5 Tips for Your Expat Assignment

This post is contributed by Christy Campbell, a SPS Featured Blogger.

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Ok, I’ll be honest, my experience with this is second-hand. I’m currently a tag-along who’s finagled my way into someone else’s expat contract.

But don’t let that fool you: along with a number of other crazy jobs I’ve held overseas, I worked part-time as a relocation agent and spent a lot of hours in the car with new arrivals, learning what they were nervous about, what they anticipated missing most from home and what had them most excited about their new assignment.

I also learned the ins and outs of expat contracts, who was getting a sweet deal and who was simply getting gipped.

In hanging out with expats for the last ten years, I’m very aware that every company is different in terms of what they offer, the resources that their HR team has access to and how familiar they are with expat contracts and assignments in the first place.

I have a friend who was sent overseas and had to largely fend for herself and another friend who was so coddled during his assignment he had practically no exposure to the local culture in the three years he was abroad.

In order to survive either situation, here are five tips I can humbly pass along.


1) Get to know your neighbors.

This is my favorite tip for anyone moving overseas for any reason. While you may have a super handy assistant or a stellar HR team who’s used to the challenges foreigners encounter, nothing compares to having an ally in your neighbor when your power goes out or you just need to find the local post office.

Do this as soon as you can when moving to a new place, because the more time that passes, the more sheepish your introduction may become when you knock on their door late at night for some much-needed assistance.

Besides, you never know who could be on the other side of that door: some of the best cultural experiences I’ve had have been thanks to kind, hospitable neighbors.

2) Take Local Transportation.

I know that some companies require you to have a company-provided car and driver while in other places it’s simply unsafe to travel on your own. But whenever you can, learn to take the local transportation—taxis, subways, buses, tuk tuks, your own two feet. There’s something both invigorating and humbling to learn to get around on your own and it goes a long way to helping you assimilate in your new home.

I’ll be honest, this is often one of the most intimidating things for me when I move somewhere. I often try to arrive in a new place a few days early just to get familiar with my transportation options and figure out how to navigate solo.

3) Ask for language classes.

Don’t just ask for a stipend, ask for classes. It can be really ostracizing to be a foreigner—especially if you’re one of the only foreigners—in a company. But one of the best ways to bridge cultural divides quickly is to learn the language; no matter where you are, people appreciate the effort. And the more willing you are to learn the language, the more you’ll get out of your time abroad.

But as a word of caution: I’ve seen a lot of people bargain a language learning stipend into their contract but fail to find a class or make the time for it. So ask your local HR department or assistant to set you up with classes right away.

4) Get a Cultural Education.

Remember my disastrous year of teaching English?

It came largely because I failed to appreciate the learning environment I was working in. I’ve seen the exact same thing happen to some of the best leaders: they bring their experience of managing teams back home and try to apply it to their new environment and all of the sudden things start falling apart.

If your company doesn’t offer cultural training and orientation, do your own research: read books and articles, find other expats who’ve successfully worked in the culture and ask for mentorship and advice, seek out trainings and classes on your own (most big cities seem to offer them).

They say the best stories are ones that involve a guide who helps the protagonist overcome his/her obstacle and reach success. I think this is true of expat assignments as well.

My sage wisdom: find your guide. (Don’t laugh, I’m serious!)

5) Master Stress Management.

While teaching, studying, and even volunteering abroad can all bring their own stresses and insecurities, I’ve found the highest stress levels tend to be amongst those on expat assignments. I believe this typically comes from a couple of things.

First, you usually only get an expat assignment if a “foreign expert” is required. This usually means you need to become a bridge between the expectations of some far-away headquarters and the local reality.

Second, there’s a good chance you’re a saltwater fish that was just thrown into a freshwater pond. It can be a slow and sometimes painful adaption.

And third, you’re in a new environment that may contain a few super cushy perks, but is also lacking your old friend group, your favorite restaurants and possibly your former stress outlets (like hobbies). Expats worldwide have a reputation for becoming alcoholics for these very reasons (among others, obviously).

I only say this to make a point: find a way to manage your stress early on and I can almost promise that your experience will be better for it. Find a good community, pick up new hobbies if you need to and invest in making the place home, even if it’s only for a short time; you’ll set yourself up for a far better time, regardless of the way things go at the office.

Ok, that’s my two cents. What tips do you have to make the most of an expat assignment?