10 Ways to Survive Your First Year Overseas

by Elizabeth

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I worked at a lot of summer camps before moving overseas. Camp work is hot, sweaty, and tiring, and I always loved that last shower before “lights out.” So before moving overseas, I told my husband that I’d be able to handle anything during the day in Cambodia as long as I had a clean shower and clean bed at night (with a fan!).

And for the most part, that’s been true. Besides the nightly shower, however, I’ve picked up a few other survival skills from my first year overseas. My best advice still lies in the Preparation Phase, but today I want to share tips you can use once you get to the field. Here they are:

1. Figure out your Absolute Necessities, and do whatever you can to install them in your home or in your life. For myself, I needed curtains in my bedroom and gates on my stairs. I had to be able to dress and undress in private, as well as spend time with my husband in private. I needed curtains pronto! Thankfully a friend supplied me some hand-me-down curtains three weeks in to our Cambodia adventure. They may or may not have matched my sheets, but they gave me the privacy I needed.

A close second for me was the safety gates on our treacherously steep concrete Asian stairs (for my then one-year-old), obtained five weeks in to Cambodia life. Those were my Absolute Necessities. You may need something different. Certain kitchen equipment, perhaps. The point is, figure out your two or three Absolute Necessities, and obtain them if at all possible.

2. Funny Youtube clips are your best friend. Some weeks it was all I could do to get to Friday, when my husband and I would watch Fail Blogs on Youtube. Another favorite was Mitch Hedberg. Here’s a 2-part compilation that deleted nearly all his bad words:

We’re big fans of Brian Regan’s “I Walked on the Moon” (mostly clean, with occasional bad words).

Of course who can’t help loving Jim Gaffigan (also mostly clean, with even fewer bad words)?

This is one of our family favorites: NFL Bad Lip Reading. FYI not all Bad Lip Reading is this kid-friendly.

3. Find spiritual nourishment. I can’t tell you enough how much I love our international church and the spiritual food I receive there. But I know not everyone lives in a city that offers English-speaking church services like I do. Nowadays, though, overseas workers have access to sermons and podcasts on the internet. My husband, for example, likes listening to Andy Stanley sermons. Figure out which teachers feed you, and set aside some time to listen.

We all need to worship God in song, so if you don’t have access to worship services in your heart language, remember you can purchase worship music on iTunes (artists like Bethel, Hillsong, and Matt Redman are some of my favorites). I know some of this depends on your internet quality and won’t work for absolutely everyone at all times; still, it’s an improvement in resource availability over times past.

And don’t forget your own personal morning quiet time – it’s worked wonders in my life. So no matter what your options are, I do believe you can find the spiritual nourishment that you crave and that you need. You just might have to be creative about it.

4. Closely related to spiritual nourishment is finding community. You might be able to find that at an international church or on your team, as I’ve been thrilled to find. (Although I personally have had to guard against being oversocialized.) Finding community might be trickier for you if you live in a really remote place, with few other workers.

One of the best things you can do is pray for God to bring you a kindred spirit or two. Yes, the goodbyes hurt, and sometimes God brings people into our lives only for a season, but I do believe God answers our prayers for friends. Sometimes we have to get creative in our search for community as well, and another option is online community. Velvet Ashes and A Life Overseas are two options for Christian expats.

If you’re married, it’s far too easy to forget that you and your spouse can provide built-in community for each other — but that only happens when you spend time together. Maybe there’s no money to go out anywhere, or nowhere to go out, or maybe you don’t yet have babysitters you trust. You can still have coffee at home. You can still put the kids to bed early. You can still find fellowship with each other; in fact friendship is a vital part of a thriving marriage. Our first year we went up to our roof after our kids’ bedtime a couple times a week, looking out over our city and just talking to each other. It was peaceful and bonding, and I cherish those memories.

5. Your old coping mechanisms might not work at first. Don’t sweat it too much. I love to read, but my mind was too tired from language learning and culture acquisition to read much that first year. I’ve had other friends whose beloved piano playing went by the wayside their first year. Don’t lose heart – these things will come back later, when your brain isn’t so tired from the onslaught of culture and language.

6. Your body and mind may feel weaker than ever. Take care of them. You’ll probably get sick with strange illnesses. (The first two years are the worst for that, until your body adjusts.) But I’m not just talking about illnesses here. Before I moved overseas, I’d never struggled with mood swings, due to either hormonal shifts or low blood sugar. Now I deal with both, and not only do I need to be aware of them, but I have to be diligent in alleviating my symptoms.

