We've been living overseas for nearly 13 years now (in Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama), and we've shared many memorable experiences in many far-flung corners of the world... from Southeast Asia to Europe, and practically every country of Latin America. Many of those, as you might imagine, have been "learning experiences."
We've learned to speak Spanish, we've learned how to buy and sell property in four foreign countries, and most of all, we've learned a lot about ourselves.
Photo by Jason Holland, InternationalLiving.com
Some of those learning experiences have been challenging, to say the least, and we wish that there had been more helpful information that would have paved the way a bit before we ever started this adventure. But when we left Omaha back in 2001, the Internet was not nearly as robust as it is today. (That's for better or for worse, of course. While there's a LOT of content out there in cyberspace, not all of it is current or reliable.)
But moving overseas needn't be the "School of Hard Knocks." And if you're considering it, maybe our experience can help...
Some of the more philosophical lessons we've learned along the way:
Don't Run "Away," but "To"... Don't leave home for the wrong reasons. Some people are angry about political issues. Others want a fresh start after a financial disaster, a break-up, or a personal tragedy. If you're under water in back taxes, alimony or child support, you may think running away is your best option. But for certain, these issues will follow you overseas. You'll be far more successful if, instead of running "away" from your problems, you run "to" a new and better lifestyle. Look forward to the adventure of it all, embrace the unknown, and immerse yourself in your new world. Importantly, keep an open mind about everything.
Don't Try to Recreate the U.S. (or Wherever You're From) Overseas. The best recipe for disaster when moving to a foreign country is expecting it to be just like home. If a different language is spoken in the new country, learn it. Figure out the metric system. Don't be afraid to try the food. In fact, as far as food goes: don't expect to find your favorite brand of peanut butter or mayonnaise. Instead, try the local brands or learn to make your own from scratch. Don't try to recreate your old life in a new place. Remember, you're running "to" something new and exciting.
It's Okay to Move Because of Money, But Do It With Your Heart and Head. Thanks to retirement funds that were hammered by recent economic events, more and more people are seeking refuge in countries where the cost of living is lower. There's even been a new term coined to describe them: "economic refugees." Often, it can be very smart, in fact, to move to a place with a lower cost of living. But don't let cost savings be the only reason you move overseas. Instead, go because you look forward to the adventure and you genuinely love the people and the culture of the new country. And definitely have a Plan B just in case things aren't as you expect.
Take More Personal Responsibility for Everything. Trip on a crack in the sidewalk and twist your ankle... Have a reaction to the detergent used by hotel housekeeping... Forget your phone in the back of a taxi... The menu is only in Spanish... We sometimes refer to the U.S. as a "nanny state," as the government practically holds the hands of its citizens in every way. Of course, that's one reason everything in North America costs more. The FDA, FTA, FDIC, OSHA and more protect us from ourselves. If we get hurt or we just find ourselves in a bad mood, we can sue someone. The rest of the world is not like that. So take more personal responsibility. (And, of course, the good news is that you can worry far less about ever being sued yourself.)
Observe How the Locals Live. Then Do the Same. You may say you don't want to live in a gated community or with security bars on your doors and windows, but why do the locals do it? Because they take personal responsibility for their stuff, and you'd do well to do the same. And remember the old saying: "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?" In most of the world outside our borders, society is more polite. People are slow to anger. You rarely see anyone yelling, throwing temper tantrums or pointing fingers, including children. Go slow and easy, be respectful and courteous. In return, you'll gain friends for life.
There is, of course, more to know... Much more, in fact.
These are just the tip of the iceberg. There's so much we've learned by living overseas. The nuts and bolts alone can be overwhelming. What about Social Security? (Yes, you can still collect it when you live overseas.) Do you have to give up your U.S. or Canadian citizenship? (No, never... unless you choose to officially do so.) What about Medicare? What paperwork you should start collecting now to qualify for your residence visa? How can you get your mail, or watch your favorite sports programs?
These "nuts and bolts" kind of things will work themselves out over time, we've found. But it's the more personal issues we expats seem to struggle with most. So start with the fundamental lessons as we've outlined here and you'll be light-years ahead in your transition to overseas life.