grown kids made when they were little take on an even more special meaning. That scarf your mother gave you, those hand-made Mother’s Day cards from your kids—all those random (but small)  pieces of your life back home, put them all in a box and take them with you. I guarantee that you will encounter levels of homesickness you never imagined possible. Allow yourself this small luxury—you’ll be happy you did.

10. Prepare for the experience of your life

For better or worse, this will be a distinctive, possibly even life-defining experience. There are few certainties about live in a foreign setting – but the indescribably unexpected will certainly be a continuing theme.

You will quickly learn that the most vivid lasting memories will not be of the tourist sites that everyone sees, but the friendships and shared experiences you will never forget.

If you have children, this could be one of the greatest gifts you could give them.

When I lived in China, I got to know a couple – the husband was German and the wife was Canadian. They had two boys who attended a neighborhood Chinese elementary school. The two boys spoke fluent English, German and Chinese.

Think of the legacy these two boys will carry with them the rest of their lives.

You too just might carry a love or fascination – or at least fond memories – of your foreign experience long after you return home.

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