Top 10 Lessons Learned From Living Abroad


Uprooting one’s self is not always easy. If you are a migrant worker, you would know alienation and loneliness, no matter if you have found a new set of friends. The best thing to do for survival is to reframe your mindset to adapt to cultural differences.

You’ll find that resilience helps a lot for reframing. Here are the lessons learned and strategies I’ve used to cope with day to day challenges in another country as an expatriate.

Lesson #1: Take instructions from superiors

As the head of library services for teachers, I encounter diversity in speaking with the heads of libraries face to face, communicating with them via email and phone. I was meticulously instructed by my supervisor on the do’s and don’ts of replying to their emails, mixing with them in public and even the manner of addressing them privately or publicly, two different modes that must be followed.

The goal is to communicate clearly and do not cause offense by ignoring certain agreed forms of communication.

Lesson #2: Learn their ways and speak their language

My team always have a “Makan” or a shared meal every Friday and I’ve allowed them to select which kinds of food are to be ordered, aware that people of different faith will have strict eating preferences. I’ve earned the respect of my team, not only by respecting their accustomed ways but also by listening to them patiently. I’ve learned a few Chinese words and Indian expressions as well and could respond to familiar phrases whenever addressed “accidentally” in their native languages.

You can actually touch their hearts when you speak to them in the language closest to their hearts.

Lesson#3: Practice courtesy in human traffic and relationships

As I’ve observed, people cannot walk wherever they please, following the flow of other foot traffic. In MRT (subway) stations and other business areas, most of the crowd will walk on the left.  And many (but not all) stairways and escalators are set up for walking on the left. On escalators, there is a custom to stand on the left so that other people can walk up the escalator on the right. There are unspoken rules which you must follow to avoid an angry stare or worse, a collision. Older people are referred to as “aunties” or “uncles” even if they are hawkers or drivers. This term makes them feel “family”.

Make sure to follow this rule not only of walking in a prescribed manner but also to observe the rule in relationships where everyone is your “family”. 

Lesson #4: Keep within the rules

The government has severe penalties – pay a heavy fine or even spend time in jail – for what might be minor infractions: chewing gum, spitting, littering, jaywalking, dancing on counters or tables at a bar, smoking indoors, etc. Drinking and driving, public drunkenness, and taking drugs are activities also considered serious infractions of the law, with the last punishable by death.

Keep safe by correctly interpreting the law and staying within the law, even the tedious ones.

Lesson#5: Be friendly but keep within your budget 

You need to ask from everyone their share when the time for settling bills comes up. This rule also applies to sharing the house rental, sharing a ride, buying appliances and gadgets for the shared house, and even shared meals.

Not all will part with their money willingly, or cheerfully, and it requires a lot of tact, patience, and diplomatic talk before the whole advanced amount could be collected.

Lesson# 6: Speak highly of everyone and never speak an ill word

Whether they are your housemates, colleagues or superiors, make it a point to see the best side of everyone. Never speak in judgment even when the person has that reputation of doing the unspeakable. You are not a judge that you should bring anyone in false judgment, behind her back. You never know the whole picture and what are the circumstances by which the person is pressured to commit a misdemeanor, or wrongful action.

Give everyone the benefit of the doubt by limiting your vocabulary to pleasant.

Lesson# 7: Never forget who you are or where you came from

Acculturation is a good thing if you will stay in a long time in a certain place. If you forget that, pretty soon you will be back home after your contract expires and not renewed. You will find it hard to separate from all the things you have gotten used to like the clean streets, efficient co-workers, detachment from drama, organized events, megastructures and all the trappings of a premier city.

The merging of cultures as a result of prolonged contact can make you feel alien to your own culture, to the point of despising all that you find “backward” in your country of origin; conduct a reality check from time to time.

Lesson# 8: Never lose an opportunity to shine

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” Back home, you may have felt limited, when told not to shake the boat as everyone feels comfortable with the status quo of “slow progress”. Friends in Singapore delighted to make me speak in meetings, amazed with my passion and new concepts. Thus, I’ve found my voice with an enthusiastic audience, took my moment to shine in another country, and thus, I vowed never to lose again an opportunity to shine.

Expressing my passion for efficiently merging technology and service opened for me a portal of unlimited opportunities to shine, to make a vision come true. 

Lesson #9: Plan for the worst; hope for the best

There’s a word I particularly dote on – forward thinking – which is the characteristic of favoring innovation and development. Part of that progressive thinking is choosing quality over costs. The cost of living in Singapore is rather high and for survival, you need to carefully budget every dollar, looking at areas where you could cut cost. But never sacrifice utility and quality when you need to pinch pennies.

The salaries for expats are often generous and income tax is fairly low, but still, be on the prowl for discounts and value-added items. Make your dreams realizable but your hopes high.

Lesson #10: Do not think short-term

Migrating in (another) country for work is a very good experience but I would not go as far as to encourage the government to keep pushing for this as our country has, sometimes blindly and without considering the costs to people and relationships. Living in another country allows you to thrive in spaces outside of your comfort zone, learn from people, culture, and way of life. Yet, plan for the days when you need to resume your life in your home country.

Invest in real estate and your own living space so you can resume living the comfort of your overseas life without having to explain yourself. What you have gained in working overseas is so much more than the material things you’ve accumulated – the experiences you’ve stacked against the challenging times will forever guide you in your future endeavors, whether abroad or in your own country.

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