To tell you the truth, I was terrified.
It’s 2009 and here I am, a young lab manager who had just walked out of his boss’s office having said “yes” to relocating to Kyoto, Japan–a place I had never visited– for a year-long assignment.
It all happened so fast.
I had recently gotten married, bought a new condo in my home state and, although I had already traveled a lot for work, I hadn’t ever considered the prospect of actually living overseas. There was so much I didn’t know.
There is No Greater Certainty Than Change
Fast forward five years later and I was somehow still in Asia for my “one-year” assignment, having just gotten word from my boss that it was time for me to return to the States. In my five years overseas I had gone through a divorce, a corporate integration after a takeover, a relocation from Japan to South Korea, and a move in positions from technology to sales to strategic planning to marketing. Suffice it to say, I was returning after a fair share of unexpected events–and some very real scars. But I don’t regret it, I’d do it again in a heartbeat and here’s why…
The experience of living and working in another country expanded my horizons in ways few things ever did prior to my move. I became more self-aware, more tolerant, more steady. I really believe that living and working in another country is one of the single biggest things I did to move forward in my career, as well as my direction in life.
That said, for anyone seriously considering the change, working as an expat also comes with a very notable caveat: you will change as a person and can never go back. A lot of what you left behind will remain exactly as you remembered it–places, family, friends–but you will return as a very different person. And, while there is no one-size-fits-all expat guide, I do have a few observations from the trenches that might speak to you…
If You Are Thinking About An Overseas Assignment
Ask about it. Talk to as many people as you can that have done it. Inquire at your work about any opportunities and really get to know the individuals making the decisions. It takes a lot of trust on the part of a company to send someone overseas as expat assignments require an extraordinary amount of cost and effort to make happen. If you are adaptable to the situation and have the patience, you can make it work.
Also, consider that many times assignments are extended and opportunities will come up when you arrive. Really think about your plan and how open you are willing to be to new things. If you are eager, changes sometimes happen faster than you realize and you just need to be as mentally prepared as possible to make decisions that are truly good for you.
If You Have Accepted An Assignment And Are On Your Way
There is a lot thrown at you in finalizing your travel arrangements: visas, moving services, business contracts, travel plans, etc. It’s overwhelming for anyone and if you are taking a significant other and/or children with you, it’s super important to review everything together to make the process as smooth as possible.
The reality is that there will be constant issues and “stuff” to juggle but you’re really not going to remember any of that when you return home. You are going to remember interacting with people, seeing new places, and lots of wonderful details about day-to-day life in your new home. So, take it easy and just do what you can, when you can.
You’ve Just Arrived and Wondering Where to Start
Logistics are the most important thing to consider when you first arrive. Figure out how to get anywhere you might want to go and how your car (if you have one), public transportation, and travel to-and-from the airport will work. And don’t be afraid to ask someone–anyone–if you don’t know something. It’s not always easy when you are not sure if the person speaks your language but it can save a ton of time vs. looking things up online yourself and trying to piece together what you need.
Find local friends from day one and get to know your neighborhood by getting around to different places.
Try new things more than not. That’s what it’s all about. Learning the local language is one of the absolute best ways to connect with the local culture and it will by far be the most common question that anyone asks you back home when you repatriate. Did you learn the language? Make sure you have a great answer rather than “No, but I wish I did.”
When Something Big Comes Up During Your Assignment
Something unexpected is going to come up and when you are in a foreign country it amplifies the importance of any decision. Assignments often get extended, or can even be cut short at a moment’s notice. It’s high stakes and you have to adapt to change. Your free time will be eaten up a lot quicker than you expect and your assignment objectives (and anything you try to accomplish locally) will take way longer than what you are used to. So plan what you want to see aggressively and get out there. Work slow and steady.
When You’re Headed Back and Fear Returning to “Normal”
When it finally came time to return, it was very bittersweet for me. I was excited to get back and reconnect with the US and many of my friends and family back home. But I didn’t want to go back. The expat life is exhausting and demanding but it’s a remarkable experience. And you often hear that repatriation is much harder than going out–and I will say that is so, so true. It may sneak up on you. You may (will!) become depressed. A lot of your identity gets wrapped up in your assignment and you’re going to go back to “normal”.
It will feel like a time warp. At work (if you return to the same place) you will see the same people, eating the same meals in the same seats in the cafeteria. Sure, a few cars and employees may have changed around, but the vast majority of things will be the same. The same goes for your hometown.
You Are Thoroughly “Settled”… What’s Next?
Once you accept and adapt to the return–now what?!? You are forever changed as an employee and a person. For me, it became about defining some of my own creative and entrepreneurial goals and giving them a try while traveling North America.
For you, it may be something different, and I think it’s very important to listen to your intuition. We all have limitations and responsibilities that can affect our mobility and career options, but there is always something burning in you that you can go after. Write a book, teach others. Stay in touch with your international contacts and rebrand yourself in a new way. Old routines aren’t worth your time– and they likely won’t resonate with you any longer
I can’t say I spent the last few years succeeding in everything. Far from it. There was a lot of guessing, fumbling and just doing the best I could. Just the same, I have a newfound respect and desire for truly immersing myself in any culture that I come into contact with. The food, the friends, the stories, and experiences overseas are some of my most cherished. And having the last year on the road to experience North American with “fresh eyes” has given my girlfriend and I a chance to see so many things we just would not have noticed before–and it all really blossomed from our leaps to international assignments.
Do you have a story about living as an expat? I’d love to hear from you and get in touch, leave a comment below or send me an email.