Living cross-culturally (especially in a developing country or a very hot country) drains your body of its resources. So you’ll have to feed and water it regularly. You’ll need to de-worm regularly, take your vitamins, go to bed at a good time, and exercise. Exercise is not a coping mechanism you can afford to relinquish. You may have to get creative for this one too. A lot of people don’t like using videos for exercise (you can access a lot online if you don’t already own some), but if you don’t have access to a gym or decent running paths, you may be forced to exercise in your home.

7. Fall in love with something in your host country. In the beginning it’s too easy to love everything or to hate everything. But as with everything in life, the truth about your country is probably somewhere in between, a mixture of both good and bad. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered God in a sunset or a palm tree, in a rice field or a painted sky. When I need a reason for why I stay in a dirty, stinky, crowded city, I simply go to my roof and meet God in the clouds and banana leaves. You won’t be able to love everything where you live, but if you want to stay, you can’t afford to hate everything, either.

8. Some days you’ll only be able to accomplish one thing. You might feel like a failure for that, but you need to celebrate that one thing. You might not be able to shop for furniture and groceries in the same day, and that’s OK. You can always try again tomorrow with something else. You’ll get more efficient at this life, and eventually daily living won’t wear you out so much. You need to give yourself this grace. And you’ll need to continue giving yourself that grace, because to a certain degree, living cross-culturally will always wear you out more than living in your passport country.

9. If you home school your children, don’t be afraid to drop it for 3-6 months. Your kids will be ok, I promise. I didn’t believe that at first, either, even when my missions coach assured me of it. But she was right; it turned out ok. Not only does it save you sanity (it’s hard to home school kids and study language at the same time) but your kids really do catch up later. Plus, they need to adjust to overseas life, too. We don’t want to overload our kids with too many expectations.

10. And returning to my first point, if all else fails, don’t be afraid to put yourself in time out in the shower. Go to bed early. You can try again tomorrow! Grace grace grace. You’re gonna need to give yourself a lot of it this year, so just starting doling it out now.

7 thoughts on “10 Ways to Survive Your First Year Overseas

  1. This is a GREAT list! I didn’t have kids when we first came and it was also before decent internet, so 9 and 2 didn’t really apply but number 3 was huge, particularly my personal quiet time. #4 – I was way oversocialized by the end of the 1st year, and yet that didn’t alleviate the need for a few kindred spirits, We prayed for a few kindred spirits, as you said, and God answered those prayers. #5-8 – I also totally identify with these – and want to put several exclamation points after 7 and 8. Find something to love – absolutely – and doing one thing every day is a MAJOR accomplishment. You’ve actually probably REALLy done more than one thing but only one thing that you’re ready to count. Why is it that we don’t COUNT so much of what we do? Like counting grocery shopping as one thing when it may have actually been 6 things that you had to do in order to do the grocery shopping – conquering language being one of them -, and then the groceries didn’t just leap on the table as edible meals so they had to be cooked up – and then the dishes had to be washed – but we don’t count all those things…we say “one thing, oh, I’m a failure today” I think that that’s such good advice – celebrate the one thing accomplished! Because most likely, it’s much a much bigger accomplishment than we give ourselves credit for!

    • Yes. Yes yes yes! I’m so glad you commented here and shared your story too! That was totally me — being oversocialized yet needing a small number of kindred spirits. Glad I’m not the only one who dealt with that! And thank you so much for sharing the idea that accomplishing one thing is actually many things! Never thought of it quite like that, but yes, it’s true, and also, explains why that “one” thing wears you out so much!

      • I agree! This redefining of “one” thing as actually several (which is true!) is so helpful. I hate the feeling of getting to the end of the day and wondering what I did, where did the time go? Did I “only” talk to people and maybe do a post office run?! I’m tucking these nuggets away!

  2. Elizabeth, this is full of so much goodness and truth and kindness. I could camp on just about any one of these! The funny thing is I want to give a big shout out to you non-point of preparation :)! Yes, yes, yes! If people/agencies/sending churches got how important this was, what a game changer, eh? I low what we’re doing is urgent and important, but I also think we can operate with a false sense of urgency that “I/We must get to the field NOW, taking six months for more preparation is out of the question.” And I so agree with the need to create a bit of privacy and space for an individual, couple, and the family. I’m going to end my comment here or I will basically repeat your post saying, “I agree with this, I agree with that :)” and that might get annoying! All this to say: right on! and thanks 🙂

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