How to move to a new country #2: hit the ground running

New culture, new horizons

New culture, new horizons The Grand Mosque, Muscat

The month since the last, ‘How to…’ has been spent merrily travelling around Vietnam whilst waiting on all the official paperwork for the move to Oman, a totally new part of the world for me.

As I described in last month’s, “Before the leap,” post, it was possible to get preparations for the move underway well in advance. However, a number of others things could only begin once I arrived. Those are the meat of this post.

Making the most of Day 1

With both the move to Korea in 2013 and this move, I was coming in to commence work on a tight turnaround. In both cases, with only a day or two before the first day in the office, I spent the first day pounding the pavement and getting a feel for the streets and the layout of the main places I’d heard of from my pre-flight reading. The sooner you can start to get your bearings in your new home city, the easier settling in will be.

Get a map on your first day. Look up the places you’ve heard of and go and check them out. Seeing how they measure up to your imagined versions will quickly help you adjust your expectations of the rest of the city and stave off looming culture shock. It’s also great to wake up with an active purpose on your first day, especially if you’ve moved far enough around the globe for jet-lag to be an issue. Getting out in the daylight for as long as you can on day 1 will help you to adjust to your new time zone more swiftly.

Getting around – finding transport

In your first couple of days, challenge yourself to go somewhere that requires transportation so you get to know the options. Even arriving in Muscat, where public transport is so limited that for the first time in my life I’m actually serious about learning to drive, there are cheap and functional (albeit very limited) transport options.

Arriving in Oman, I headed to two extremes of the city by the small (and cheap) baisa bus service. It took a while to get to grips with the bus system, but by the end of the day I’d taken four journeys and was relatively competent. The places I went to were also areas I was considering looking for a place to live. This trip ruled them out: one on general atmosphere and one on distance and difficulty of transport, and thus narrowed my search.

Buses are always difficult to navigate in a new country, no matter how familiar you are with them elsewhere. My tip is to watch the people around you. Do they get on at the front or in the middle of the bus? Do they pay the driver as they get on, or wait for a conductor to come round with tickets? When I was in Bratislava, you had to buy a book of bus coupons from a kiosk before boarding a bus, so I missed two buses before someone helpfully pointed out where to go and what I needed.

Doing this on your first day while you still have some exploring time will mean all of this makes sense to you once you really need these services.

Food and knowing the price of eggs

This may be a personal preference, but I’ve always loved a good bargain. If there’s a choice between a nicely sanitised but more expensive supermarket and a grubby, bulk-buy place that sells kilos of dried beans and bags of spices for cheap, I’ll be in the latter. If I can do all my fruit and veg shopping in a market, I’m as happy as can be. Luckily for me, Wonderboy is a supermarket fan (this is a Thing, apparently) which means the first few days in a new location generally feature intermittent periods of browsing in the big local chains, as well as investigating smaller stores and markets and comparing value.

Some of this information you can find online before you arrive, but often the knowledgeable online forum contributors or bloggers are living a different lifestyle to mine. The only real way to find your preferred places is by going to the shops and markets you’ve read about in person once you reach your destination.

Finding a house

Within a few days, you’ll be looking for the place you’ll call home for the next few years. You should have an idea of good areas to live and what kind of property your budget will get you from your ‘before the leap’ Internet research. However, it’s only once you arrive that you can really gauge the reality.

Over my first weekend, I managed to line up ten places to see in the three areas we’d narrowed our choices down to. I had a better picture of what was available and what my money could get me. A couple more days and a couple more properties and I’d worked out exactly where I wanted to live in terms of proximity to work and to leisure facilities (and the beach), and what features I could expect or ask for.

Whichever country I’ve been in, and however low (or high) my income, I’ve discovered that you can get a place with your no-compromise must-haves if you put in the footwork. For me, that means natural light, the right transport links, and some access to nature – whether that’s my own garden or a short walk to a local park. Work out what you can’t live without and look until you find it.

Fitting in: custom and culture

This is probably the thing that will take the longest to adjust to, and you’ll only find out as you go along the little slips you’ve made from the start. In Peru, for example, you may notice that leave-taking from social occasions takes a while; there’s a lot of cheek-kissing and hand-shaking going on. It wasn’t until I’d lived there for quite a while that I discovered that it’s kind of obligatory to kiss the cheek of every woman and shake the hand of every man at a party before you make your exit. By then I’d already cemented my ‘cold Brit’ reputation.

Korea likewise yielded a social minefield to navigate, and a new perspective on the complexities of social hierarchies. I’m sure Oman will, too. A great way to start to tackle this is firstly to keep your eyes and ears open: if you notice a repeated activity or phrase, ask someone about it directly. While you’re still new you have a lot of leeway, and people will appreciate your curiosity and willingness to learn. If you’re doing something that’s really out of order, someone will definitely set you straight. If there’s no old man shouting at you, you’re probably doing OK, or just regarded as a passably eccentric foreigner.

Finding your people

I mentioned finding information from people in your target country in the last post. Once you arrive, the best way to start to feel at home is to get to know others. This will also be a big help with all of the points above! Get to know people who’ve lived in your new home all their lives and can give you subtle and not-so-subtle pointers on how to fit in, the dos and don’ts, the hidden gems (and hidden dangers) of your new location.

Find other people who’ve migrated like you, either temporarily or permanently. What problems did they have on arrival? What are their biggest tips for newcomers? Are there any cultural barriers or boundaries they can advise you on?

Most of all, find the people with shared interests to yours. Your colleagues will probably be an important part of your social life, but they shouldn’t be your only social life. You need a place to blow off steam about work, or to forget about it completely, just like you would have at home. For this, my go-to places align with my hobbies. I love Latin dance, cycling and running, so I find the places and groups where like-minded souls hang out. Meetup.com promises to help you, “Find your people,” and in many countries it succeeds. I met my best friends in Korea through a running Meetup, and started to meet a friendly network of HCMC based ex-pats through the same site.

Where Meetup doesn’t reach, Couchsurfing.com often does. The major cities in South American countries such as Peru and Colombia had well established, regular CS meetings and events, and Oman’s CSers are a vibrant and very welcoming community. While often thought of as a site for travellers, CS is also great for meeting internationally-minded folks from all walks of life.

As mentioned last time, InterNations.org also offers regular events and meetings and is aimed at “global minds.” It’s not one I’ve tried personally, but it’s reputable and well-established.

For me, it’s only once I start to make friends I understand, with whom I share an interest and can bond in some way, that a place really starts to feel like home.

What helps you to settle after a big move?

Hikesploring at Baegundae

Hikesploring in Bukhansan with Couchsurfers and Meetuppers

The links:

Web MD’s tips on beating jet-lag: http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/sleep-travel

Find groups based on your interests in your local area: http://www.meetup.com/

Find a place to stay or people to hang out with in your city: https://www.couchsurfing.com/

Find social and networking events aimed at ex-pats and ‘global minds’: https://www.internations.org/

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