RELOCATION: It’s always easy to be wise after the event. And there was never a better example than when we moved to the US on our first international assignment.
In hindsight there are many things I wished I had done before relocating our family.
Here are some of our learnings that were gained mostly the hard way:
1. Visit your new location to experience the culture and investigate the safety, health and education aspects
You should preview the place you’re relocating to, for lots of reasons, not least of all to best evaluate the safety, health and education situations available for your family. These three areas are probably the most critical things to achieving a healthy, happy lifestyle as an expat.
Whether you’re relocating to Somalia or the USA, every country has its own specific safety aspects to check out. Reading about it is very helpful, especially online, but seeing it, is all together different. This is a must-do when there are any safety doubts. If you do not feel safe when you are visiting, then you should reconsider moving there. It’s best to sort this out first before you decide to relocate.
Accessibility and quality of the healthcare provided is just as important. If you are faced with a major crisis or life-threatening situation, then you need to know what the options are going to be, for you and your family before it happens.
Lastly, if you have children, getting the right schools for them is critical to making your relocation go smoothly. While newcomers to a country will find it near impossible to fully evaluate schools or colleges from a short orientation trip, it is still better than trying to judge these things from just viewing them online, or taking advice (like we were encouraged to) over the phone from a local education consultant. We found that our choices based on what we saw, were far closer to what suited our child than what was recommended. In the long run, we were right. But this was only because we visited the schools, which then guided our decisions.
2. Understand what your relocation package does or doesn’t provide you
If you are being relocated by a company, make sure you are clear about what all the different benefits include, that you’ve been promised. This might include things like school expenses, child/family development funds, helping with spousal re-training or employment or loyalty bonuses. I wouldn’t be the first spouse to say that:
- these are sometimes completely different to what was expected initially or
- there were lots of conditions or criteria accompanying these benefits that were not explained clearly.
Know what you are letting yourself in for upfront. If things don’t add up right, then ask the company HR department for more information or clarification.
3. Join expat forums and read blogs
This was probably my biggest mistake: not reading these for a more realistic understanding of what moving our lives to another country would mean. Not that this prevents every problem but forewarned certainly makes you forearmed. It may just help you deal better with difficulties such as culture shock or any differences in expectations, and there are plenty of helpful hints from people who understand what it’s like.
4. Prepare your children for culture shock
Another thing we didn’t do well was prepare our children adequately about the country and culture we were moving to. Both our kids reacted badly at first to the new lifestyle and missed home a lot.
To minimize this, involve them in the whole relocation idea. This will increase their buy-in to the move and prepare them for the differences that will be experienced. It will help if you can find positives for the place you are moving to as a way of building the experience as a good thing for the whole family. Seeing movies, documentaries, reading books etc., can all help prepare them.
5. Learn the local lingo
If you’re moving to a place where your own language is not the same as the local tongue, obviously it will be easier if you at least try and learn some basics for everyday communication. Even if you’re moving from one country that speaks English to another, e.g. UK to Australia, there are still lots of different phrases and word use that are unfamiliar, so try and expand your knowledge beforehand. Either way, you will probably feel more comfortable talking to locals in their own language, as well as the practical advantages of being understood in a foreign country.
6. Prepare for possible changes in career options if you are a trailing spouse
One of my biggest surprises as a trailing spouse was not being able to work here, even though I am legally entitled. If I had known the employment situation beforehand, it might have made us decide against moving. If your relocation is for only one spouse’s employment, do a realistic assessment of what all the career options are for the other partner, as the trailing spouse.
Some accompanying spouses will happily be stay-at-home parents so the question of working will never be an issue. However, there are many others who are forced to give up work because they are not legally allowed to in the new country or, like myself, can’t find the same employment. These non-working partners may need to think about new career options prior to arriving or at least have these as a backup plan in case things are not to expectations.
Of course, these tips won’t cover every possible problem you could come up against. However, they will go a long way to addressing some common issues expats face, and certainly would have helped us have a smoother relocation.
What tips can you add for preparing your family for relocation overseas?