Moving Abroad – 1. Into The Not-So-Unknown

Many times in my life, upon hearing that I am moving to a different country yet again (I do it a lot – I’ve lived in six countries so far (one of those twice, and we are about to move to a seventh), I’ve had people say things like “You move to other countries so much, that’s so brave/difficult/etc., how do you/do you think I could/should I do it/can you teach me to do it?!”  This is the first blog post in a series (here is the link to the second and third posts) about why/how I have done/do it.  This is not to say the way I did it is the only way to do it (it’s not!), but it is the one I know, and I prefer to talk about things I know, rather than out of my ass.

Before I begin talking about everything else (and there is a lot of ‘else’ in a massive project such as an international move), I’d like to discuss the reasons why you may want to make this huge change in your life, as well as the reason why you call me brave – the part that I like to refer to as “Oh My God It’s Different Out There!

As I discussed the idea for this series of posts with a friend, he pointed out that the reason people seem to think that I am brave for moving around like this, is less the financial security (or lack thereof) in a new place (I will address financial and various other aspects of an international move in later posts), and more the fact that the person moving to a new country will be surrounded by strangers who may not speak his or her language, have different customs, traditions, habits, food, and use social cues that will mean different things from what you are used to – what is commonly known and referred to as ‘culture shock’.

The reason why I am handling the two topics – the reason why you may want to move, and the way of dealing with said culture shock – in the same post, is because to me, these subjects are inherently intertwined, and not only cannot, but should not be separated from each other.

Allow me to explain.  You are reading a blog post about moving abroad – the most important question to ask oneself about this subject is, why do you want to move?  What is it that the other place has that would make it worth the trip?  I strongly disagree with the saying that the grass is always greener on the other side, and its implication that it isn’t.  I disagree with the saying specifically as applied to international moves, because it is too simplistic, which makes it simply untrue.  Most places have both, advantages and disadvantages.  However, it’s not true that all places have those in equal measure, and it’s also not true that all those places have those in equal or unequal measures for everyone.  Your and my ideas of what constitutes ‘grass’ and ‘green’ are not the same:  Is a sunny beach with palm trees and summer at least half a year something that is important to you?  Is a winter with -25°C temperatures a deal breaker?  Do you believe that education should be free?  Are you willing to walk places rather than drive?  Are high taxes and road tolls a deal breaker?  Do you speak the local language?  Are you willing to learn it or not?  Are you willing to accept the consequences of not learning it?  Are you willing to pay for private medical insurance?  Is not being able to choose your doctor a deal breaker?  I could go on for pages on end, but you get the idea.

The answer to the question of why you want to move to a country of your choosing should therefore take the form of: “I want to move to Country X because things 1, 2, 3, and 4 are something they have there that I want to have in my life that I do not have here, and things 6, 9, and 11 that they also have there are things that I can live with, and are not enough of a deterrent that I would not want to move there.”  The trick, of course, is to gain enough understanding of the target country to make the assessment clear in your head, because moving based on your own preconceived notions instead of reality is a Bad Idea™.  Just how bad?  Well, you will definitely make yourself spectacularly miserable, and it will be worse for you than for the people around you, but you will annoy them, too.  Guaranteed.  And yes, that will make them unfriendly and uninterested in being your friend, or even being helpful.

Please don’t laugh (or, actually, by all means, laugh!), but I’ve had a person complain to me here in Finland about lack of good, ‘artisanal’ bread in Jyväskylä, and there being only “crappy sandwich stuff around and no bakeries like in San Francisco or Portland!”.  When I pointed out to her that there is amazing delicious handmade sourdough Finnish rye bread made in a local bakery by a nice Finnish gentleman, and that it is sold right there in that supermarket on the corner, she whinily replied that she doesn’t really like rye bread, and she wanted San Francisco style sourdough, and also that she’s unhappy with the coffee in this town because “don’t you think it just tastes better when they make little heart patterns on top of the latte and not just dump the espresso in there?”  (For the record, there are some nice cafes in town, which make excellent lattes, both with and without the heart-shaped patterns that she so wanted.)

She’d moved here because apparently she liked the idea of the Nordic countries, but she didn’t like the starkly different matter-of-fact reality she found when she had arrived, because what she had actually wanted was living in Portland, but with the added exoticism and trendiness of it being sooo Scandinavian, with designer furniture and subsidized health care and all.  She never actually wanted to live in the Nordics (Finland is a Nordic country, not part of Scandinavia in the way most locals reckon, although a small minority of locals do speak Swedish which is a Scandinavian language), nor wanted to accept the reality of the Nordics and learn to become one of us.  She’s left Europe now, and good riddance.

