Are You Ready to Live in a Foreign Country? (Part 3)
If you’ve been reading this column over the past 2 weeks, you know we’ve offered up a great quiz and some analysis of the questions it asks. If you already took the quiz, skip down to the big green Start Here marker. If not, look over the information and quiz below and have some fun with it.
The prospect of moving overseas to a foreign country can be a very exciting one. All the new changes in daily life, brought on by a relocation to a foreign country, can be so exhilarating that we form what I call “Adventure Eyes.” This is where we stay focused on all the new stimulating changes and how great our new life will be once we move. It’s a completely natural reaction to such an exciting opportunity.
But before you start asking questions about which country might be the best for you, what kind of home you will own, and how much time you will spend golfing, fishing, reading, hiking, or relaxing on the beach, start by asking yourself questions to determine if you are, in fact, ready to live abroad. Taking time to consider how you will adapt to new challenges and a new landscape is really the first step in the moving process and will provide a quick handle on how easy the process will be.
Do You Have a Hobby or Interest You Really Want to Pursue?
With the amount of increased free time you will likely have living in a foreign country, it’s easy to deepen your devotion to your craft or hobby. When there’s a specific hobby you already enjoy, a bit of planning before you move is all it takes to enable yourself to continue your practice in your new home.
Here’s an easy example.
If you enjoy playing golf, find a home near a golf course. Or, say, you enjoy knitting, surfing, painting, woodworking, reading, or other solitary activities, these are things you can do literally anywhere.
Flats fishing in Belize.
A round with friends at Gran Pacifica.
But other hobbies, such as playing bridge, softball, or tennis; doing yoga or performing service work in the community, require other people nearby with similar interests.
Yoga on the beach.
Water aerobics at the Grand Baymen Fitness Club in Belize.
Knowing this about yourself upfront is critically important, and the self-evaluation tool helps to identify and rank the level of importance we need to emphasize for these activities and interests. Once identified, selecting the right location becomes easier, and the possibility of getting it right the first time is greatly enhanced.
Are You Comfortable Being a “Visible Minority” in a New Country?
Depending on your ancestry and which country you are moving to, it is quite possible that you will be a visible minority in your new home – meaning you can be instantly spotted on the street as someone that is not from that country. For some people, that is no problem at all. For others, it might cause a bit of discomfort and unease. This is usually no big deal, but there are a few easy-to-spot drawbacks.
In Latin America, you’ll most always get the “gringo price.” That price will likely still be far less than the price back home, but it will be higher than what the locals pay. In fact, for a long time, we found it less expensive to buy our fruits and vegetables at the North American-style supermarket than at the local “mercado,” where people bargain for a better price. After a while, you’ll get a sense of the right price – getting close to, but never quite achieving, the local prices. But that may take a while. Speaking the language is a prerequisite, of course.
No gringos in sight at the local market in Ecuador.
Another way this foreignness manifests itself is that you may be stared at, especially in remote locations. On one trip down the Rio Coco in Nicaragua, my family, with a group of doctors and nurses on a medical mission, figured out that there had been more people to the top of Mt. Everest than the number of foreigners who’d ever been to this major village along the river. We were the entertainment, and crowds came to just look and stare.
In cities, this won’t happen – but you’ll be singled out by the beggars as an easy mark for a handout. By the way, a warm smile and a firm shake of the head will let them know that you see them, care about them, but aren’t going to give them any money. No matter what, it is important to ask yourself this question and determine how comfortable you are with being and looking like a foreigner.
Also, know that even if you blend in ethnically and speak the language, you will probably still stand out. Your clothes will give you away or your accent won’t be local. And please remember this, you are a guest in someone else’s country. Act like one and be gracious. This, beyond anything else, will set the tone by which you are accepted into the local community.
Are You Easy Going Enough to Deal with Long Lines/Delays/Bureaucratic Delays?
As you probably know, life in a new country will be different in a variety of ways. One of the differences that is easy to see is the concept of standing in lines. The saying that, “If you come with no patience, you’ll learn it. If you come with patience, you’ll lose it,” is right on the money. But it goes deeper than lines. And this is where the frustration can take hold and simmer if we are not careful. Something many expats complain about is the lack of efficiency in the bureaucratic process.
