How to Prepare for a Move Abroad

How to Prepare for a Move Abroad

Ready to vacate the states? Alex Hardy offers tips for getting your affairs in order and getting gone

by #teamEBONY, December 11, 2013

How to Prepare for a Move Abroad


For many Black professionals, life in the United States ain't been a crystal stair for quite some time. Job prospects, even for the most qualified multi-degreed candidates, are often as dried up as the self-esteem of a leading lady in a Tyler Perry production before her upstanding Black Knight comes along. The educated and skilled as well as the generally frustrated adult can often find a great quality of life and promising careers beyond US borders.

According to a recent study by HSBC Expat Explorer, the average expat salary in Asia is $74,000 per year, significantly greater than the median African American household income of $34,460. Factor in the opportunities for faster career advancement abroad juxtaposed with frequent stories of prolonged unemployment for Americans of all races and education levels, and packing up to leave the country becomes a much more attractive idea.

In lieu of tossing that pricey degree that Sallie Mae's unrelenting robocalls won't let you forget into a box in Mama's attic, it would behoove more of us to take our talents abroad for a fresh start and rewarding new opportunities. 

I recently moved back to Panama to teach English and dance, and learn Spanish, while tracing my family's AfroPanamanian and Jamaican heritage. It hasn’t been all palm trees and platanos, but choosing eternal summer and self-employment over the American workplace racial rodeo does wonders for one’s peace of mind. Just ask New York City native Kali Blocker, who, along with her boyfriend, recently relocated to Puerto Rico to work as a personal trainer and promote her natural hair movement, Diosas Al Natural.

“Obviously, the lifestyle is a lot more slow paced than NYC,” Blocker confessed, “but that's part of the reason I decided to make the move. Having your own business proves to be the best route, in my opinion. You just have to build confidence with the locals, like most places I've been to.”

Whether aiming to learn a new language in a foreign country with a better climate or you’ve tired of America’s special brand of lunacy and need to escape for your sanity, here are a few steps for getting your mind right beforehand.

Step One: Realize that all advice is not good advice.

Seeking approval and support from loved ones is normal. Faced with such a life-altering decision, we want to know that we’re not on the brink of disaster, setting out down the wrong path. Perhaps you once saw a film where “Starring Mary J Blige” scrolled across the screen and aren’t exactly itching to welcome such avoidable despair into your life again. But remember: in your search for solidarity, consider that perhaps your uncle who was born, graduated, and retired in the same zip code may not be best person to help you prepare to move a few time zones away.

For many of us, leaving the country for anything other than military service or a cruise through the Caribbean is completely beyond our scope of possibility. “What’s wrong with home?” I was once asked by a family friend from back home in 1998, Virginia who is frightened by tall buildings. Not to shun all warnings from those near to us, but I soon realized that advice is dealt from the limited vantage point of the giver and to be heeded with caution.

Moving abroad for better job opportunities and quality of life is an immeasurably beneficial move. Though well-intentioned, loved ones will often talk us down from a leap like this for their own selfish reasons: If you pack up and leave, who will join them in being safe, predictable, and complacent? Be discerning about whom you consult on your big plan.

Step Two: Get your priorities straight.

Do you really need 581 cable channels? Just how much value does getting a fresh floor-length Zamundan Yaki sew-in each week contribute to your life? If you’re serious about relocating internationally, you will need healthy financial reserves, lest you intend to sling that thing for luchini in trying times. Even if you’re not completely certain where to go, you can begin building a cushion to soften your landing wherever you decide to leap. Get real with yourself about the necessity—and effectiveness—of your gym membership. Opt for HULU and Netflix instead of a pricey cable package if you must. Can you cook at home or cut back on popping bottles of bubbly in the club with the thugs? Sure you can.

As I prepared to trade life in Virginia for New York and, later, Los Angeles for Panama, I set up a separate bank account dedicated specifically to jumping ship. I dialed back wasteful spending. What helped the most was directing 25% of my direct deposit each pay period into this account so that I wouldn’t even have the option of drinking or eating that money leading up to my moves. Choose an amount that you can bear to stash away weekly or biweekly and tighten your belt. It’s only temporary.

Step Three: Do an inventory of your skills.

On my second day in Panama, I got a job teaching exercise and CardioDance classes at a fitness studio. Within a week I was offered a job leading conversational English classes at the University of Panama after calling to inquire about Spanish courses. Had I done either of these things before? Absolutely not. Would this have been possible in the States? Absolutely not. These were simply interests of mine that happened to be in demand here.

Beyond the often-constricting borders of America, your mere ability to speak English opens more doors than you could ever imagine. Skills you take for granted or have set aside could be beneficial elsewhere. Having played football way back in college could land you a job as athletic director of an international school. Your unused IT skills could lead to a comfy post overseas with a housing allowance and swanky benefits. Make a list of your marketable skills. You may be surprised what you, as an English speaker, can get paid to do outside of the United States. Sites like Overseas Jobs and Monster let you search by city, region and keyword and are great starting points. Expat portal International Living even has an entire section devoted to funding your life abroad.

Step Four: Tend to the small details.

It’s not quite as easy as packing a six-month supply of grits into a duffle bag and hopping on a plane. How do you get a work visa? Is the US dollar accepted in Shanghai? Can one get kinky twists in Norway? These are all very important issues to address. Luckily, Addison Sears-Collins of Visa Hunter has thought of it all. He has sorted through the confusing, contradictory web of information online about visas, employment, travel insurance, and housing for 232 countries and created a comprehensive research portal. Sears-Collins even researched the dating scenes in 62 countries to aid you in your cross-cultural sexual education, which I’ve learned is a surprisingly helpful way to learn a new language.

Connecting with those who have done what you are about to do is invaluable. Reading stories on Expats Blog and connecting with foreign professionals on Internations will inform you on the day-to-day issues you may encounter. Facebook-based communities like the Nomad·ness Travel Tribe and Black Americans Living Abroad are indispensable for meeting brown people in every corner of the world.

Step Five: Know that you’ll never be 100% “ready.” Leap anyway.

A monster move such as this requires a great deal of planning. There are many elements to arrange when starting a new life abroad. You could always save more money. You could always find a better job or buy a gaudier Traveling Black Man’s white linen short set for making your presence known. If you’re waiting for all of the stars to align in your favor, you’ll never leave. Once you’re fed up with doing what everyone around you has always done, act. Move before your loved ones dim the light on your dream and present you with more “reasonable” alternatives.

If you’ve got the gift of gumption, there’s a hell of an adventure to be had in creating a cushion, strapping on your parachute, jumping, and figuring it all out on the way down. Worst-case scenario: you end up back home alongside your well-intentioned friends with priceless experiences and great stories to share, learning from your mistakes and preparing to leap again. 


Alexander Hardy shares both the good and terrible sides to living and working abroad in Panama on his site Colored Boy. Tweet him at @chrisalexander_.

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