By Rachel Yates
I’d love to pretend that I was an international relocation guru that had all the answers to successful relocation, based on a glowing professional references and a Phd in International Studies. Sadly, I don’t. But what I do have is the ability to make friends easily, and to make them talk. I’ve learned from my mistakes and theirs, and I’ve figured out key characteristics of a smoother transition.
So far, I have transitioned across three continents and five locations in 11 years, complete with a husband, two children and 5 assorted dogs and cats. We’ve had a number of inevitable disasters, and most of them have been because I assumed stuff. There’s a saying about the word ASSUME, and it’s never more true than in the world of relocation.
I assumed that living overseas would be a fun, year long vacation. I assumed that the relocation services manager worked for us, not for the company. I assumed that just because someone says it is taken care of, it will be. I assumed that giving up work meant that we would have more quality time as a family. And I assumed the film ‘Out of Africa’ was a factual documentary..
Needless to say, this lack of self awareness, research, planning and some pretty unrealistic expectations did not make for an auspicious start. I spent the first six months running up immense Skype bills to friends and family back home, trying to keep out of the way of the irritated house staff who were part of the rental agreement and wandering the supermarkets, boutiques and nail salons in search of friendly faces to talk to. I was lonely, out of my depth and very, very unhappy.
So what changed enough to make me want to repeat the experience five times? And what can you do to improve your international transition? Here are my key questions to ask before setting out on your global adventure..
Introducing 4 key questions in the international relocation process
1. What’s motivating you?
There are good, great and terrible reasons for choosing to relocate, and if you are thinking that your relationship / money / work / family problems won’t follow you to your shiny new location, think again. If you have issues, address them before you leave, because the stress of relocation will make the cracks show really, really quickly.
2. Are your expectations realistic?
From housing to schooling to lifestyle to life in general, do you really understand what you are getting in to? There are plenty of ways to research your location – travel guides, expat forums, expat websites, professional resources, social media connections – all of which can help you decide whether the life you are anticipating will be the life that you experience.
3. How much help will you receive?
Relocation packages are built to a standardized model, and while there is some flexibility, you won’t get everything you need from a destination service provider, no matter how good they are. Your job is to figure out what is important, what is provided, and what you will need to find for yourself. Talk to expats in the new location, to other people in the company who have relocated and to your new colleagues. Often services we take for granted in the US and Europe don’t exist in other locations, or take far more time to set up than a destination service provides. Save your assisted hours for the tricky stuff – navigating officialdom, getting financial services in place and a list of recommendations for schools, health service providers etc. While they may not have the hours available, they have the knowledge and resources to point you in the right direction.
4. What happens if it goes wrong.
Thankfully, I haven’t had to return early, but it’s something you need to think about, because more companies are including a ‘cost clawback’ clause in the contract. This involves reclaiming your repatriation (and in some cases, expatriation) costs if you decide to leave their employment before the contracted end date. If you are taking a family, clarify what happens if someone falls ill and needs medical care, if the security situation deterioriates, or if the family decide to return alone. Not only does it give you (hopefully) peace of mind that you will be looked after, if gives you some idea of how the company values your continued employment.. or not.
It’s not rocket science, but it takes time, research and a willingness to be honest with yourself if you want to build a successful life overseas. While no-one can predict all the challenges you face, some advance thought and planning means you have the resources and support to deal with them effectively.
That, and remembering that relocation is not a vacation, it’s real life. Warts and all.
Rachel Yates is the editor and publisher of www.definingmoves.com, a free online resource for relocating individuals, partners and families, sharing the knowledge, experience and warped humor from expatriates and locals around the globe. DefiningMoves.com blends advice, practical tools, resources and community with humor, humility and a touch of insanity.