Do Your Homework
And Ease Your Way
By ELIZABETH GARONE
Special to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
After an idyllic four years in Thailand as the Administrative Officer for Peace Corps, Lesley Duncan found out that her next posting could be in one of two vastly different locales: Mongolia or Bulgaria. While the idea of living in a yurt and petting yaks sounded appealing, temperatures that approached minus-40 degrees didn't. Today, as Country Director for Peace Corps Bulgaria, Ms. Duncan knows firsthand what it takes to succeed when it comes to relocating overseas, especially with a husband and two kids in tow, and works to help others with the changes that come with this kind of move. While every overseas post is different, here are six tips that should help smooth the transition.
Your First 90 Days
Research where you're going. Forget the first 90 days, says Ms. Duncan. It's the three months before you leave that you should be doing as much research as possible. The more you know in advance about the place you are going, the better. Of course, not everything you read in guidebooks or on the Internet will prove germane to your individual situation, but at least you'll have some idea of where you are going and what to expect – rather than heading overseas blindly.
Learn the language. Take lessons, advises Ms. Duncan. Even if you expect to be surrounded by people speaking English, take the time to learn the language of the country to which you are relocating. There will be times when you want to venture out beyond the confines of your English-speaking office. Plus, your efforts will earn you extra points with the locals and will come in handy when negotiating the rent or the price on that ceramic bowl you have been eying at the open market.
Ease in slowly. Take some time to adjust. Whether it's a domestic move or an international move, settling in is not an overnight process, says Ms. Duncan. "Give yourself a year to figure it out," she says. If it's possible, plan to make your move at least a few weeks before the new job is scheduled to start. That way, you can familiarize yourself with the area and the customs before jumping in. Plus, you'll be able to get all of the mundane tasks out of the way, like opening a bank account and getting phone service.
Find -- or create -- a social network. The moment your board the plane for your new destination, you are saying goodbye -- at least temporarily -- to your old network of friends and family. With the advent of email and cheap international calls, staying in touch shouldn't be a problem. But, you will need to branch out and create a social network through your new position and elsewhere. Other ex-pats can be excellent sources of local information and can help with tips on settling in. "You're not the first one to make the move," says Ms. Duncan. "Find that person who can give you the insight you need."
Do as the locals do (most of the time). Ms. Duncan's husband, Sam Matthews, remembers his first stint overseas as a Peace Corps' volunteer in Paraguay. He went to a church service with his host family. When it came time to shake hands with the person next to him, Mr. Matthews saw two young women kiss each other on the cheek. He thought he should do the same with the woman next to him. Turned out he was wrong. The lesson learned: Better to err on the side of caution than cause an international incident. Learn as much as you can about the local customs in advance, and be respectful. "You need to have awareness and appreciation for what you're getting into," says Ms. Duncan. "Be conscious of gender roles because they're often different."
|The Duncan family has relocated – with kids – to overseas locales.|
Family first. If you're relocating with your company overseas, the transition can be quite smooth; you have an automatic social network made up of people who understand what you are experiencing. "I got here, and I had a job," says Ms. Duncan. But family members, such as a trailing spouse and children, can feel quite isolated and lost. Try to involve them as much as possible in the move. Introduce them to your new co-workers and to their families. Research schools and daycare in advance to help smooth out the transition.
If you're heading overseas on your own, it also can be easy to become isolated. Ms. Duncan says she has seen it time and time again with coworkers. "You work very hard and you allow work to become your life," she says. You have to fight against that impulse. "Develop your own community," says Ms. Duncan. "Get out of the office."
Write to Elizabeth Garone at email@example.com