Thoughts and Advice for a First-time Expat

by Marilyn on July 8, 2015

A few weeks ago, someone who is moving overseas contacted me. This is her first time living overseas, she is going into the unknown, and wants to be as prepared as possible.

Here is what I said to her:

Dear Lucy (name has been changed)

Wow – I’m excited for you and not a little envious! This is an amazing opportunity, and though I know based on your email that you are scared, I think you may find this is one of those gifts that is given to you and your family for this time of your life.

That being said, you asked for practical, not philosophical advice – so here goes:

  1. Learn the numbers as quickly as possible. You will find them everywhere and it will help you to tell time, understand the prices of items, and tell people how many children you have!
  2. Learn the currency and don’t translate it into US dollars. If you do, you will either spend too much money thinking “everything is so cheap,” or too little money and thus, not get the things you need.
  3. Take things that will immediately make your new space feel like home – a few pictures, candles, a couple of books. That way, even as you’re waiting for the rest of your household goods, you can begin to create a home.
  4. Recognize that your children’s grief is real, real, real. Allow them to be sad without putting caveats on the sadness (eg “I know you’re sad, but think how much fun travel will be…”) Travel may be fun, but it will not give them back their friends and schools. Allow them to grieve, and grieve with them.
  5. You are arriving in the summer, a time when expat communities dwindle, so it will probably take some time to connect with others. Still – limit the amount of time that your kids spend on social media, just as you would limit social media in your home country. You cannot, I repeat, you cannot live in two places at once. Believe me, I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work. So limit the time they spend, and try to get out and explore.
  6. By the same token, don’t allow yourself to spend too much time on Skype, Facebook, or any other social media sites. It will be all you can do sometimes, to tear yourself away. But tear yourself away you must. This is not the end of your world, this is the beginning of a new world. Allow it to be just that.
  7. Don’t be afraid to initially be a tourist. If you don’t explore the area, you may come to the end of your time and find you’ve not seen the world-famous sites there are to see. Use those first weeks to create adventure and have your kids journal about it.
  8. Remember that your culture is just that – your culture. Others have different ways of doing things. They aren’t bad – they are just different. Learn cultural humility, a life skill you will never regret.
  9. News flash: Life wasn’t perfect in your home country. It will be easy to think it was when you are faced with the newness of life and culture shock in its monstrous intensity. But it wasn’t. There are relationship problems, infrastructure issues, and just plain life wherever we live.
  10. You take yourself and your family with you. You aren’t all going to change on the plane. Sure, this is a new start, but you are who you are. At the same time, you are also capable of change and being shaped by the country where you will make your home. Allow that shape to happen.
  11. Have a high tolerance of ambiguity and be capable of complexity. The country where you’re going is dismissed in the western world with a few stereotypical statements. Those are not the complete story. If you allow yourself, you will be able to understand a more complete, and thus richer version of the story.
  12. Give yourself grace. This move is huge! You won’t understand the impact until sometime later, so give yourself, your husband, and your kids grace.
  13. Laugh.Laugh.Laugh. Laughter is a holy gift that will take you through culture shock and culture conflict. It will take you through the hard days and you will be able to look back on them with much joy. So allow yourself the holy gift of laughter.
  14. Most of all, know that “He who began a good work in you, will be faithful to complete it!” God lives in other places. He is alive and well across the world, continuing his good work in the redemption story. You are a part of that Story and He is faithful.

I’ve included a picture here that I think you will enjoy! Print it out, and put it on your refrigerator so you remember these ten commandments.

Much love to you,


What would you add for Lucy? Please share in the comments and we will compile the comments for a new post!

Ten commandments for Expats

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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.

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