Being an expat - the expat lawyer

6 Survival tips: How to THRIVE at being an expat in a new country!

Being an expat is a double edged sword of being an exciting adventure, and also sometimes a difficult journey. For a lot of reasons, we do not often talk about how difficult moving away from home is. In this post, I want to help you not just live, but thrive in the new country you have decided to move to!

For context, I am Zimbabwean and moved away from home at the age of 18 for University. I moved to South Africa, then England and ultimately Australia, where I have now settled (for now ?). I have lived away from home for almost 15 years now, So needless to say, I have a fair bit of experience being an expat.

These are things that I wish someone would have told me about being an expat when I struggled most with being away from home. So I really hope this helps you.

What is an expat?

An expat is short for “expatriate.” It is someone who moves from their country of birth or origin to a different country, for an extended period of time.

Expat v Immigrant – what is the difference?

Immigrant may denote someone moving to a different country with the intention to live there permanently. An expat is someone whose intention is not a permanent resettlement. In my opinion though- nothing. The media just tends to use one for certain groups of people and the other for another.

Do your research

I understand that the circumstances that result in being an immigrant are vast, therefore this may not always be possible. However, where it is possible, please do your research about the country you are migrating to. Look into things like the weather. Different states in the same country can have very different weather patterns. Look up housing markets, and compare. For example, if you move to Australia with the intention to buy a house, buying in Sydney would cost you about 2.5 times more on average, than moving to Hobart.

Job markets are also another important detail to look up when it comes to being an immigrant. Is there a demand for professionals in your field? Are they paid well? Would you have to go back to school and re-train? These are important questions that you need to ask.

Being an immigrant is hard, but spending a good amount of time doing your research will be well worth your time. Ironing out details and making informed decisions will make the journey much easier for you. Think of all the factors that are important to you. It will inform if you move, where you move to, when you move and how. So google, join internet forums, Facebook groups and try to connect with others who have moved to the same place.

Take time to understand and learn about your new country

When it comes to being an immigrant, I think the most enjoyable part is learning about your new home. After you do your research, go through the visa process, and finally migrate; learning about your new home is what you should do next. I don’t just learn capital cities, the prime minister, political parties (you probably should). I mean take time to learn the “isms” of a place you are living.

In my experience of being an immigrant in Australia, I learnt quite quickly that Aussies love quirky shortened versions of words, and I love it! My favourites are the groups of words for tradespersons (tradies) and different service providers. Like a sparky is an electrician, a bricky is a builder, firery is a fireman. It is also good to know that it’s ok to chuck a sickie when you’re crook, and spend the arvo on the barbie, with some mates, your esky and some snags! 

Yeah, I know… ‘Straya! 

I say all that to say, I find it important to know these sorts of things because it is these small ways that make being an immigrant an easier adjustment. It is easier to join in conversations when people speak, make friends and start building a social life for yourself. Even for more important things like pre-job interview banter. 

Remember that when you move somewhere by choice, there are things about it that you obviously liked. Take pride in getting to know these things. It means you are taking time to acknowledge that you have come in to join into something beautiful. 

I think your experience of being an immigrant will be much harder if you do not take time to immerse yourself in the culture of your new home. I know it is nice to find a community of your fellow countrymen in a foreign land, but that makes you more likely to seclude yourself if that’s all you know. Trust me, the experience is much sweeter when you make the effort to learn and absorb the new place.

Learn the language

Flowing from the point above, you cannot possibly immerse yourself in the culture of a new country if you do not attempt to learn the language. I actually always find it quite shocking if someone moves to the Netherlands, for example, and refuses to learn Dutch. Or someone who has lived in Johannesburg for 20 years but never learns to greet in Zulu. Being ignorant or too proud to learn will not serve you well. 

I also understand that learning a new language can be impeded by several external factors for some, including but not limited to, finances. But if this is not the case for you, then learn. I promise you this will be the best thing you do to make your experience of being an immigrant that much easier. There are so many options out there available, including apps like Duolingo. Some countries even offer services for migrants, I think specifically refugees, to learn the basics of the language spoken in the country. This will help you to read road signs, ask for help when you are lost,  and to know which milk is the dairy-free option. 

You should also make use of friends you make along the way to teach you native languages too. I learnt basic Xhosa in South Africa, and I could always tell that my very basic conversation meant more than all my English ramblings.

Do not develop an inferiority complex

Being an immigrant is not a walk in the park, especially if you are not white. The world still has so many racists and truly has a long way to go when it comes to acceptance. Even the word “immigrant” feels like it has so many negative connotations attached to it. Unfortunately, there is so much that the world doesn’t know or understand.

Someone made monkey sounds at me on an empty street one night, I have been denied entry into a pub (when the people before me and after me where allowed in), I have had someone try to tell me that using the N-word is ok and casual. Literally today, someone thought it funny to come and show me that as a “joke” they had a baby shower cake made, with a black baby coming out of it… At my job! I notice older ladies clutching the purses tighter when I enter an elevator with them. Sigh.

I know I have experienced a lot being an immigrant, and some have experienced way worse than me. It is hard not to let those things break you down slowly inside. It is hard not to start to see yourself as a second class citizen, or as “less than.” But my advice to you is this. What people say to you is not a reflection of you, it is a reflection of them.

A lot of people do not understand how educated and qualified you may be to migrate to their country. Many don’t realise the financial investment you have to make for you to move. They don’t realise how brilliant a background we come from. One that has made us brave enough to want to see what the world has to offer, and leave your home. 

Take care of yourself and do not internalise ignorance. You are a gem!

Call out xenophobia and racism

As I said above, the world is rife with racism, and moving away from home and being an immigrant only makes this worse. When you become a minority, sometimes you become the only *insert race here* person that someone has access to. All the things that they have ever thought about *insert race here* people will be said or done to you.

I have come to take this as an opportunity to teach. Rather than just awkwardly giggling and internalising microaggressions, try to speak up. It means you throw that awkwardness back in the faces of those who are saying it to you. I worked with an older lady who referred to me and black people as “negroes,” and had to educate her on why you can’t say that, and also let Human Resources talk to her too. People will come to you with all sorts of stereotypes. Take time to call them out.  

However, I will say, it is never your job to educate people on how to treat or speak to other people fairly. But my point is, don’t just take it and cower and let people do or say racist things to you. Speak up, call them out and don’t make excuses for them. Don’t be scared of a xenophobic person who tells you you don’t belong there. Tell them that $5000 visa payments and your advanced degrees mean you do belong there!

Stay away from Facebook comments sections

I always say this. One of the biggest mistakes I made when i first moved to Australia was reading the Facebook comments section.  Do not do that. It was my second or third day here, and there was a news article about black kids breaking into a store in Victoria. The comments were just vile. I couldn’t believe how much people hate the colour of my skin and those like me.   

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