It’s official: you’re moving overseas. Congratulations! Before you start packing, however, you’ll need to arm yourself with a clear idea of what to expect once you take the leap. Finding people who’ve been there, done that – and know exactly where to find the tee shirt – can mean the difference between sliding gracefully into expatriate life and stumbling around in a perpetual fog.
The first item on your to-do list should be a chat with your sponsoring organization. Getting information directly from someone who’s been in your prospective shoes is invaluable, and it never hurts to ask to be put in touch with current or returned expats. Some companies even have support groups or mentoring programs to help prepare new assignees and their families.
If your company is this enlightened, break out the bubbly and start celebrating – you’re one of the lucky ones. The rest of us, however, are left to glean snippets of information wherever we can find them. Increasingly, we’re turning to social networking to provide us with immediate, relevant data that lets us hit the ground running on arrival.
When I was a first-time expat back in 1984, there was no such thing as online social networking – because there was no such thing as the internet. Preparing for my sojourn in France consisted of schlepping to the public library for a 5-year-old copy of Europe on $10 a Day. The manic proliferation of social media has changed all that, and for the better. Today, it’s possible to “meet” expats and locals who can provide you with the inside information that will make your expat life easier. As Mashable.com’s Ben Parr writes: “Social media is entirely about people and the information they have. You’d be surprised how willing they are to share their first-hand knowledge.”
Where to find the lowdown on expat life
Wikis and travel blogs are ideal for getting a general overview of your destination. Wikitravel, for example, is chock full of advice. American expat Erin De Santiago pored over the blogs on Travbuddy.com when planning a move to Taiwan. (She met her husband on the site, by the way – another bonus of social networking!)
Your existing network is a treasure trove of information you can’t afford to overlook. Changing your Facebook status to a plea for information or combing through your contacts on LinkedIn can yield results. Even if your friends don’t have the answers, they’ll often know someone who does.
Facebook and LinkedIn boast dedicated expat groups, but savvy searchers like Erin don’t stop there: “I looked on meetup.com and found an expat social group in Taiwan, so I contacted the head of the group,” she says. “I also contacted several other people who had blogs, and found an online forum – forumosa.com – that is dedicated to expats.”
No discussion about social networking sites would be complete without mentioning Twitter, a microblogging site that’s a boon for expatriates. Finding a friendly soul to answer your questions is as easy as searching general hashtags such as #expat – or more country-specific ones – and sending the tweeter a DM (Direct Message) with as many questions as the 140-character limit will allow. (Note that DMs can only be sent to people you follow.) You can also send a message out into the twitterverse at large; as long as you add those hashtags to your tweet, anyone searching those specific terms will find your request for information.
The small print
A few caveats are in order before grabbing your iPhone and bombarding cyberspace with urgent appeals for help. Bear in mind that success with the major sites depends largely on location. Erin was disappointed to discover that Twitter and Facebook – the behemoths of social media – are not popular in Taiwan. According to Mashable.com, Facebook boasts 250 million active users, while Twitter estimates its ranks will swell to 26 million in 2010. As impressive as these figures are, it’s clear that social networking sites haven’t yet managed to penetrate every corner of the globe.
For your own safety, don’t leave your common sense behind when you move. “Do your research on the people you meet,” advises Ben Parr. “Read their blog, their tweets, and friend them on Facebook.” Remember also that reading something online doesn’t make it reliable – it’s important to verify any information you receive. And don’t forget Mom’s advice: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Travel blogger Christine Gilbert, author of the ebook Twitter for Travelers, confesses to being a bit skittish about posting her exact location via services such as Foursquare, a location-based social networking app that doubles as a city guide. “It can post [your location] to Facebook and Twitter, meaning more people than you might realize can read it,” she explains, before adding, “It’s all relatively harmless. I think the worst case scenario is someone you’ve been avoiding will show up at the cafe the next time you’re there!”
Understand that social networking sites have their uses, but there’s a downside as well. Expat expert Robin Pascoe cautions that allowing the online world to get in the way of discovering the reality just outside the door can slow down integration. “Distracting yourself by sitting at a computer ‘talking’ with a friend thousands of miles away may fill the day,” she writes in Raising Global Nomads: Parenting Abroad in an On Demand World, “but it can create a dreamlike state that won’t help you settle into your new locale.”
And that, I think, is the key to using social media. Don’t think of it as a substitute for immersing yourself in the host culture and engaging in face-to-face contact with real, live bodies. Use it wisely, and respect it for what it is: a tool for gathering information and connecting with people who can help you on your journey. Social media gets your foot in the door; beyond that, it’s up to you to get out there and live your new life, offline.