10 Things Successful Expats Do

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10 Things Successful Expats Do

After 12 years as an expatriate in Somalia, Kenya, and primarily Djibouti, I have seen expatriates come and go, thrive and struggle, engage in the community and hunker down behind high walls. Over time I have noticed some patterns, things that thriving expats tend to do, or not do. Could be here, could be in other countries.

Successful Expat

They don’t complain. Djibouti is one of the hottest, driest countries on the planet. Temperatures can soar over 120 degrees in the summer and less than six inches of rain falls per year. With 60% unemployment, poverty is rampant. Garbage has almost no place to go and lies in heaping, smoking piles in the center of neighborhoods.

This list simply shows that there is plenty to complain about in Djibouti. However. There is plenty to complain about in every country. What marks the successful expat in Djibouti is that they don’t complain. Not because they don’t see the challenging aspects but because they make a conscious choice to focus on something else. They see the mountain peaks over the piles of garbage. They see the generosity of a community helping each other survive and thrive.

They learn a little language. Doesn’t have to be a lot. But why not learn some greetings, some leave takings, how are you, what’s your name…? It simply shows respect and interest in the local environment, a willingness to invest some time and energy and an acknowledgement that this expat is open to being a foreigner, open to new experiences.

They aren’t easily intimidated by the unknown. This is evident by their willingness to learn a few words in the local language. It is also evident by their willingness to ask questions and cultivate curiosity. They aren’t afraid of the market or the bus or the food they don’t recognize.

They work hard and do their jobs well. Successful expats aren’t tourists. They understand their role in the community, whether it is as a businessperson or as a development worker (and development workers have taken the time to understand what is actually needed/desired before imposing their own ideas), and they strive to do this work in ways that make sense in the local context.

They stop working and enjoy the country. Successful expats are able to act like tourists from time to time. They vacation in country and enjoy exploring the place in which they have landed.

They adapt and adopt local customs. They wave a local flag on independence day or develop a craving for baguettes directly related to the honking of the breadman’s horn when he turns down their street. They learn to eat with their right hand only and appreciate the ability to drive on either side of the street or to stop right outside the rotisserie chicken stand, not get out of the car, and purchase the chicken. Kind of like a drive-thru but with a conversation with the chicken man that includes inquiring after his twins and his health and his work.

They are authentic and maintain their own customs. They still celebrate their own independence day. They still eat turkey (if they can find one and if they are American) on Thanksgiving. They don’t pretend to be someone they aren’t but they don’t pretend that they still live in their passport country. They are expert chameleons and even enjoy this ability to transform multiple times in a single day.

They develop friendships with the local community. Maybe the breadman, maybe the chicken man, maybe the neighbor of the cashier or the fellow jogger or the coworker. These people usher the expat into the local context and deepen the expat’s understanding of it.

They develop friendships with the expat community. The expat community is a great resource (turkeys?!) and can be a fascinating mix of people from all over the world. There are stories, unique perspectives, same-aged children who understand what it is like to be a Third Culture Kid, and people who share your passion for American football or obscure novels.

They have an adventurous spirit, even if they have to force it. I don’t think I have a naturally adventurous spirit and often have to force it. But I certainly married an adventurous spirit and since that makes living abroad so much more interesting, I go with it. Try that strange food, use that language that feels so awkward on your tongue, go to the local wedding, climb down into the volcano.

There are so many possible suggestions for how to thrive while living abroad. These are just a few things I have observed and experienced and been stretched into.

How about you? How have you been able to successfully live abroad?

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21 Comments

  1. Evelyn October 20, 2015 at 1:02 pm - Reply

    Great article. Will share it on our Facebook page. I’d add one more to the list (from which several others follow) – they take responsibility for their own experience. Have seen it so many times, those who come into the experience owning it really make the most of it, those who don’t for what ever reason, struggle.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones October 20, 2015 at 5:28 pm - Reply

      Thanks for sharing it, Evelyn. And yes! A great addition to the list.

  2. Amanda October 20, 2015 at 4:27 pm - Reply

    Yes! This. All of this.

  3. Deb October 20, 2015 at 6:33 pm - Reply

    I’ve lived in Kenya for 14 years and love your ideas – very real and very balanced. I believe I have subconsciously lived by all ten of these without ever having an actual list 🙂

    I especially like the three pairs:

    “Work hard and do their jobs well,” paired with “Stop working and enjoy the country.”

    “They adapt and adopt local customs,” paired with “They are authentic and maintain their own customs.”

    “Develop friendships with local community,” paired with “Develop friendships with the expat community.”

    I do read your pieces every now and then, but I don’t think I’ve ever left a comment. You’re a great writer!

  4. Leslie October 20, 2015 at 7:26 pm - Reply

    Rachel, Thank you for writing…its hard to even realize that you do these things a lot of the time, subconsciously! And yes I relate to the forced adventurous spirit at times, hubby has it – we go with it! Hope to embark on a journey with YWAM soon…our 3 kids (we all do) need some team, some friends, some community with missions. I think its what God is leading our family in. We’ve done missions in and our of Mexico for about 8 years….but i think its time to fly!

