Living abroad can be both enlightening and incredibly challenging. How do you make the best of it? We asked František Cihlář, a counselor at the Association for Integration and Migration in Prague (SIMI), professional life coach Petr Janeček, and expats from around the globe to share their expert advice on what to avoid:
1. Spending all of your time with expats
We get it. Fellow foreigners understand your experience, speak the same language and share the need to establish new friends. Unfortunately, spending your time exclusively with expats also makes it hard to learn about the country you’re in and easy to fall into a pattern of complaining or comparison. “Try places like Náplavka or Krymská if you want to find new friends,” Janeček suggests. “You’ll find a new generation of very cosmopolitan Czechs.”
2. Obsessing over life at home
Our expats shared mixed ideas on keeping up with hometown media. “Try to read as little news from your country as possible,” Katarina Muše from Croatia advises. “This depresses me the most, as I fell guilty that I live a comfortable life while the same can’t be said for some of my friends and family.” Lani Seelinger, an American expat in Prague has other ideas. “I do [follow the news], but only from carefully selected news sources that share my same bias. This is probably not what one should do.”
Anna Davies, an American who has spent time in Costa Rica, Croatia, England and Ireland warns about the draw of Internet friendships. “Try to set up some sort of social media diet. When you miss home it’s easy to be on Facebook and WhatsApp whenever you have a free moment, but that makes it harder to authentically live your new life.” Cihlář adds, “Have your mind focused on the present moment and nearest future rather than the past.”
3. Losing touch with old friends
Somewhere between the black and white extremes of constant communication and cutting yourself off entirely is the gray area that every expat needs. Sometimes a late night phone call that cuts across time zones is totally worth it. Other times, a birthday email will have to suffice so you don’t miss out on a day of skiing in the mountains for a five-minute conversation. You decide where that line lies.
4. Expecting the visa process to be easy
Anyone who has braved a bureaucratic office knows this one to be true, including the locals. “Be ready for an unfriendly attitude and lengthy procedures from the police and other institutions,” Cihlář warns. “Be patient,” adds Janeček, “and be aware that Czechs have the same problems as you. We always complain about slow and inactive offices.”
5. Thinking in your home currency
The first few weeks of spending euro, dollars or pounds in Prague can make you feel like a millionaire, but once you start getting paid in the local currency, the shine of the Czech crown can fade fast. Try to wrap your head around what constitutes reasonable prices in your current cost of living rather than constant conversion.
6. Settling for an awful phone (or flat, or commute, etc.)
You may need to budget, but don’t skimp on the things that you use on a daily basis. When buying a train ticket or going to the post office feels like entering a battlefield, a comfortable bed to come home to or a smart phone equipped with Google maps just might be the savior of your sanity.
7. Being afraid of new experiences
Things I could have missed out on by not trying new things: the view of Northern Bohemia from a two-person plane, the taste of trdelník or a small village band dedicating a song to their “American fan”. When living life as an expat, try responding “why not?” to every opportunity outside your comfort zone. Janeček adds, “Explore the whole country not only Prague. Try traveling to Brno or Olomouc to experience new horizons.”
8. Setting unrealistic expectations
“You shouldn’t push yourself,” says Davies. “So many people think they’ll move or study abroad and become a whole new person, when really, in a new country, learning how to navigate the grocery store without causing a ruckus is a pretty amazing achievement.” But don’t expect a gold medal for your efforts, either. Julia Kim from Uzbekistan adds, “Don’t expect everybody to like you just because you were brave enough to come to a country you’ve never been before. There are a lot of other people just like you.”
9. Ignoring hometown holidays
Just because you’re not at your family’s house doesn’t mean you have to give up the traditions you love. Get an international group together to cook an American Thanksgiving dinner or English Pancake Day. Extend an orphan Christmas invitation to your flat for others too far to fly home. Expat life is as much about giving your friends a glimpse into your customs as it is learning from theirs.
10. Anticipating instant friendships
You’ll find a range of personality types anywhere you live, but Cihlář advises patience with new Czech friends. “Don’t get upset if Czechs do not immediately react as you might expect. They might seem reserved in the beginning but will probably become really friendly later.” Don’t be afraid if your first joke is met with pursed-lipped smiles instead of roaring laughter. If it’s your fifteenth, you might want to reevaluate either your delivery or your audience.
11. Thinking that love can conquer anything
The idea of international romance can be enchanting, but it also takes work. “You might realize that the cultural differences are too great. The list of topics to avoid will become longer and longer,” says Eva Jasná, a Czech citizen living in England. Cross-cultural relationships definitely aren’t impossible – you can gain incredible new perspectives from a local partner – but going into them with your eyes open will help you manage your expectations.
12. Not learning any of the local language
We know, we know, a store clerk rolled her eyes at your efforts last week, but Janeček insists, “Czechs admire anyone who learns their language. We perceive it as very difficult to learn, especially for someone from the Anglo-Saxon world. Go for it and use it.” For every person who’s rude there are likely less memorable moments of completing basic transactions successfully. Radka Vilímová, a Czech student who has lived in England and Spain, adds, “Don’t nod in agreement if you don’t really understand!”
13. Neglecting your health
While indulging in fatty foods and lazy days on holiday is common practice, long-term expats have to figure out how to incorporate a healthy lifestyle into new surroundings. Don’t let difficulty communicating keep you from regular doctor’s visits and, no matter how delicious, fried cheese is not a viable meal on a daily basis.
14. Being careless with your cash
“Have an emergency financial buffer to cover possible emergency situations and/or potential return home,” Cihlář advises. There’s a reason this is a visa requirement. Sue Danaher, an English expat in the Czech Republic adds, “Never keep all your money in one place so that if you get mugged or your bag gets pinched, you have a back up.”
15. Giving up your favorite hobbies
Whether it’s running, playing music or your favorite sport, find a way to incorporate what you love into your new life. “I would say don’t alter your personality to fit in, even if that means raising a few eyebrows,” insists Helen Montgomery-Doyle, who is half-English, half-American and has lived in New Zealand, Australia and Ireland. “If you can’t be yourself then you wont be happy.”
Do you agree with their advice? What kinds of things would you tell expats to avoid?