Taking The Expat Leap (Premeditated or Not)
About two years ago, I took the first step in what was to become going full-blown expat and starting a family abroad. I decided to quit my full time job and hit the road, heading first to a place I fell in love with a few years before; Chile. Not long after I arrived here, I met my now partner, Pablo. Suffice it to say, I did not continue on past Chile. I’ll be talking about birthing abroad in another post soon, but for now will focus on how I took that big leap and some things I’ve learned along the way. When I first started envisioning my open-ended trip, I imagined after a year or so of bumming around teaching English, that I’d end up in a little home by the sea and maybe start a family – maybe in Spain or Portugal, or even Brazil. Earlier this year, Pablo and I moved from the heavily populated capital of Santiago to a small coastal community we both love. A little over two months ago, I gave birth to our daughter here in our home. I suppose if this post has any good advice in it for also striking out abroad, it would be to let yourself imagine your life as it might be “over there” – it sure worked for me! The adventure of settling down in another country has been a wild one; at times pure bliss and wonder, at others pure chaos and challenge. Here are a few things I set in motion to get here and a few things I’m learning as I go: Taking the Leap Abroad Cushion soft or hard, but cushion. When I set out on my adventure, I did it with a plan to earn a living teaching English and understood that it would probably mean a meager lifestyle wherever I ended up. I think the universe provides and I wasn’t afraid of my financial life, but I still squirreled away a few thousand dollars so I’d have a little cushion and plenty to exit the adventure no matter where I was and get back to the states safely if I needed to. I basically left the states with enough savings to cover a few international flights, a flight back to the states, three months of very modest living expenses, and a bit of moving around money to use while I was finding work. Work went in an even better direction than I expected so my cushion proved more than enough. Get your income mobile. As many of the Boba traveling families mention in their features, it’s really helpful to shift your work to a portable mode ala online-based freelance. Though I did not intend to work online from afar (I worked as a business English teacher for a few months), I was able to parlay my marketing and communications career into a very rewarding freelance situation. Earning U.S. monies while living in Chile is a big bonus. I work part time and have more than enough to contribute to my growing family’s little life by the sea. Choose a comfy starting point with flexibility Some of the expat stories I’ve read have been marked by callings to places, others to people, and yet others to just “anywhere but here”. I was a bit on the latter end in that I just wanted to break free from the grind of U.S. 9 – 5 living and sure, I could’ve done that there, but my urge to shake things up combined with my long-held international travel bug meant hitting the air. I did not know where the journey would take me, but after much consideration, I chose my first landing spot. For me, Chile was a comfortable place to start because I had been there before and really liked the places and people I encountered. I had kept in touch with some friends I made on my first trip to Chile, so it was nice to know I’d have some friendly contacts on my first stop. Also, there was a reputable English teacher training program in Santiago, so a good work-related opportunity sealed the deal. Going Expat with Grace Go slowly and with patience It became clear within a few weeks that I would be staying in Chile for a while (I met Pablo about a week after I arrived). I made a conscious effort to just let things flow, let work come as it would, and take my time getting used to Santiago, the language and the culture. In fact, I’m still getting the hang of things and patience is my best friend (though short at times). I recommend wandering the streets aimlessly, getting off a stop early or late on the metro, bus or other, and fumbling with the language in the streets more than hours and hours of language classes. Know that frustration as well as elation are ebbs and flows in the tide of relocation as a stranger in a strange land. Connect with other foreign nationals This one can be a little tricky because I’ve noticed it’s easy to clump up with other English-speakers and not really get into the local system. However, having a few friends (or even one) that you can connect with, commiserate with from time to time, and celebrate familiar holidays and sentiments with can help ward off expat depression. I have a friend that hosts an awesome Thanksgiving dinner each year, am on an expat women’s email list with about 900 other women here who swap stories, recommendations and the occasional lamentation, and have a couple of really stellar “gringa” friends that help me feel less isolated and, by nature of also being here, clearly share my interest in travel and adventure. Learn the language for real Since my one year of high school Spanish was well, high school Spanish and forever ago, I knew very, buy very little Spanish when I arrived in Chile, and Chileans are known for their very but very fast speaking. It’s been a hard path towards my still-too-far-away-from-fluency, especially since my partner speaks fluent English. However, I think even if I had known Spanish before coming, the learning curve would have been steep – local expressions, flavors of speech and meaning can get a little blurry. But language is key to becoming part of my community, so I stick with the learning and try not to zone out too much at large extended family dinners where the Castellano Spanish is rapid-fire and in triplicate or more. It’s worked well for me to just go for it, even though I’m a little shy, and conversation partners have helped a lot! Fall in love Be it with a person, a place, the language, the style of dress, you-name-it, falling in love is an essential piece of expat joy. I love my partner dearly (and of course my new little brilliant adorable Chilean-American daughter), and also the Chilean landscape (sea, mountains, trees for miles – it’s paradise, really). I also love the markets and the colorful touches to fashion here. I don’t always like being in Chile, and there are some things about the culture that drive me a little crazy, so the things I love help keep my heart light when I miss friends and family, miss cultural comfort, and just plain miss home. Remember your difference and your commonality Everyone loves to be loved, to be cared for; they love smiles and sparkling warmth; everyone appreciates hard work and honesty. All in all I think we are all more alike than we are different, that there is a peace and love that we’re made of that is common to each of us. There are some things that we’ll never have in common, though. For example, cultural humor. Sarcasm isn’t very big or well-received in Chile as far as I can tell. Sometimes I catch myself in full-blown Midwestern dry smirky sarcasm and think, “Wow, I must be starting to feel really comfortable here, this is fun!” then I see the faces of my partner’s family and quickly blurt out, “Just kidding!” because I was, but they didn’t know it. There are a lot of little things like that, slip ups that I make because I forget I’m not home even though I feel a little at home. It’s worth identifying and remembering that I’m different so I don’t offend people (especially my in-laws). I suggest remembering you are “new” long after the feeling of newness wears off to help stay alert to helpful cultural cues. I bumble away, but in measured if mis-stepped doses. Slowly I’m finding ways to be my good old North American self in the midst of some very different points of view. Here are a few resources I’ve found inspiring or think could be helpful if you too are considering shifting your life to one of travel or expat emersion:
- Chris Guillebrea’s The Art of Non-Conformity is full of helpful, inspiring accounts and how-to’s for breaking out of the mold, whether via international flights or from your cubicle and beyond.
- There’s a fun and challenging article from Escape From America Magazine that address the seven biggest excuses for not relocating abroad that is a thoughtful and entertaining read.
- Expatica.com is a little corporate feeling, but a site full of lots of location-specific info and some decent personal accounts of expat living, and they have a kids and family section worth checking out.
- The travel section of the Boba Blog has a number of great features and interviews with families living very fulfilling lives traveling internationally, some of them settling down a bit and some keeping moving all the while.