My Accidental Relocation, or, How To Move Abroad

I accidentally moved abroad in 2015. I say ‘accidentally’, because I didn’t intend to move permanently, per se, and because of that, I didn’t really do it properly. It’s only with glorious hindsight and a four-year distance that I can look back and say, “Well, that made things awfully difficult.” I’m not the only one who has touched down in Hong Kong (and probably elsewhere around the world), with the fullest intentions of returning home after a few months, and somehow ended up making a more permanent relocation. So, if you’re a little more self aware than I am, and are considering a permanent relocation, or just taking an extended jaunt around the world here’s how to move abroad. 

Research, Research, Research

Go below the surface of the tourist facade of a place—don’t just look up the top ten things to do, find the top 100, and then find out the top 1,000. Ask someone who’s been there what it’s like, look for expat/community forums, find out whether local people use TripAdvisor, Yelp or OpenRice. Find out about local customs and faux pas. Read differing accounts, good and bad, of a place and consider that all of them might be true. If you think that researching somewhere ahead of time is going to ‘ruin the magic’ or ‘spoil the surprise’ or you want to ‘experience it authentically’ yourself before you go in with a preconceived notion, just know that nothing will ever compare to the real thing, you will still be filled with wonder, and there will be a thousand things to pique your curiosity that nothing online could ever really convey. Research might help you make proper preparations, adjust your expectations, and stop you making a fool of yourself while you adjust to all the newness.

Get a visa

Unless you’re an EU citizen moving to somewhere else in the EU, you’re probably going to need a visa for an extended stay. An extended stay varies from country to country, and depends on your nationality, but as a tourist, you’ll be limited in how long you can stay—and how many times you can reenter the country on a tourist visa. If you intend to be there for a while, explore visa options. Some countries, like Australia and Hong Kong, offer ‘working travel visas’ for young people, which means you can take up part-time or non-permanent work while you’re there. Alternatively, in many countries, getting a visa is very easy when it’s sponsored by an employer. Which leads me to my next point…

Get a job

If you’re going to live somewhere, you should do what most people living in a place do and get a job. There are a few reasons:

  • Money doesn’t grow on trees, even in faraway lands, so unless you’re moving abroad on a trust fund, you’re going to need cash to fund this new life.
  • Some places may be harder than others to get a visa, so you might actually need a job to live there (see point two).
  • It’s the best way to meet people. Seriously. If you’re moving abroad on your own, you work colleagues and employer are going to be your community.
  • You’ll learn more about the place, culture and customs. There’s a lot of things that as a tourist you will never learn about a place, but once you’re in a working environment, especially if there are local people there, you’ll get a crash course on the inside scoop.

When I upped and left, even though it was supposed to be a temporary relocation, I still got a job. I worked with Chatteris Educational Foundation, an English teaching supply company. They organised my visa sponsorship, gave some support in setting up, and provided me instantly with a community of like-minded people (aka, young, restless, English-speaking graduates with a passion for exploration). The community was the most important bit, in all of that—it’s what made me stay in Hong Kong long after my contract ended. The friends I made that first month are still my friends now, and have led to more introductions, new jobs, opportunities, and even my current relationship. Without the community, I probably would have returned home to Scotland: it’s the one thing that differentiates a place you live and a place you visit.

Learn the Language

This one is super hypocritical of me because my response to, “Do you speak Cantonese?” is still “Siu siu,” but I am trying. I did a 12-week course and used to practice with my coworkers and students, but since moving jobs to work an English-only office, I’ve definitely lost a lot of my ability. However, speaking a bit of Cantonese has helped me to access places — aka, restaurants — that are usually intimidating or not known by tourists. Most of the times that I feel alienated or out of my depth in Hong Kong come down to language and cultural barriers—and given that the former could certainly help with the latter, it’s a key part of being involved in and understanding the community.

Pack Your Bags

Obvious, sure, but there’s a difference between backpacking and moving. If you’re intending a long stay somewhere, you’re going to need stuff – and not things like toothbrushes or toothpaste, which for the most part you’re going to find wherever you end up residing. The things you’re going to want to take are the things you would never take on holiday. A photo album or picture frames; your favourite blanket; the worn slippers you swear you’re going to throw out one day.

When I moved, I took one suitcase filled with the essentials: clothes, toiletries, all my gadgets. The only personal item I brought with me was a collection of printed photographs. Over the years here I’ve built back up a collection of artwork, travel mementoes, birthday cards. Even things like books and art supplies I left behind—which sure, can be bought abroad, but some of them are special. It took me years to rebuild the sense of self I had back at home. Each time I visited Scotland, I would take a half-empty suitcase, and return back to Hong Kong with it bursting. I’ve been slowly moving my life out here for years, but if you intend on starting over, don’t overlook the importance of sentimental and seemingly frivolous personal objects.

Find somewhere to live

I’m going to disagree with my previous point on research here, and tell you, don’t find a home on research alone. It sounds smart to have somewhere to live when you move abroad, but this is one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen people make time and time again. It’s fine to do research and have some places/property agents in mind, but do not sign anything until you’ve actually been there.

Before I came to Hong Kong, I was advised by someone that Mongkok was a good place to live because it’s well-connected by the MTR, central in Kowloon, and has a lot of dining options. It’s also horrendously busy, noisy, and the flats there tend to be cramped and dark. I wouldn’t have known that without having walked through the markets three days after I landed in Hong Kong; I also could never have known that the neighbouring district of Yau Ma Tei is substantially quieter, better connected, with lower rent and larger flats, had I not taken the time to explore while on the ground. There’s some things you can only experience, and preferences for living accommodation is so subjective. Rent an AirBnb for a month, or find a private dorm room for a couple of weeks, and give yourself a chance to explore the city, learn the market value of different districts, and explore the practicalities of the areas you like: things like public transport access, grocery stores, and laundrettes can make a big difference in the longterm.

Be open to opportunities

It’s a little twee and oversaid, but it is true. Whether you stay wherever you move to for a month, a year, or a decade, you will be changed by the experience. You will be given the opportunity to experience or try out things you never would have had the chance to if you’d never left home, for better or worse. Be open to that. You might find exactly what you’re looking for; you might learn what it is that you’re not. Either way, to make the most of it, you have to be open-minded or there probably wasn’t much point leaving home at all.

Did I miss anything? Let me know you’re thoughts in the comments!

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