Visa renewal line in Thailand.
It usually looks like this: You are given a list of 6 or 8 things to accomplish to purchase a car. (Note: Usually, you’ll need to be a resident to own one.)
There are unspoken things that everyone, but you of course, “knows” must happen, too – like having an extra copy of the title notarized or paying a small stamp tax (literally a stamp of less than a dollar at the bank, performed prior to standing in a series of long lines at the DMV-equivalent government office). So, it’s back to the bank to wait in line, get the stamp, go back to the “DMV” to wait in the line again. Oh, and did you know that the seller needs to be present in person to witness the signature of the sale?
Ahhhhhhhhhh. This wasn’t on the list! But why put something so obvious on the list? Do they have to tell you to put toothpaste on the toothbrush before you brush your teeth? Silly foreigner. What do they teach you up north?
That said, there are some hacks. Unless you want to learn the process and you have tons of time and patience on your hands, hiring a lawyer to do these types of bureaucratic tasks is inexpensive and painless. In fact, on the sidewalk right outside most government offices, you’ll see a small industry of lawyers, notaries, and other people who know the process inside and out. And for a few dollars, they will carry it out on your behalf. They don’t have fancy offices, but they are very good at what they do.
So, remember, when moving to a foreign country, bring your patience and keep as much as you can. Certain things will take longer to get done; work forces, whether government or maintenance, are not what they are at home. But there are local ways, not bribery, to expedite the process and have it done on your behalf. We probably would not send a lawyer to the DMV for us back home, but in Latin America it makes a lot of sense.
More than anything, it’s a new way of thinking. Hire others to perform the menial tasks. And this is where it gets interesting. A new way of thinking is the key to acceptance of your new home. This is hard for most people. It challenges our fundamental nature in many cases: “I’m capable. I can do this myself.”
My father-in-law tells a story of an Argentinian friend of his who visited the U.S. and was proudly shown a basement that another U.S. friend had remodeled himself. After leaving, the Argentinean friend commented to my father–in-law how sorry he felt for the U.S. friend because he had to remodel the basement himself. This is an example of two ways of thinking that don’t intersect. Hiring people to do work that you can do, and probably have done yourself in the past, takes getting used to.
Hiring a maid means employment for them and no chores for you.
If you have ever had a cleaning person come to your home, did you clean up before they arrived? If you just laughed, you are on your way to understanding. If you grimaced or gut checked, this transition may be more challenging than you think. But remember this, in many developing countries, unemployment is high. Social Security is not a real safety net, and so employment of others is seen as a good thing. And it is. It just takes some getting used to.
Are You Generally Interested in Getting Involved with a New Community/Joining Clubs/Activities?
Del Webb, the developer of the famous Sun City brand of retirement communities in the U.S., has a wonderful quote, “Concrete, steel, and lumber make the buildings, but people make the community.” How will you meet other people when you move overseas – when you leave your close circle of friends, colleagues from work, teammates on the sports teams, and the folks you know at church from home? This is a fundamental question we should examine closely before we move.
“I wasn’t sure we’d make new friends, but we did.”
“I felt like a fish out of water at home sometimes, but overseas I’m surrounded by like-minded people.”
“People make the community,” as Del Webb said, and so joining clubs, a new church, a service organization, and participating in sports activities are all great ways to meet people and to make the most of your time spent abroad. Putting yourself in situations where you are going to find new peers and friends by identifying common goals, beliefs, and ideals really works. You will make new friends easier than you thought.
Getting together for a sea turtle release at Gran Pacifica.
And with the power of the internet, Skype, Facetime, WhatsApp, and other VOIP and streaming video, going overseas isn’t the same kind of “distance” it used to be. Staying in touch back home has never been easier or cost so little. It’s nearly free now, and service is getting better and better all the time.
