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August 10, 2011

The world was not built for expats

by mikediliberto

That’s usually the first piece of advice that I give to would-be expatriates, and it is one that I, throughout my career, continue to keep in the forefront of my mind.  I’ve become good at reciting PO box addresses as if they were my home address, at answering calls from my bank at 1AM because I’m unable to explain that yes I still have my same california number but it’s a skype number and I’m on the other side of the world, and at saying good morning to colleagues on a conference call when for you it’s late a night.  Through it all, expats will find themselves bowing to the immovable force of a world built to think and act locally, despite the catchy slogans on posters at our corporate headquarters.

Act fast 

I’ve had several assignments that involved a relocation, and each time I’ve found that the key to success has been to act fast.  All of the things in your life have a certain momentum, and you have to lay the groundwork early to ensure that things don’t fall apart during the transition period.  It is amazing how fast bills and other milestones pile up when you’re off in a new location trying to scout out an apartment and turn on utilities in a foreign language. So my advice is, as soon as you can, rent a new place, get a PO box, sign up for a skype number, and settle in for a bit of a bumpy ride.

Take a hard look at all of the actions that you take on a monthly basis related to your current living situation. Bills. Phone calls.  Parent teacher meetings.  Little league coaching commitments. Book club. That gym membership you’ve been meaning to use. Whatever it is, it’s time to start setting up the systems to offload the responsibility for some or all of these tasks to other people or to technology.  Regardless of HOW you address each of these items, it is crucial to address them as early as possible.  Time, as it always does, will get away from you.


This is easily the most critical item, and possibly the most complex, save for those of you that are trying to line up a high quality english language immersion elementary school for your kids in the backwoods of Asia.  Most of your creditors today have no doubt been encouraging you to “go paperless”, and now is the best time to take them up on the offer. Start by listing all of the people to whom you pay money on a regular basis and perform a triage;  those that are not needed, cancel now (this is the best part, by the way), for all of the others, start by enquiring about paperless billing.  Autopay is even better, because you will almost certainly have other things on your mind.  For those creditors and customers that are stuck in the stone age, you’ll have to provide them with a new address for bills and payments.

I feel like I have relocated some many times that I almost have it down to a routine.  During my first international relocation I found a snag, however.  While before I had typically gone to my new city and set up a PO box at the nearest Mail Boxes Etc (Now the UPS store, albeit with the same basic features), relocating internationally meant that I had to find another place to send my mail.  What I found was a service that catered to the perpetually mobile, a PO box that would (under the supervision of bonded security guards, no joke!) open our mail, scan it, and email me a scan of the envelope and the contents. I found this service through a website advertising services for RV-ers, and regardless of intended audience, I’ll bet that there are more than a few expats that need such a service.  Another great place to look is in companies that provide services to military personnel and their families.

Power of Attorney

Before I embarked on my first overseas assignment, I sought the advice of my father, an attorney, on what legal items I needed to have in place before I left the country for a long period of time.  He suggested, above all else, that my wife and I should to appoint a power of attorney to help us should we ever need to sign any documents for banks or other legal contracts.

As is typical in father-son relationships, I didn’t listen.  I mean, what are the chances, right?

Of course, less than 6 months into our time overseas, up crops some legal documents that my wife and I need to sign and notarize.  What would have been an innocuous action on US soil turned into quite an ordeal in our small town life overseas. After traveling to (and barely missing our appointment at) the US embassy, we forked over one hundred dollars for the consulate to notarize our forms, and another seventy dollars to FedEx these forms back to the USA.  Nearly two hundred dollars spent to sign two pieces of paper, all because I couldn’t be bothered to fill out my power of attorney forms.  As they say on the internet, learn from my failure

Excess Stuff

My wife and I moved in together after separately owning two 3-bedroom/2-bath homes.  Luckily we had a garage to hold all of the overlapping things that we brought together into our newly formed joint household.  It wasn’t until a few years later, on the eve of our first “family relocation” that we dealt with the cornucopia of excess that had been camping out in our little used spaces. It is only when faced with the prospect of having to put most of our things in storage that we considered whether we really needed four vacuums or seven televisions.

In the same vien, I am also a huge proponent of file digitization. Some time ago, I had the good fortune of working closely with the people at Fujitsu, who introduced me to their Scansnap scanners.  I don’t hesitate in telling you that these devices changed my life, and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have their newest model in my laptop bag right now. Whereas we once had a large filing cabinet full of paper (not to mention piles on our desks), the scanner enabled us to digitize and catalog every document that we needed, and many that we didn’t need.  I can think of more than a few occasions where having a digital copy of an obscure receipt or loan document saved me from hours of needless tribulation.  For those of you with neither the time nor inclination do scan it all yourself, there are several services on the market that will happily take boxes of your files and trade you pdf files in return.

The little things

After six years working at Circuit City, I went to work for one of our vendors, a small one, based in New Zealand. My boss there was a great guy who had recently immigrated to New Zealand from Germany.  Early on in my time there, he said something to me that has stuck with me for the rest of my career.  He remarked, casually, that there is a huge difference between having a holiday abroad and working abroad. Throughout my career, this is a theme that has been reinforced time and again in my own experience.

It’s often the little things that you miss the most.  Life has a rhythm over time, and when we disturb that rhythm, our minds strive to get it back in line.  On holidays it’s fun, because you know that the period of discomfort is temporal, that it will be over soon and you’ll be able to go to Target to get your Bisquick and fairly traded coffee and chai tea concentrate (these are some of the things we buy, your mileage may vary). When you’re on holiday, you can laugh at the scorpion appetizer and spicy boiled frog soup, without thinking about whether tomorrow’s dishes will be more western.

I remember a particularly funny moment at the local gym when I was sitting down with one of the trainers and she asked me if I liked hamburgers. I jumped up in my seat and said “Wow, I sure do! Do you know any place around here to get a hamburger?” I was hoping upon hope that I had missed some secret small town hamburger joint, and she was about to clue me in.  “No, I was just using that as an example to talk about nutrition, let’s talk about diet…..” well, anyway, I don’t remember the rest of the conversation because all I could think about were my shattered dreams of having a hamburger in some random small town overseas.

The expats that I have met that are successful over the long term have struck a balance between immersion in the local culture and holding on to the people back home through social media, email, streaming audio video, and other communication tools.  Me? Still not quite there.  But I’m working on it.

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