How to Survive and Thrive in Your Global Transition as a Single Ex-pat
By Katia Vlachos
There are currently over 57 million expatriates worldwide and research shows that international assignee levels are expected to rise a further 50% in 2020. However, between 4 and 10% of expatriate assignments get terminated early.
Such an alarmingly high failure rate begs the question: Why?
Through my personal and professional experiences as a seasoned ex-pat and ex-pat coach, I have found that many ex-pats have unrealistic expectations of what an international move entails, both in practical and emotional terms, so they neglect to build up sufficient resources to deal with the consequences.
Furthermore, the ex-pat experience as a single person has its own unique set of expectations, resources, and consequences. In my recent book, A Great Move: Surviving and Thriving in Your Expat Assignment, I provide ex-pats with a systematic, step-by-step guide for deciding, planning, and carrying out any international move.
While some chapters include anecdotes, resources, and writing prompts for spouses and children, chapter ten focuses on how to move as a single ex-pat. Below, I’ve included an excerpt from this chapter which includes both personal and practical factors (i.e., values, financials, safety, etc.) to consider when making the decision to move as a single person.
Excerpt from the Book: “Moving as a Single Expat”
There are many positives to being a single ex-pat. A key advantage is freedom and flexibility, which brings with it excitement and a sense of adventure. Many of the single ex-pats I interviewed consider the opportunity to reinvent themselves as one of the best parts of their new lives.
This is expressed in statements such as, “As a single ex-pat, you are light.” “You start with a clean slate every time. Everything is possible.” “You make your own choices.” “You are free to do whatever you like when you like to.”
The situation of single-status ex-pats is different but still has significant positive aspects. Those that I interviewed, said things like, “I don’t have to worry about my family and can focus on work,” “Neither I nor my partner have to compromise our careers,” and “We wanted the career opportunity without the total life overhaul.”
Gaining Deeper Self-Knowledge
When traveling and/or living abroad on your own, you can gain a deeper knowledge of yourself, especially an awareness of capabilities you did not know you had. Research shows that moving when you are single makes you more self-sufficient, confident, and resilient.
You get used to coping on your own. When new challenges appear, you know that you can handle them. Finally, as a single ex-pat you have the time, space, and energy to focus on your own development, whether it’s the professional development and building your career, or tending to your personal growth and well being.
You have no one else to take care of but yourself. This also allows you the time and motivation to nurture your relationships – old and new – which is an added advantage, but also an essential element of single ex-pat life. Still, moving as a single poses its own challenges.
Susan left her home in the US Midwest to move to Tokyo with little preparation. “No one else from my family had ever lived abroad. I had no idea, no guidance on what it meant to be an ex-pat. The only thing I did was decide I was going, and then spend a year saving money.
I went skydiving that year. If I could jump out of a plane, I could do anything,” Susan explains. Another skydiver brought a massive coffee-table book about Tokyo to show Susan, but she couldn’t look at it. “If I looked at the pictures, I would never take the leap,” she confessed.
When Susan arrived at Tokyo’s Narita Airport, she was shocked to discover that all the signs were in Japanese. And she’d never ridden a train before. “I stood with my luggage after a 24-hour flight with no idea how to get to the place where I was supposed to be staying.”
While deciding to move is more straightforward for singles, preparation – or more precisely the lack thereof – was a recurring theme in my interviews. People moving alone often think they will not have many challenges, because they only have themselves to think of.
Do a Little Planning
A modest amount of advance planning would have saved Susan months of confusion, as she tried to figure out and navigate the new culture. When Deciding Decision-making seems simple and straightforward when there is only one decision-maker and one set of parameters.
You run the show, you are only responsible for yourself and do not need to compromise for someone else’s needs or wants. At the same time, the weight of the decision, and its consequences, fall entirely on you. That said, you can turn to many different people for advice.
When Susan moved to Tokyo, she only had support from a friend of a friend’s brother who’d been to Japan and her local parish priest, who gave her the address of a Jesuit mission in Tokyo as a place to land.
“After that, I learned my lesson. When I moved to a new country, I gathered support and advice from friends, my sister, other ex-pats, counselors, and coaches.” My research revealed that there are two main drivers behind most single ex-pats’ decision to move abroad: career and adventure – not necessarily in that order.
A job or position abroad can be the perfect break to advance your career. Opportunities open up. The money is better. Many single ex-pats have nothing but adventure on their minds, the call of a life outside their home culture, the lure of exploring a new one, and a chance to expand themselves and learn and grow.