That said, measuring and knowing your interests in the kinds of activities that will put you out into the community is crucial in deciding if you are ready to move overseas. Getting involved in new activities and clubs takes effort. Taking on new interests and joining new clubs and organizations is key to developing a community abroad; and, as stated before, the people make the place. So, if making new friends, getting involved in service work, developing a new hobby, or perfecting an old one is something that you want to do, moving abroad could definitely be for you!
When Faced with Problems, are You Creative in Figuring Out How to Get Things Done?
A life overseas comes with many new kinds of problems and challenges different from those you are familiar with at home. Similarly, the ways of solving these problems are also new and different. Having a creative, discerning mind on how best to navigate the problems you encounter is another important aspect of life abroad.
Many of these challenges are precisely what this column addresses. The 15 Questions we should ask before buying property overseas drives to the heart of the matter. We don’t know what we don’t know. In many cases, we don’t know what we are supposed to know.
And by “supposed to,” I mean the common sense things everyone who grew up as a local knows.
Of course, you have to go to the bank and get a stamp on your paperwork.
Of course, the seller of the car has to be physically present to sign the paperwork.
Of course, you need triplicate copies of the deed authenticated by a lawyer.
These examples from above during the car buying process are the unspoken, common sense things everyone learns through culture and habit. Hiring someone to do the DMV process is, for most of us, a new and creative way of thinking about how to deal with the challenges of inefficient bureaucracy.
Knowing that different problems require different solutions is a good mindset to be in as you decide on making your move. When viewing these problems and challenges as opportunities for growth, we keep the proper perspective on them and begin to adapt to the new country and new ways of thinking about our new home.
Do You Respect Different Cultures and Realize You are Moving to THEIR Country?
With all the advantages and opportunities afforded to the retiree moving abroad, it is important to really take in that last word: abroad. That means a different country outside of your own. If all the advantages and opportunities found abroad were found at home, you would not be moving. You are moving to a new country with a completely different culture, and all your reasons for moving to that country are the reasons why you should respect and honor that said culture and its values.
Are You Healthy Enough, both Mentally and Physically, to Not Need Constant Medical Attention?
This last, and most important, question you should ask yourself is regarding your health. Are you currently in good health? How often would you need to go see a doctor if you moved? How is the medical care where you are planning on moving to? Take an inventory of your mental and physical health and how much of a burden or asset your current state of being is. It is possible that your health, while not a particular burden at home, could turn into a bigger problem for you in a foreign country. Also, the opposite is possible.
Great medical care is available – just not always right around the corner.
Many types of chronic conditions can be handled far less expensively overseas. Especially labor-intensive tasks like 24-hour care. Many medications are less expensive overseas, too. Dental work and routine elective procedures cost far less, and it is usually possible to find medical staff trained in North America who speak excellent English. State-of-the-art imagery equipment is standard in the best hospitals.
No matter what, understanding the level of your physical and mental health, and what medical care you expect to need overseas, is the last vitally important question to ask yourself if you are thinking of moving abroad. An objective analysis of the facts, conditions, facilities, and nature of the care required will lead to some quality decision making when it comes to healthcare and whether to remain at home or if you’d be better off overseas.
After you have taken the quiz, think about your answers. What answer did you give most often? “Yes” or “no?” If most of your answers were yes, then you are clearly in a position to highly consider moving abroad. If they were emphatically yes, then what the heck are you still doing here? Move already! If you were on the fence for most of the questions or answered yes with reservations (or answered mostly no), then perhaps moving abroad is not for you – or at least it would be wise to dig a little deeper and know why you want to move, and whether the challenges of change are worth it for you.
The purpose of this quiz is to ask yourself these questions before you start looking at the beaches, the beautiful affordable houses, and the golf courses that might turn your head before you have thoroughly thought through whether you are ready to live in a foreign country. These questions are the essence of how well you will cope with the exciting new challenges of life abroad. Being honest with yourself about whether or not you are ready to live in a foreign country is the first step on your way to a new life overseas.
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Michael K. Cobb is the CEO and co-founder of ECI Developments which has properties throughout Latin America. He speaks all over the world on international real estate and is a board member of the National Association of Realtors.
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