There is nothing in the world like the beginning of a cross-cultural experience.


It is a jumbled, beautiful mess of every possible emotion, wrapped in giddy wonder, coated in absolute confusion.


Chances are, if you’re just beginning your expat adventure, you’ve read the books and the blogs.  You’ve watched every Youtube video and you’ve tested the gracious limits of a been there- done that with endless questions like, “can I get ketchup there?” and “does Mcdonald’s taste the same?”  Maybe you’ve even been through the training and learned all about cultural dynamics, dimensions, profiles and contrasts.

You’re prepped.  Ready.  Excited.  Confident.

But regardless of what you have done to equip yourself, the inevitable reality of stepping across cultural lines is that a significant dose of unpredictablity is waiting on the other side.  It’s a part of the deal.

Here’s the good news — wrapping your head around the inevitable but unpredictable realities early on will lessen the impact that they have on your healthy transition.

So tuck these five things away for those irritating moments in the not too distant future when you’re feeling blindsided by the stuff they didn’t cover at the seminar.


ONE: It’s not what you thought it was

This place.  These people.  That food.  The experience altogether . . . as it turns out is not exactly like you had it pictured in your head.  It may be worse.  It could be better but to be sure  . . . it is different.

I know, I know — it’s a bit of a “well duh” point but you would be shocked at the role that the gap between pre-going expectations and first year realities plays in the overall success of an expat experience.  The biggest problems happen NOT because we are wrong but because we still think we should be right.

This will save you a world of stress — when it comes time, be willing to acknowledge where you were off and adjust your expectations accordingly.  To be fair, you can also adjust the realities but that requires tremendous energy that would be better spent elsewhere in your first year.  Save that for later and be willing to adjust your own understanding first.  That’s where the good stuff is.


TWO: The devil is in the details

I have never (not once) spoken to someone who is about to go abroad and would look me straight in the eyes and say “this is going to be easy”.  They may be PAINFULLY naive and even irritatingly oblivious to their actual capacity to handle what is about to happen — BUT — NO ONE goes in thinking it is going to be easy.

No one.

However — there is a huge difference between knowing it is going to be hard and finding out HOW it is hard.  The HOW is what get’s you.  When the speculation materializes into actual problems it is a whole different game.

Humans in general tend to be both overconfident in our future capacity to handle problems AND oversensitive to our present state.  The result is pre-goers who get strangely excited about the potential of a military coup and have a meltdown when their plane is delayed.

Brace for the details.


THREE: Relationships are harder than Culture

This one kicks people in the teeth.  We come in thinking that the biggest challenges will be figuring out the quirky little cultural bits like when to hug and when to bow or what kind of gift to bring to a dinner party.  So we focus our prep time on crash coursing high culture.

HOWEVER the big shocker often comes when we discover that the most painful part of cross cultural life can be the colleagues and teammates that speak the same language and come from the same place we do.

  • The loudmouth expat who constantly gripes about the locals.
  • The nosy neighbor who needs to know every part of your business.
  • The over-helpful co-worker who thinks you’ll fall apart without him.
  • The standoffish longtimer who has no space for newbies.
  • The overreaching parent who yells at your kid.
  • The judgy purist who thinks you’re not legit unless cancel your facebook account.

Am I getting close yet?  There are more.

Be warned — people are hard — no matter where they are from.


FOUR: Adventures are boring

Maybe you never dreamed you would do something like this in a million years.  Maybe this is just the first in what you fully anticipate will be a lifelong string of global journeys.  You are a born explorer.  A true thrill seeker.  An adventure lover.

But guess what.

The dishes still need washed and dinner isn’t going to cook itself.

Sometimes, in the excitement of a whole new normal, we lose sight of the reality that real life stuff travels with us.  There is a significant percentage of cross-cultural life and work that is just plain mundane.




That stuff never makes the brochure.


FIVE: Grief is a part of this

I tread lightly around this one for good reason.  I would never draw direct parallels between standard expatriate transition and a major life loss like death or divorce.  Those are different and they deserve a different space.

However — with that disclaimer established — there is a lot of loss that comes with cross-cultural transition.  Often times, BECAUSE we can’t put a label on it (like “death” or “divorce”) we have no idea what is happening to us.

You let go of some things to do this.  People.  Places.  Things.  Memories.  Experiences.  Dreams.

That is legitimate loss and the natural result is grief.  You don’t have to feel guilty for that and you’re not selfish simply because you are sad.

Recognize that grief is a heavy process.  Talk about it with a trusted friend or write it out on a trusted notebook — regardless, don’t just carry it.


Three action points:



Slow down.  You’re not supposed to be moving at full speed in the beginning.  It probably drives you crazy that it takes you longer to accomplish to simplest tasks.  That’s normal and it will get better.

Go slower.  Learn more.



Be as student of yourself.  Know what it takes for you to recharge and be intentional about creating places for that to happen.  Need down time?  Make it a priority.  Need people?  Go find them.  Need to take a retreat to a place where there are only familiar things?  Do it but don’t stay there.  Recharge and re-engage.

Take care of yourself.



It is crucial to a healthy transition to recognize that you are not the only transitioner.  Cross-cultural life is a transition that never ends so look around . . . it’s everyone.  You are allowed to bumble your way through this but you don’t own exclusive bumbling rights.

READ The Transition That Never Ends: The ongoing cycle of expat Stayers, Goers and Newbies

Be good to people — even when they haven’t earned it.


If you are just getting started don’t be discouraged.  It is hard because it is good.

If you’ve been doing this for a while, what would you add?  Comment below.

If you know someone who could use this — pass it on.


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