What I Learned From Working Abroad
By Joe Issid
Over the course of my life, I have had the tremendous privilege of living and working in multiple countries spanning three continents. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been raised in a relatively nomadic way, which has allowed me to be very welcoming of the idea of packing up and moving across the world. For many, however, the prospect of working in a foreign country can seem daunting and, quite frankly, unimaginable. Not only does the idea of moving to a foreign land illicit great organizational concerns, the feeling of having to start over can be panic-inducing. And I get it. Moving to – and working in – a foreign country can carry some risks and anyone considering doing so should approach the idea carefully and with eyes wide open. Having said that, these experiences can be extremely positive, even life-changing. Personally, working overseas has been an incredible learning experience and my career has been undeniably strengthened by it. Here are some valuable lessons that I was taught along the way.
Know your legal status
Unless you are a citizen of your new host nation, chances are you will require some form of professional visa to legally work in the country (which, hopefully, your employer will be able to assist you with). While this may seem like a mere formality, you should keep in mind the risks and psychological weight that this can carry. In such a case, you become somewhat more beholden to your employer as they become your legal sponsor and can wield a greater influence on your life. In my case, I worked in Saudi Arabia for a few years and, due to their labour laws, it was virtually impossible for me to stay in the country had I chosen to quit my job. To wit, you can lose a good deal of leverage when negotiating with your employer as your mobility can be quite severely limited and the risks associated to leaving are very high. If you are looking to move abroad, make sure you fully understand the rights and implications involved in the type of visa you acquire.
Uprooting yourself and moving to a completely unknown part of the world can be quite traumatic. So, no one would blame you for feeling quite uneasy and homesick when you arrive in your new city. As someone who has moved around quite a lot, I urge you to try and make your new home feel like, well, home as quickly as possible. I would also urge you to get yourself set up right away as well, such as opening a bank account, getting a phone and home internet access. The sooner you can get these domestic issues set up, the sooner you are going to feel grounded and settled. Getting this stuff out of the way early will make you miss home a little less and will allow you to begin focusing on your new job and life abroad.
Before you leave for your new host country, you should certainly make every effort to research any customs or behaviours that may help you assimilate into your new surroundings – both personally and professionally. For instance, when I was working in the Middle East, learning some basic salutations in Arabic proved to be invaluable as I learned to adapt to a new work culture. Fortunately, business was conducted in English, which allowed me to contribute immediately. But finding the time to learn some local expressions showed a great willingness to adapt and allowed me to become an accepted member of the team rapidly. Furthermore, you will be able to greatly minimize any potentially embarrassing situations, such as failing, in my case, to show up to work on a Sunday (the Saudi work week runs from Saturday to Thursday). Avoid being an expat casualty.
Become a change agent
While a huge part of your experience working abroad will be your ability to assimilate into a new culture, you should not be shy to inject your own ideas and experiences into your new workplace. You will be providing a very unique perspective to your new team so you should try and turn this into a strength. It is likely that you have confronted similar issues at a previous job in a different country so you may be able to provide a fresh solution to a long-standing problem. In this instance, your “otherness” could be a great advantage to both you are your new team.