This is the second article focused on opportunities for expats within the worldwide Mining sector. Part 1 focused on the benefits, as well as the pros and cons of working as an expat. In this second part, Lucy Donald, Director of WRS, a recruiter specialising in the global Mining sector, focuses on the challenges and practicalities of making the leap to a fully-fledged expat lifestyle.

The Challenges of an Expat

The number one challenge when it comes to being an expat? It’s not getting used to a foreign cuisine, or having to deal with the inevitable dose of culture shock. Surprisingly, keeping your legal status is one of the hardest things to deal with as an expat.

A lot of this depends on what country you are living in and what the legal requirements are, but in most cases, getting, and keeping, a visa long term will almost always be an on-going consideration. Bear in mind that some countries allow you to enter visa free for periods of 2 or 3 months, some for even a year. This, however, changes from time to time, and even with this arrangement, you would still need to leave the country when the time limit runs out. Of course, some countries require you to have some form of visa in place from day one. Again, this comes in different time increments and with differing guidelines. And for most countries, even if you do have a valid visa that allows you to stay, live and work there, it’s almost guaranteed that there will still be many restrictions enforced upon you as a citizen of another country. Keep up on the visa requirements of the country you choose to live in. Most governments have websites that carry full explanations of necessary visas, permits and residency applications – always, always read the information from official government sites.

Like any foreign national living outside their country, there can be a lot of bureaucracy and red tape to deal with, as well as considerable time and money invested too, although if you are an expat for a few years, this does obviously get easier, especially if you choose residency or even citizenship options.

Other challenges including obtaining finance for any significant purchases you may wish to make, such as a car, and that is if you are able to drive in your country of choice! Be aware that some countries do not let expat workers apply for a driver’s license or even open a bank account, at least initially. For example, you will need to have some savings so you have a degree or financial independence from the start. And if you do have the option to drive, make sure you are able to secure comprehensive insurance. Another difficulty is that health insurance and service options may be very limited for expats, so take the time to get a good insurance in place as paying a small amount each month as a preventative measure is well worth it.

And last, but by no means least, do not underestimate the challenge of culture shock! This is a proven state of disorientation and frustration that results from entering a new culture where people’s fundamental values, beliefs and ways of doing things are different from your own. Common symptoms of culture shock include: irritability, anxiety, excessive sleeping or reading, depression, increasing isolation, compulsive eating or drinking, resentment or bitterness, feelings of helplessness and physical problems such as headaches, insomnia and sickness.

On arrival into a new culture, there is often a “honeymoon” period, during which everything new seems interesting and exciting. This is typically followed by an increasing sense of disorientation as deeper, more fundamental differences surface. You may have difficulty fitting in and may become increasingly isolated from colleagues in the new culture, while at the same time start to lose touch with contacts at home. This is the stage where many people can consider they have made a huge mistake and become prone to stereotyping or venting about the host culture. However, if you can learn to survive in your new environment and develop coping mechanisms, as time goes by, your level of comfort and confidence will increase and you will begin to appreciate your expat life experience.

Still want to experience the expat life? Here’s a list of things to consider and when:

Before You Leave

  • If you can source pre-departure orientation or cross-cultural training, take advantage of it. An introduction to the culture, history, language and business customs of your chosen country is invaluable. If you are going to be relocating with your family, they should also be involved in the cross-cultural orientation.
  • Talk with expats who have returned from your destination – find out about housing, schooling, medical care, social life, etc. Research, Research, Research!!
  • It is important to learn what to expect—both in terms of the job itself as well as the living situation. Make sure you understand everything about the package before you leave. Take the responsibility to clarify.
  • One of the major reasons for the early return of an expat is that the family has adjustment problems, so it is important to discuss how the move may affect them. Your personal time available to spend with them may change – make sure to manage expectations. Other family-related assumptions need to be carefully investigated. For example, the availability of childcare or the opportunities for a spouse to find work in the new country.

After You Arrive

  • Have a plan for acclimatizing yourself to your new culture. For example, set goals and identify two or three activities per week that will help you to learn more about the culture or your new environment.
  • Take language lessons if necessary.
  • Find people who can act as “buddies” and show you around.
  • Stay in touch with friends and family at home despite any time differences!
  • Make sure your family is established first. Allow extra time during the first month (and possibly longer) to provide both emotional and practical support. If you have a non-working spouse at home with young children, his or her experience will be quite different from yours. You will have your work, your identity and your support group at work, while your spouse may be fairly isolated and will have to deal with many of the realities of day-to-day living in a foreign language and culture.
  • There are pros and cons to getting in touch with the expat community when you arrive. If you are with your family, it can be particularly beneficial for your spouse. On the other hand, if one limits your interactions to other expats as opportunities for cultural learning will be missed.
  • It is helpful to make friends with local colleagues and local people outside the workplace. They will be a valuable source of information on how to get by in the local community. 
  • Try to refrain from making cultural comparisons. Recognize that your new environment is different, and be adaptable.
  • Maintain a good sense of humor. You may suddenly find yourself feeling incompetent in many areas in which you normally excel, so it’s healthy to be able to laugh at yourself. 
  • Have patience—not only with family members and locals with whom you interact, but also with yourself. Things may happen in different ways and at a different pace from that to which you are accustomed so learn to “go with the flow”.
  • Have a sense of adventure. Don’t be afraid to try new things.

When you return to your home country

  • People who have spent a significant length of time living or working in a foreign country sometimes find that the readjustment to their home culture is even more difficult than the initial adjustment to the foreign one. Part of the reason for this may be that this “re-entry shock” is not expected! After all, why should you have difficulty adjusting to your own culture? 
  • There are many possible causes, which may include losing touch with one’s former colleagues, friends or family members. During the time that you spent abroad, time has not stopped for professional and personal contacts. There will be many experiences (both yours and those of your colleagues, friends and family) that will not be shared and many may even be difficult to communicate. 
  • You may have become accustomed, in varying degrees, to your host country’s culture and way of doing things. For example, if you have been living in an extremely safe country, you may feel relatively insecure at home. Also, you may have had a much higher standard of living while living abroad, and must readjust to “reality” after your return.

This article is designed as just an overview but we hope it will at least give you a general idea of what real life as an expat is like.

If you are thinking about uprooting and making a move to a foreign country, please know that you can succeed. Despite the challenges, if you stay focused on the benefits of being an expat rather than on the differences in lifestyle, you can definitely make a success of living the expat dream, no matter what!


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