The rich tapestry of cultures, languages and traditions around the world ensures that no two expat experiences will be the same. Equally, each assignment has specific business objectives and will come with different professional challenges. And of course, each individual will respond in his or her personal way.
However, despite this unpredictability, there are many things all expat experiences have in common. In fact, we`ve been in the relocation game long enough to say that the following are things that WILL happen at some point, to some degree, during your time overseas.
The FIDI crystal ball is out – and this is what we see in store for each and every one of you. Enjoy The Expat Tales – six stories about six things that you will have to face as an expat, and the tactics to deal with it.
Story 1: Fear of leaving
What you will feel as your departure date approaches is fear of leaving and starting something new.
There was no fear at the start for Laura, obviously. Just elation at being chosen for the position and a thrill at the adventure ahead. Not to mention a little smugness because arch-enemy James Thompson applied for the post but didn’t get it, and Laura has never liked the guy. But now that thrill is replaced by nerves. There are just three months to go, the real planning stress is kicking in, and she’s getting apprehensive.
What will it be like? What is expected of her at work? Where will the kids go to school? What vaccinations do they need? The list goes on for another fifty questions at least, and that’s not counting the ones she forgot to ask.
Fact of life: nerves are normal.
Solution: Preparation is key; work with someone who has done it all before. An experienced global mobility manager at the office and a FAIM-certified relocation expert should be able to reassure you that everything is in place and help you set a step-by-step road map.
Story 2: Lost/delayed shipments
Every day millions of suitcases, trunks and cardboard boxes of varying shapes and sizes are loaded onto planes, trains, trucks and ships. The law of averages says that some of them won’t reach the right place. And the law of expat averages also states that some of your items will not make it to your new destination when you need them.
You may simply forget them. But there is also a chance that bad weather, industrial action, over-zealous customs officials or simple bad luck will deflect some of your belongings from their intended destination.
Sharif got off lightly. He had planned to arrive a few days before his family, and stay in a hotel while he sorted the formalities of their rented flat. Nice plan, but he hadn’t anticipated that the main shipment of household belongings would be delayed two weeks due to a labor strike in an interim port. Sharif and his family simply wanted something to put in their lovely, new, and completely empty flat.
Fact of life: something, somewhere will go wrong.
Solution: working with a proper relocation company lowers the risk losing your goods due to bad management or human error – and you will be offered proper insurance if things do go bad. You just may have to go shopping a little earlier than you expected.
Story 3: Bureaucratic hell
Some countries are highly organized, others less so. Some suffer from corruption in public service, others are squeaky clean. The thing is, it doesn’t really matter because red tape is an inevitable part of an assignment, and it can be a serious pain.
Brian’s case is quite typical. He needs a national identity card to show that he is eligible to work in his new host country. The company office said they couldn’t give him a swipe card to get into the building without one. But the only time he can visit the relevant Government Agency is on Saturday morning. The same is true for many other people, which is why all 137 are already in queue ahead of him when he gets there at 9am. He wouldn’t mind the wait, but the refusal (4 hours later) to issue a card on the grounds that the application hadn’t been countersigned by his employer made Brian wish he’d stayed at home.
The details may vary, but the core fact remains that red tape will tie you up and try to strangle you at some point.
Fact of life: bureaucrats, the world over, are rather strict people.
Solution: ask previous expats to share horror stories (and how they got out of them), ask your HR department to check and double-check that all the paperwork has been done correctly, and ask your FIDI mover for insider advice.
Story 4: Friends for life
As you would expect, expat communities can be very tight-knit. You come from the same background, you are faced with the same problems, you are suffering the same culture shock. There is strength in numbers.
The usual experience for expats is a bit like a first day at school. So many new faces, so many names to remember, so much going on. But seasoned expats can spot the newbies a mile off and are unfailingly supportive because they know what it’s like. It may not feel like it is possible – especially at first – but you will make some of the most brilliant friendships ever.
Anton was introduced to Dmitry by a mutual connection at work. Both from Saint Petersburg, they had a similar outlook on life and – as luck would have it – similar families. Having arrived in the city six months earlier, Dmitry had plenty of valuable tips. Within weeks, the two families were sharing meals out, the wives Anna and Helena had joined a photography class, while their kids played football in the park.
Fact of life: people are fundamentally good (apart from bureaucrats, obviously).
Solution: nothing beats sharing a good meal and a few laughs to recognize the bright side of things.
Story 5: Unhappy families
Despite the support offered by the expat community – and of course many of your native hosts – it is not easy being an expat family. The accompanying partner, whether male or female, needs to cope with a role that is very different to the one they left at home. Equally, it is unlikely that all members of the family will have the same reaction to the new surroundings. That means it is conversely likely that they will fall out over it.
Choon-Hee’s husband wished they had a bigger flat. Choon-Hee wished he wouldn’t blame her for not having a bigger flat. Choon-Hee’s daughter wished they would stop arguing about it. A relatively trivial issue made larger by the pressure of living in this new and strange country.
Fact of life: blood is thicker than water. If your family isn’t happy, you won’t be happy either.
Solution: be aware that difficult times will come. Communicate with each other and work it through. In extremis, know that counselling can and often does help.
Story 6: A bumpy landing
An often overlooked part of an assignment is the coming home – yet this is where it can go wrong. Unless expats plan ahead and think hard about it (and talk to their global mobility specialists about it) they may find that they feel as isolated on their return as they did when they first went abroad.
Professionally, it is a big problem, with many returning expats leaving their jobs within one or two years of their return. This is often due to a dangerous combination of too little planning and too high expectations. The company’s HR department may have no fixed plans for reintegrating them, while returning expats believe they have moved up a level since they were last here. This can be a dangerous misalignment.
Arjana didn’t tell anyone but, within a few weeks of returning, she was sending her CV all over the place. The assignment had given her a better standard of living for two years and had fed the illusion that she had become elevated above the people she used to work with. Now she found it difficult to just fit right back in with them again.
Fact of life: you need to prepare for a bumpy landing.
Solution: be realistic, but also be open. A constant dialogue with HR during your assignment will help you keep your idea of your career development in line with your company’s plans.
Can you buck the trend?
We believe that all of the above will, in some way, happen to you. But the way you deal with it will make a massive difference. The best advice is to seek help from those who are qualified to give it. Your global mobility and HR teams will help you throughout, as will family and friends – both from back home and the ever-willing expat community.
But also bear in mind the importance of specific local advice from people who have been involved with a thousand assignments like yours before. FAIM-certified movers have seen it all before and are better placed than anyone to help you minimize the effects of the inevitable.