Five Women Share Their Experiences Living Abroad

I never imagined myself living outside the United States until I took an extended trip to Mexico in 2001. After eight weeks exploring pre-Columbian ruins, ordering tacos at street stands, and strolling through bustling open-air markets, I’d fallen in love with Mexico’s warmth and color. Young and exhilarated, I blithely decided to extend my stay indefinitely.

But, as I soon learned, visiting a country and moving there are two very different propositions. Living in Mexico required far more elbow grease and patience than a vacation did, as I navigated both the complex and the mundane aspects of my new life, from immigration paperwork to Spanish-language job interviews. In the end, I loved the intermittent culture shock and ongoing challenges, and Mexico became my home.

Born in Germany, Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey, author of Moon Living Abroad in Australia, is a veteran expatriate who lived in both England and the Middle East before moving to Australia when her husband was transferred for work. Though she finds living overseas “positively addictive,” she agrees that it’s a challenge. “You need to be a quite adventurous and interested person,” says Lemmin-Woolfrey. “If you don’t like a challenge then it can be quite difficult. After all you have to start all over again each time: everything from finding a dentist, to not recognizing the money and brands in the stores, to settling your kids and finding new friends.”

Tackling the essentials—food, housing, work, visas—is a constant across the world. Making friends and building meaningful relationships is a more elusive part of the equation, but no less important. What does it take to feel at home in another culture, sometimes halfway across the world? The answer varies from person-to-person and country-to-country, but, many expats agree, assimilation isn’t necessarily the goal—nor is it often possible. I spoke with five women who lived in countries across the world, and asked them to share a few tips and insights about living as an expatriate in their adopted country.

Moving World Artwork, Heathrow Terminal in London.
Moving World Artwork, Heathrow Terminal in London. Photo © Jim Linwood, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Ruthy Kanagy, Japan: On Being a Good Neighbor

Ruthy Kanagy, author of Moon Living Abroad in Japan, was born in Tokyo and raised in Hokkaido, though today she makes her home in the Pacific Northwest. Kanagy tells me that foreigners are no longer seen as exotic in Japan, as they once were, and many Japanese “have experience living overseas and are well acquainted with foreign politics and cultures.” Nonetheless, Kanagy recommends foreigners be proactive in connecting with locals in Japan. Rather than rent an apartment in the popular expatriate enclaves, Kanagy suggests that a very simple way to “blend into Japanese society and become a neighbor, is to live in areas where Japanese do.”

Once there, she suggests you reach out to your neighbors by dropping by their home with a small gift, as is often done in Japan, or joining the neighborhood association to get involved in the local community. Good advice anywhere in the world, Kanagy says, “The easiest way to make friends is to have a common interest.” A good place to start is one of the many neighborhood community centers, where you might find “classes in Japanese arts like flower arranging or tea ceremony, sponsored hikes, or ballroom dancing.”

Learning to speak Japanese is also key. “The rewards of living in Japan and making friends is proportional to speaking the language,” Kanagy says, noting that the Japanese study a foreign language in school and are very sympathetic to the challenges facing those learning a new language. “The more you make an effort to speak Japanese, the more people respond,” she adds, emphasizing that there are many phrases and expressions (like those used after a meal, for example) in spoken Japanese that are easy to learn.

Michelle Weiss, Mexico: On Sharing Studios and Speaking Spanish

Michelle Weiss, a native New Yorker, lived in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, for over 15 years. Weiss notes that the large, long-standing American community in San Miguel can ease the transition for many expatriates. “For people moving to places that have significant long-term expat communities, it is not so much that they can successfully integrate but rather that they can live in a place that accommodates their foreignness into the weave of everyday living,” she explains.

However, Weiss was able to build relationships outside the expat community by connecting to people with common interests and learning to speak Spanish fluently. “I think I was able to integrate to a high degree. My friends were Mexican. I speak Spanish,” says Weiss. “We ate the same food, listened to the same music, shared studios and professional and creative endeavors.” Speaking the language, says Weiss, isn’t just about communication, but about truly understanding the nuance of Mexican culture. “To really integrate into the culture, it is essential to speak the language,” Weiss says. “Even though many Mexicans do speak English, you will not be privy to their true selves, to the depth and subtle nuances of their culture.”

At the same time, Weiss doesn’t believe the goal is assimilation. “It isn’t necessary to leave one’s cultural experience behind to live in another country,” she tells me. “You can deepen and broaden your experience by allowing your past experiences to color your present.” However, she adds, “It is necessary to bring a sensitive and open mind, a willingness to adapt. And most importantly to always have respect for that which is different or unknown.”

Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey, Australia: On Enthusiastic Expats

The mix of professional opportunities coupled with the warm, outdoorsy lifestyle are what bring a lot of newcomers to Australia, where the expatriate community is both large and well-integrated. In fact, Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey tells me, “The vast majority of Australians are immigrants, be it first or third generation, and the mix is fantastic here: People are either visiting, studying, or working here from all over the world, and a lot are here to stay.”

With previous experience living in Europe and the Middle East, Lemmin-Woolfrey has a strong frame of reference when she says it’s “relatively easy to integrate” into the local culture in Australia. In the Middle East, Lemmin-Woolfrey found the more tight-knit expatriate community provided a “support net of people who know what you are going through when you have just arrived and are struggling with the most basic of basics.” In Australia, there is a less structured expat community, though newcomers often make connections through international schools and activities. Lemmin-Woolfrey recommends sports as a way to inspire new friendships: “Pick a team, go out and play, and you make friends in moments.”

Margot Bigg, India: On Jus Sanguis

Margot Bigg moved to India from France, after falling in love with the country on an extended visit. She lined up a job in Gurgaon, near Delhi, at a time when most expatriates in India were “young single people looking for an overseas adventure, most of whom were willing to put in long hours for low wages in return for the experience of living in such an awe-inspiring country.” India’s expatriate community has only grown in the years since, though Bigg notes that Indian law has made it more difficult for foreigners to settle in India without a considerable salary.

Bigg says the environment in India is “usually pretty positive” for foreign residents, though she notes that “few foreigners become a part of society, especially if they don’t have ancestral ties to the subcontinent.” India’s nationality laws play a role in the separation of foreigners. Biggs explains, “India’s citizenship model is jus sanguinis, meaning that ancestry—rather than place of birth—is the decisive factor in determining what it is to ‘be Indian.’”

Shannon Aitken, China: On Waiguoren and Opportunities

For native Aussie and author of Moon Living Abroad in Beijing Shannon Aitken, making local friends was key to a positive transition in China. “Personally I found it really easy to adapt, but I have to say that a lot of that was because I got a job almost straightaway and immediately found friends who helped me,” she remembered. “If you have a patient Chinese friend or colleague who is willing to show you a few things when you get here, it’s much easier.”

Aitken paints an appealing portrait of life in Beijing, where expatriates are treated with kindness and respect. “On the whole, the Chinese are incredibly welcoming to foreigners. They love it when foreigners can speak Chinese and are interested in the Chinese culture,” Aitken explains. The professional opportunities have also drawn a “huge variety of expats” to Beijing, including “families, usually here because the father or mother work in an international or diplomatic organization that has brought them over; university students here to study either Chinese or an MBA, lots of entrepreneurial people; and then people like me who come over themselves seeking cultural experiences and who hunt out jobs and a lifestyles on their own bat.”

She notes, however, that few foreigners plan to stay on China long-term, telling me, “There is a point that most people never seem to cross, no matter how fluent your Chinese, how long you’ve been here, or even if you end up marrying a Chinese person. You’ll always be a waiguoren, a foreigner.”