The truths no one will tell you about moving to a new country

Seven years ago I was catching a flight to what I thought was going to be “just a temporary gig in another country”. Sure.

Photo: Paul Kim

September 2010. After being “found” on Linkedin by a foreign recruiter and accepting a job offer in the US, I was catching a flight to what I thought was going to be “just a temporary work experience”. What started as a career decision ended up being one of the most transformative experiences in my life. Here are a few things I have learned along the way.

  • You are not as fluent in English as you think you are. Nobody out in the real world speaks at the pace and with the patience of an English-as-second-language teacher. You will likely have to study the new language a thousand times more once you make the move.
  • There’s no such thing as losing your accent. The more you lose your accent when speaking, the better your ears will get at recognizing accents — including your own. Get over it.
  • You are not going to be the same person you were in your native language. You can’t. Your personality (the one you are so proud of in your mid twenties) will not survive in a foreign culture. You’ll have to find your new self, your new vocabulary, your new behaviors, your new tone of voice, your new jokes, your new social interactions — or you will always feel like a fish out of water. Unless you have zero self-awareness, in which case you’ll be just fine.
  • You are going to spend a few nights thinking you made the wrong decision. You will cry, but you won’t tell anyone (well, maybe 7 years later…). This will probably be the best endurance test you will go through in life. Do you want it, or do you not want it that much?
  • You will learn you can live an entire life without possessing things. Sharing economy + free spirit + investing your money in the right places. Choosing this path will transform your relationship with the world in many, many levels. You will stop spending emotional energy in desiring to own things and in showing the world you own them.
  • When you are free to wear, pray, worship, eat, look and behave the way you want, you are more likely to follow rules and obey the law.
  • You will learn to “run a ballpark estimate”, “set up a touch base with the team”, “make sure you cover all the bases” and learn how to “handle curveballs right off the bat”. When you’re born in the nation of soccer, reading expressions like these can be disorienting; it’s what I like to call “Baseball English”. After a couple years living and breathing the American culture, you will learn to understand, appreciate, and respect each of these expressions.
  • You will meet people from countries and cities you have never heard of, and you will find it shocking how homogeneous your own country is. Your first reaction will be to try to bucket people into categories (“French people are more straightforward”, “Canadians are nicer”), but that won’t last long. The more you get to know individuals, the more you’ll realize they are quite unique. You will understand that culture ≠ personality, and you’ll be fascinated by how many combinations you get when you mix both.
  • Some people in the country you’re moving to have no idea about the rest of the world (e.g. some Americans do believe that the USA is the only free country in the world). Your first reaction will be to think they are silly. Only until you realize how many things you didn’t know about their country either, and you’ll stop thinking in terms of “us” vs. “them”.
  • The fact you are a foreigner is not as interesting as you think. When you move to a new country, all you want to talk about to your new friends is how “things are different back home, let me tell you”. After a few years you’ll realize this is boring for everyone, including yourself. It makes for good small talk, but doesn’t get you to deeper, more relevant conversations.
  • There’s a chance you will not understand TV humor in America. In my case, I did not understand TV humor back home either — so no drama here.
  • Every country is culturally huge, regardless of its territory or population. The same way you are going to hate when people paint your country’s culture in broad strokes, you will have to learn to use thinner brushes yourself. You can’t have it only one-way. It’s not fair.
  • The feeling of security you get as you walk on the streets (compared to your hometown) can slowly kill your animal instincts of awareness, self-defense, survival. Find other ways to not let them die.
  • You will have issues defining your own ethnicity, simply because classification models vary quite a lot from country to country. Don’t take it personally.
  • You will have to learn to measure the world under new lenses: Fahrenheits, miles, pounds, inches, tip percentages. If you like brain puzzles and appreciate the value they add to your cognitive abilities, you’ll be fine. Also, Google is your friend.
  • Moving to a new country is opting in for a journey that will be painful, delightful, unexpected, harsh at times — but above all, transformative. It will force you to deconstruct your so-perfect self, and to build empathy with an entire nation, which is one of the most aggrandizing experiences one can go through in life. Embrace it.
  • Wherever you are, there you are.