What I am trying to say is that, of course, the culture of the country you are moving to will be different – but that it need not be a shock that it is, because it’s a country different from the one where you grew up and are used to.  And if you decide that several factors present in said country make it reason enough to move there, and accept that there will be inevitable differences, due to it being a different place, the so-called culture shock never materializes.  Instead, you come to a new place with a realization that you will have a bit (or a lot) of a learning curve, but when anticipated, that becomes just another part of life, like with anything new.  And yes, provided that the country you are moving to has a different language that you do not know, it should be factored into the latter set of things that you can accept that you will have to either learn, or live with not understanding if you decide not to learn.

I have a counter-example of another American (a writer named Berin Kinsman) who has moved here with pretty clear ideas of what Finland was going to be like, having done some realistic research, knowing there are things here which he really would like to have in his life, and also with an open mind about wanting to at least try living here like the locals do, to see if he would actually like it.  Not only is he not experiencing ‘culture shock’ in its stereotypical sense, he’s happy to be here, he’s working on staying here, and he loves it here – because of how here is, not despite it.  He found the differences, he’s had to get used to a few, including learning the local language, and while there may well be things he misses (I agree, Mexican cuisine in Jyväskylä sort of sucks, a lot), he is entirely fine living with that lack – or cooking it for himself when he really wants some (you can get most if not all the ingredients here easily enough).

‘Culture shock’ happens when people move to a different country expecting it to be the same as the one they came from, or maybe the same one they came from but with some of the amenities/advantages, and none of the disadvantages or things one may have to adapt to of a different country, and are surprised and outraged that it is not in fact the same country they left, and that people speak a different language, have their own habits and customs, and don’t care about what you – the newcomer foreigner – think about how things ought to be done.  The thing to remember is that you are moving to their country, where how they do things is the way things are done and how they ought to be done according to the locals, and it will not change just because you feel that it should be otherwise based on what you are used to in the place where you come from.  I found that if one approaches the locals with interest and appreciation for their country and customs rather than with criticism along the lines of ‘well we do it in this way back where I am from and it’s clearly superior (and has more hearts on the coffee)!‘, they tend to be happy to explain, and generally friendly.  Yes, even the ones in the countries with populations widely reputed stereotyped as being ‘silent and unfriendly and unsociable and dislike strangers’ – and I say all that in quotation marks, because I found it to be generally untrue.

Another concern I have heard voiced, is people being worried about moving away from their support network.  I would say that it is something which should not be separated from the framework suggested above – evaluating how much your support network actually means for your daily life, and whether you would be willing to leave the comfort of it for the sake of things you desire that are elsewhere is a part of the same equation that solves the problem of “should I move to another country?” for either a yes or no answer.  You will make friends in a new country if you try.  You will not make great ‘old’ friends immediately because they will be new friends by definition.  You can grow a new support network, but it takes time and more effort than already having the one you grew up in.  I suggest taking a very good, critical and unemotional look at the value of your support network, and making a decision one way or the other.

I think the takeaway from this post should not be a trendy “travel and moving abroad is great for everyone and everyone should do it!” (and I detest blogs that claim this, because, seriously?), but rather a sobering realization that moving abroad is a major decision which has the potential to let you see the wider world, live a richer life, learn new things, and perhaps get to live someplace which has whatever it is your heart yearns for in the one life we get to have – be it steep mountains, sunny beaches, free education, all the marijuana you can smoke, all the baklava you can eat, or the unending and limitless steppes on which to herd your sheep, if that’s what floats your camel.  However, it is not a decision to undertake lightly, and it will cost you – it will cost you financially, it will cost you in time spent learning how to live in a new place, in the things and people and amenities you may leave behind, and whatever else ended up on that side of your equation.

If you have critically, honestly, and self-reflectively solved the “Should I?” equation for ‘yes’, then it’s definitely, definitely worth it.  And in that case, if you are prepared for the inevitable trade-off, I don’t foresee much ‘culture shock.’

Next installment upcoming Soon™, i.e. whenever I have time to write it in-between planning my impending move to Norway.  Blogging is well and fine, but I do know we want to and are moving, so the everything else of an international relocation needs doing, and takes a priority in my relocation how-to book.

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