Living overseas

People often ask me about living overseas since I have some experience of it. I was brought up in Great Britain and moved to the US twenty-five years ago (with a baby), lived in the south of France for nearly 6 years (with two small children) and have lived back in the US since then. I’ll write this assuming you are living in the US and so living overseas means living outside the US. Of course, a lot applies “the other way round” but I don’t want to have to add “or the other way round” to every sentence.

If someone is single, then the advice is really easy. Go for it. Living overseas gives you the opportunity to do two things. The first is to experience a country in a way that you never will as a tourist or business visitor. And the second is that it will change your view of the US by seeing it from overseas and seeing how other people see it. You have no real commitments and may even be able to put all your belongings in a couple of suitcases.

If you have a partner who is going to move with you, then it is much better if they will be able to work too. Otherwise your partner will have a hard time unless there is a large expat community. And if there is a large expat community, they’ll have a hard time learning the lanaguage since they’ll not need to use it. Further, the almost colonial life of the expat wives (it’s usually wives) can be very bitchy especially if a lot of them work for just one or two companies. It reminds me of Kissinger’s remark about why academic politics is so vicious. “Because the stakes are so low.” But work permits might make it hard or impossible for them to work (for example, the spouse of an H-1 visa holder in the US is not allowed to work).

If you have small children, meaning not in high school, then I’d still advise you to go. Any disruption to their education caused by changes in school systems will be more than outweighed by the education they get simply from living overseas and being immersed in a different culture.

The only time that it may be unwise to accept a position overseas is if your children are in high school, especially if they are nearly finished, and need to get the right boxes ticked to get into the right college. Also, children at that age have deeper friendships that are less easily ruptured. I’ve seen people move overseas with teenagers and they’ve had a great time; I’ve also seen sullen teenagers (but then sullen teenagers are not thin on the ground anywhere).

Depending on where you might be living, having to learn a foreign language is something that I regard as an additional positive, not something negative, especially for Americans (and other English speakers. You’ve probably heard the joke about “What do you call a person who speaks 3 languages? Trilingual. Two languages? Bilingual. One language? American.”) If you live in a foreign country for a few years, it is hard to avoid becoming fluent or at least passable in the language. If you have small children, they will amaze you by becoming almost instantly bilingual. My daughter started in the local French school speaking almost no French; within 6 months it was her language of choice for playing with her dolls or watching videos (in those days I could reel off the names of the seven dwarves in French). One bit of advice: when you return to the US they will become almost instantly monolingual again unless they get to keep using their foreign language.

You will have two sets of challenges when you arrive in a foreign country. One is that you won’t really understand the culture, and you will keep being caught out by people’s attitudes in ways that they don’t even realize are an attitude until it is pointed out. For example, here’s an American quirk only foreigners are really aware of. When you first meet them (and later too), Americans hate to leave you without an invitation to meet again—we must get together for a barbecue sometime—but usually they don’t really mean it. Other nationalities generally don’t do this, but it doesn’t mean they are less friendly.

The other challenge is practical: what is the equivalent of Safeway, Home Depot, where can I buy such-and-such a breakfast cereal (you probably can’t), where do I get a key cut. This last one caught me out in France when I was regarded as insane for expecting the hardware store where I’d just bought a lock to cut a key. Didn’t I know to go to the shoe repair shop for that? On the food front, the best is just to eat what the locals eat as much as possible and accept that it is going to be hard to get some things. If there is a large expat community then there will probably be some food store that sells American food. But it will be very expensive. And isn’t part of the fun of living in Germany, say, that you don’t have to have Skippy brand peanut-butter and can just have the wonderfully-named Erdnussmuss (ground-nut-mousse = peanut-butter) or the powerfully addictive Nutella (chocolate and hazelnut spread).

If any of you have lived overseas and would like to write a guest blog about your experience, then drop me an email (paul®

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