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Moving Overseas? Here Are 5 Ways to Adapt

A writer who has lived in several countries shares his wisdom on topics such as language misunderstandings and conflict resolution

By Andy Fischtrom

Congratulations, you've finally taken the plunge! You've stopped saying "Someday I'll move overseas" and actually did it (or are about to). I know this was not an easy decision and it took great courage to get to this point.  

As you certainly know by now, there are countless articles and resources you can find about the technical stuff: visas, banking, health care, etc. But as somebody who has lived overseas in four different countries over 20 years, allow me to share some of the things that are less easy to find.

A canal with buildings along the bank in Shanghai. Next Avenue, moving overseas, abroad, advice
One tool you will need to have in your kit is the ability to deal with the embarrassing mistakes you will make, sometimes in front of a crowd.  |  Credit: Photo by Zifeng Xia

The skills you will need to cope, thrive and survive in a foreign land are what I call an Emotional Toolkit. These are things I wish people had told me about before I got on the plane.  

Adapt to Being the Center of Attention

My first experience living in a foreign country was in Japan. And let me tell you that if you move to Japan and are not Japanese, you will stand out on the subway like a big clumsy American rhino on a subway full of um, well, non-rhinos. (Sidenote: Even if you move to a country that has a more diverse mix of races, you still may stand out as an American. We just have a certain look about us, I guess.) Anyway, get used to this.

I've had teenagers ask to take a selfie with me or ask to touch my hair.

Most adults are polite enough not to stare, but young children certainly will. They will stare and stare and stare, they will point and smile and wave at you. I've had teenagers ask to take a selfie with me or ask to touch my hair. Keep in mind, it's quite possible that you are the first foreign person that these kids have ever seen, so they are not being rude, just curious. It made me uncomfortable for a while, but I promise you'll get used to it fast.

Learn to Deal with Conflicts and Misunderstandings

I had a huge disagreement with a landlord once that was so shocking and baffling I never forgot it. A colleague of mine was helping me look for an apartment; we answered an ad in the paper and arranged for me to see a place that seemed great. I was told that if I went alone, the owner spoke enough English that we would be able to understand each other enough to come to an agreement. When I arrived, she told me the price, and it was almost double what she had told my colleague just two hours earlier on the phone.  

No," I said. "You told my friend it was X and now you are saying it is Y, that is way too expensive." She would not back down, the price was the price. I tried calling my colleague but there was no answer. We kept going around and around for ten minutes, and (here is the part that really shocked me) the entire time she was smiling and grinning and seemed to be suppressing a laugh. She was positively beaming with joy and happiness.

The next day I told my colleague what happened, and here is what I learned: different cultures deal with conflict in different ways.

My blood was boiling. Not only had she given a different price on the phone, but here she was thinking this whole situation was hilarious. I left in a furious huff. The next day I told my colleague what happened, and here is what I learned: different cultures deal with conflict in different ways. And in most Asian cultures, harmony is the most important thing. This woman was, with a smile, trying to keep things light and minimize the conflict.

All it was doing was making me angrier, but once I found out what was really going on, my entire view of the situation changed. Any time after that, when a similar situation came up, I smiled right back, and it worked wonders. Are we having a disagreement? Sure! But we can keep things civil and there's no need to yell.

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Speaking of misunderstandings (of which you will have many) let's talk about:

Idioms and the Language Barrier

Want to do a fun experiment? For the next 24 hours, without telling anyone, listen to all the idioms people use around you and imagine that your knowledge of English is limited to what you might learn from a textbook. How much would you actually understand?

We have become so used to strange expressions and idioms in our daily conversations that it never occurs to us somebody might not understand them.

You will be amazed at how often you hear things like "If he thinks his proposal is going to be approved, he is seriously out to lunch" and "I went to four stores to find that item and totally struck out." Most likely your non-native English-speaking friends will have no idea what you are saying, so it will become necessary to either eliminate, or dial way back on, your use of idioms. This is not easy.

We have become so used to strange expressions and idioms in our daily conversations that it never occurs to us somebody might not understand them. I remember once I was in a meeting in Shanghai, and in a moment of carelessness I said something about a "kangaroo court." Only when I saw the confused expressions on the faces around me did I realize my mistake.  

A Need for Patience

Oh boy, will you need patience to live in a foreign country. Buckets of it.

In the U.S., we are used to things getting done right away and as quickly as possible, and this is just not the case in many other countries. You will need to learn to wait in long lines and you will need to sit there in silence while people discuss you in a language you cannot understand. What might take 10-15 minutes at a bank in the United States can take an hour or two in another country. I did not understand this when I first moved overseas, but over the years I became so patient that now I feel like the Buddha back here in California.

Here is an example: My name is Andrew, but everybody calls me Andy. When I got to other countries and started filling out the many forms I needed to fill out, I had this conversation many times: "Wait, your name is Andy or Andrew?" "It's Andrew, please call me Andy." "But your email address says 'Andrew' so how can your name be something else?" "Well, in the U.S. we often shorten names." "But your name is Andrew, so who is Andy?"  The moral of the story is that when you move away from your home country, things can take longer than what you are used to, so be ready for that. Just breathe and roll with it.

Learn to Handle Embarrassing Mistakes

Another tool you will need to have in your kit is the ability to deal with the embarrassing mistakes you will make, sometimes in front of a crowd.  As I noted earlier, you will oftentimes be the center of attention as the only foreign face in a room.

I have been so thoroughly embarrassed over the years; let me share a story. In Shanghai late one night, I was hungry for dinner, and all the restaurants I knew were closed. There was a chicken place around the corner, but all the menus were in Chinese, and nobody spoke any English. It was 10 pm and they were taking last orders for the night. I just pointed at a random item on the menu and said, "I'll have this." It was chicken, right? How bad could it be? The place was packed and most of the patrons were either gawking at me or sneaking peaks over their menus, but I did not care. I was so hungry I was willing to endure the scrutiny.

When settling in a foreign land, the key to success is keeping an open mind and maintaining a sense of humor about your situation.

Well, my friends, let me tell you what the waiter brought to my table. Remember I said this was a "chicken place?" It seems that what your humble author ordered was an entire chicken, chopped up and sizzling in an earthen pot with garlic. The bird had been gutted and the feathers removed, but that is it. Seeing that gawking chicken head looking up at me really freaked me out. What could I do? I was hungry and being stared at by about 30 people.

The room fell silent. I took a deep breath and gently moved the chicken head out of my way, along with the feet, and ate the rest of what was in the bowl. People could see my reaction to the cooked chicken head, and the laughter was profound. All I could do was smile at everyone and in a moment of levity, I picked up the chicken head with my chopsticks and performed a little puppet show.

When settling in a foreign land, the key to success is keeping an open mind and maintaining a sense of humor about your situation. It is normal to feel confused, frustrated and lost when moving to a new place. After a while, the things that felt so confusing will become second nature. And think of the great stories you will have to tell when you visit home again.

Andy Fischtrom grew up in Marin County, California before setting off for Japan, China, Singapore, and Vietnam. He has worked for Autodesk, Microsoft, INSEAD (the business school), he has been a yoga teacher, a wedding photographer, and returned to California in 2020.
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