  5. Susan McCumber October 20, 2015 at 10:06 pm - Reply

    Cool! We’ve done all these things! Part of why we made it for one year, so far, in Honduras! There we many days I didn’t think I would, or even want to, make it. But we persevered through by the grace God! Great article.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones October 21, 2015 at 6:04 am - Reply

      I still have those days too, when I’m not sure I will or want to make it here. But then something happens or something changes or I just wait…and yes, grace comes in.

  6. Jackie thulin October 20, 2015 at 10:39 pm - Reply

    I am going to print this blog out and carry it with me Rachel. It helps me know how to pray for you and my own kids. But it also helps me know how to live in my own city, because the city I live in has become very international. I meet people from all over every day, and it has become my purpose to make them feel like they are not strangers after all.
    Would you be willing to help me learn some more Somali? Is there an online resource? Duolingo and such sites do not have it yet.
    Love to read what you write, it is always challenging and thought provoking.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones October 21, 2015 at 6:06 am - Reply

      Great idea Jackie! You know one of the best books I’ve found is called Colloquial Somali, it is by Martin Orwin and way back when I bought it, it came with cassette tapes. I think now if comes with downloadable stuff or CDs maybe, so you can listen. I’m not sure about online resources…I also think the Mpls public activities system offers a beginner class, or at least I’ve heard that and I took one, but again, that was years ago. Let me know if either of those things are helpful or not and I’ll see what else I can come up with from here!

  7. Anna October 21, 2015 at 12:44 am - Reply

    Great list. 🙂 I don’t think I have an adventurous spirit either, but I married someone who does.

  8. Susan October 21, 2015 at 1:46 pm - Reply

    Reading your blog about ex-pat life in Djibouti makes my ex-pat life is Switzerland look easy, even though I went through all the adjustments, just like you had to. I am ever so grateful to the ex-pats and locals I have met in CH. Just one example, book Club in English in Switzerland, with a dozen differently nationalities was incredible, discussing the novel from so many different world views. They love to read in my language, English.
    Having moved back to the states last month permanently, I find I must take heed in all your suggestions for ex-pat life, especially, ‘don’t complain.’ After 16 years abroad, I don’t recognize America and parts of it are daunting. I feel foreign in my own country and don’t know the ways of the culture anymore. Not complaining, just saying………. One day at a time.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones October 21, 2015 at 5:34 pm - Reply

      What a good word about readjusting back to our home countries and needing to implement these same things. Part of me can’t wait for that day (on bad days here!) and part of me is dreading it. I hope your adjustment goes well and that you’re able to enjoy, even, being a ‘foreigner’ in the US.

  9. Ann Marie Ackermann October 21, 2015 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    The ability to laugh at your self makes all the difference in the world. Because if you live in a foreign country, you are bound to make LOTS of mistakes!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones October 21, 2015 at 5:35 pm - Reply

      Yesyes! That should totally be on the list. So important to laugh at yourself and even to be willing to let others laugh at you.

  10. Marilyn Gardner October 22, 2015 at 12:34 pm - Reply

    So good Rachel! So applies to ATCKs as well!

  11. Abby October 28, 2015 at 2:32 am - Reply

    Thanks so much for this post. We’ve just returned to the US after seven years in Central Asia, and this post was like fresh air. The same things I learned to do overseas I need to do again “back home” – treating my life here like another adventure. It’s sort of thrown me for a loop how much I need to adjust to something I was so familiar with not so long ago. But this post is a good reminder and a good place to start.

  12. Holly Newman November 6, 2015 at 3:52 pm - Reply

    Reading this makes me feel good because I think we lived successfully as expats for 6 years in Singapore in the 80’s without a smidge of training or input. We flew by the seat of our pants to meet a need that emerged suddenly and by God’s grace landed on our feet overall, though perhaps not everyday. Thanks for your ability to enumerate, explain, and generally peel back the layers to see what makes things work (or not).

  13. Charlene December 15, 2015 at 2:28 pm - Reply

    Hello–
    We have lived on Victoria Island which is part of Lagos, Nigeria for four and a half years because of my husband’s employment in oil/gas industry and are originally from Houston, Texas area in the USA. My four boys seem to have adjusted fine to living overseas as this is our first overseas assignment. My older two twin boys aged 14 years old attend a UK curriculum international school because one of them has a mild learning disability and the school has a special education program. My younger two twin boys aged 12 years old attend the American International School which they enjoy. The American International School has no special education program which one of my older two boys needs to be successful in school academically and socially. All four boys are involved in Boy Scouts of America here through the American International School. My husband enjoys his employment in his assignment here which is a great opportunity for his career. I do some part time telecommute law practice on my computer which is related to the work that I practiced while we lived in the USA. I also have found some volunteer projects to become involved which is related to the work that I used to do before we relocated to Nigeria. I have tried to get to know the other expat spouses and mothers here. I continue to attempt to get involved in spouse activities like book club, quilting classes, Bible study and The American Women’s Club activities. I also have found yoga and pilates classes which I enjoy. We have really enjoyed traveling to Europe and parts of Africa during holiday breaks from school and then go back to the USA during the summers while we live overseas. During the past four and a half years, I have enjoyed attending a couple law conferences and an international American Women’s Club conference all in Europe and have attended a yoga retreat in Crete. I have tried to make the most of this overseas experience as possible for my family and for me. My husband says that we will, most likely, be living here in Lagos one more year and then be relocated.

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