Over the last 11 years of living throughout Latin America, my wife, Suzan, and I have missed lots of things we had back in the States. The first one for me was roasted red peppers. Eight brands in the supermarket back home… none in the first two countries we lived in. (For Suzan, it was Triscuits.)
There have been many more. Decent power tool bits, boneless chicken breasts, punctuality, customer service…
But none of these things have been deal-breakers for us. Suzan and I are lucky this way… we quickly learned to go with the flow and enjoy the novel and unusual things our new locations offered… AND to savor the challenge of replacing or working around the things we wanted but couldn’t find.
That’s why we make a habit of advising anyone considering a move abroad to do one simple thing—ruthlessly assess yourself. Before you do anything else, be completely honest with yourself and think hard about the things you actually need to be happy. Ask yourself what you’d do if you couldn’t find these things in your new home or had to come up with your own replacements for them.
To aid in this assessment, we came up with this little exercise.
Imagine that when you get up tomorrow morning, you will board a plane and fly away to live permanently in a foreign country.
What is the one thing you would make sure to take with you if you could? In other words, what’s the one thing you’d miss the most if you arrived without it and couldn’t find the same thing in your new country?
Your 4G smart phone? Your non-stick cookware? Your 50-inch high-def TV? Your nicotine gum? Your hybrid SUV? Your memory foam pillow? Your favorite contact lens solution? Your “Swedish steel” woodworking tools? The English language?
The point is to identify your deal-breakers. It doesn’t matter if it’s ultra-pasteurized half and half for your coffee or a particular brand of denture cleanser or high-thread-count sheets or easy-to-scoop kitty litter.
If you don’t have it or can’t do it, and you can’t find it or get it done, and it makes you miserable… then it won’t make much difference if you’re swinging in a hammock on a pristine white-sand beach in a tropical paradise. You’ll be unhappy.
And here is what all the successful expats Suzan and I have ever known have in common: They don’t have any real deal-breakers because they stay flexible, they improvise and they keep things in perspective.
If they can’t find good Ranch-style dressing, they make their own from scratch with ingredients they can find.
If unfamiliar local procedures or bureaucracy means they can’t get all the chores on their daily to-do list done, they don’t rant and rage… they make shorter lists.
If they can’t grill an acceptable steak with the grass-fed beef from the local mercado, they grill chicken and fish and use the beef for chili and stew.
If they don’t know enough Spanish or Portuguese or French to order a pizza over the phone, they learn it… or learn to enjoy making pizza at home.
Over the years we’ve met a few expats who never wanted to do that. They spent most of their time trying to make their lives in Mexico or Ecuador or Belize or Uruguay exactly the same as they were back home…and complained when they weren’t.
This is the biggest deal-breaker of all, of course, because the only place on earth exactly like back home is… back home.
That’s why this exercise is helpful. It brings your expectations into focus…and clarifies the reasons you’re considering a move abroad in the first place.
And if, after being honest about your own deal-breakers, you can say that you’re still up for an adventure that will constantly challenge and endlessly entertain you with new ways of living, thinking, and seeing—then the expat life just might be for you.