December 07th 2020

Living abroad – what to do before travelling to the new destination

Our number 1 tip to guarantee an unforgettable experience abroad by Wendy Farrell

Although the current situation has many of us in lockdown and unable to travel the way we used to, this will eventually end and we will resume our daily lives. When we resume our lives as we knew them, many are looking forward to the opportunity to study abroad or begin an international assignment.

It can be so exciting to prepare to go abroad. Often we will watch YouTube or read books and websites about our intended destination. We think about all the things we will be able to experience upon arrival. But, what many of us fail to do is begin to set up a support network before we even depart on our journey.

Generally speaking, within the first few months after our international relocation, most of us will experience transition stress.  We call this culture shock. This is the time when our old ways of being successful no longer work. Often the way the new culture defines success can be different and unexpected. It becomes difficult to determine how to adjust our behavior and actions to be successful - at least as we previously defined success. This can lead many people to experience depression and a sense of isolation. It is very common for people working abroad to feel like they are "being set up to fail" and the experience is not much different for students studying abroad.

Often, we react by shutting ourselves in and trying to isolate ourselves from this “dangerous” world. In many cases, this can cause us to end our study abroad or international assignment early.  This is unfortunate because on the other side of culture shock awaits not only a deeper understanding of this new culture, but more importantly, it leads us to a deeper understanding of ourselves.

So, what can we do to prepare ourselves, so that when we do experience culture shock, we can overcome it? My top tip is to get involved. Before moving, identify clubs or groups or any social activities that will get you out among people. For me, this has ranged from joining service clubs to joining my son’s school’s event planning committee. Also, something as simple as joining a group like, a global online community that has monthly face-to-face get-togethers in cities all over the world, can be immensely helpful.  Every time I move, I make contact or look for events either before my relocation or within the first six weeks. This is the time when I am still really excited about my move and still interested in engaging. Then, when culture shock sets in, and all I want to do is hide under a blanket and cry, there is something in the outside world that is making me engage. Showing up for a club meeting or just going to an event for “5 minutes“ (it usually turns out to be longer) can help reduce the negative effects of culture shock.

It can be hard to reach out to new people and join groups where you know no one, but it is essential as it not only helps you through your hard times, it will also provide insight into the culture in your new home.