Approach with Care
Whatever the call is for singles, they still need to approach the decision with care. Here’s how. Make a Broad List of Decision Factors You’re a single ex-pat, and you want adventure. Perhaps you want to climb the Himalayas, learn Spanish in a village in Central America, or snorkel the reefs in the Philippines.
You don’t have children to worry about or even a partner. You can do whatever you want. You are actively looking for a professional opportunity that will land you near the adventure you so crave. It’s exciting and easy to get carried away.
Or maybe you are focused on advancing your career and your employer makes you an attractive offer to join the company’s brand new Beijing office, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You say yes immediately and start looking for a Mandarin tutor.
What else is there to think about? In fact, a lot. For single ex-pats, the urge to make sudden decisions without forethought is strong. Let’s talk about how to decide on what’s right for you, both now and in the long term. Values compatibility. Before making a decision, establish what is important to you, what your core values and needs are, and whether those are compatible with the destination you are considering.
Think also in terms of the different dimensions of home and whether your destination provides what you need to feel at home. Consider how the move fits with your long-term goals and plans. This is even more crucial for a single ex-pat, simply because there are so many possibilities, and it’s easy to get caught up in a quest for adventure, career or other, and not think much beyond that.
Considering the different areas of your life – health, career, friends and family, leisure, personal development, romance, or others – how does a move fit with your long-term goals in each area?
Consider whether the move is financially viable for you. What is the relationship between your projected earnings and the cost of living at your potential destination? Are you able to sustain yourself or will you end up operating at a deficit? If the financial aspect is important to you, will the move improve your situation?
Some destinations are more popular with single people than others. Are there opportunities for single people to socialize and/or date (if relevant) at your new location? Are there activities targeted specifically at singles? Single-friendliness also includes societal and cultural attitudes towards single people.
Are you likely to feel accepted and comfortable? To give an example, the Gulf region is believed to be extremely family-friendly (given the value that the Arab culture places on the family), but it is not particularly welcoming to singles, especially single women.
By contrast, Thailand tends to be a popular destination for single ex-pats of both sexes.
Safety and Security Concerns
Find out about local customs, social norms, and attitudes and how they will affect you. Are you moving to a culture and society that is likely to be unfriendly or even dangerous for you? Are you likely to be viewed negatively, discriminated against, be subject to violence or even get in trouble with the law, based on your gender identity, race, sexual preference, or another minority status?
For instance, according to Human Rights Watch, some 80 countries have anti-LGBT laws, 60% of which can impose prison sentences of up to 10 years, and 7.6% even the death penalty. Before British ex-pat Oliver accepted an assignment in Hong Kong, he had turned down one in a Middle Eastern country, because, he said, “I did not want to move somewhere where I either felt unsafe or had to lead a secret life in order to stay safe.”
If you are a single woman, be sure to know how you are likely to be treated in
your new host culture, including your legal rights and obligations. If you are still considering a move despite an unfriendly cultural climate, at least be aware of the trade-offs.
Your own Resilience
Moving as a single person can be taxing emotionally. Are you prepared to deal with this? What are your sources of strength and comfort, which will allow you to handle the first few months of intensified loneliness (exacerbated by the non-familiarity of your surroundings), during the time it takes to adjust to the new way of life?
You will need a support network to help you cope with the transition. How much support do you need and are you prepared to be proactive about setting that up by yourself? How far out of your comfort zone are you prepared to go to do that?
Knowing yourself, your limits, and your needs will help you determine the kind of support you will need.
There may be other factors that will influence your decision, so take the time to identify them. Talk to other single people at your destination when deciding. But don’t let fear stop you. Many singles lead successful ex-pat lives all across the globe.
Get online and find forums and Meetups where you can connect with such people. Get to know the “how” and “what” of the adventure you want to have. This is a great way to meet “partners in adventure,” people with whom you can travel the country with, ski with and visit ruins.
They’ll be able to help you with your questions, from day-to-day life to logistics and personal safety.
Katia Vlachos, Expat Transition Coach & Author Katia Vlachos is a writer, coach, and experienced expat. She writes on cross-cultural adaptation and the rewards and challenges of expatriate life.
A global nomad by choice, Katia was born in Cameroon, raised in Greece, and spent two decades living and working in the US and various European countries. In total, she has lived in 8 cities, 7 countries, and 3 continents. She’s moved as a single person, as part of a couple, and as part of a family with children and has experienced both extremely successful and utterly disastrous moves.
As a coach, she helps her clients navigate transitions, whether it’s making an international move, changing career direction, or coping with separation or divorce. Katia is a researcher and defense analyst by training, with a PhD in policy analysis from the RAND Corporation and an MA in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She lives in Zurich, Switzerland. For more info, visit her website.
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