Disoriented in the Orient But Getting Better…


A little over a month ago I moved from Rome, Italy where I’d been living and working as a university professor for a decade, to a new country on a different continent with my husband, two small sons, and our grumpy elderly cat. The reason for the move was due to my husband’s work at the UN’s World Food Programme where he would serve in a country office in one of their many duty stations around the globe.

In search of a nice place to write, I came across this.

             In search of a nice place to write, I came across this.

This time around we landed in Yangon, Myanmar, a place I had never even visited before and as the so-called “trailing spouse,” where I had to start over 100% from scratch. Luckily I have lived and worked long-term in various parts of the USA, Ireland, Scotland, and Italy before as well as short-term in Liberia, India, Tanzania, Singapore, and Ethiopia. So I have a few rituals that I follow to help make my moves as painless, stress-free, and dare I say… FUN as possible.

If you too are about to make a major change or are in the middle of one now, hopefully my tips will help.


1.) Do Your Homework

OK. I know that sounds boring, but reading up on where you will be moving to; its history, customs, places of interest, challenges, etc… seems like a no-brainer to me. This is especially important if circumstances force you to move to a place you have never even visited before. (If you have the option, it’s always best to visit before you move anywhere as a general rule of thumb. I didn’t have that luxury this time around.)

Anyway, the more you arm yourself with knowledge about your new home, the less weird and foreign it will seem which will then lead to you having more confidence to walk around as a new citizen rather than as a timid tourist. It also helps to stock up on maps, books, videos, and other resources that you can go back to again and again as you are dipping your toe in the waters of your new home.


2.) Smile, Make Nice, and DO Learn at Least Some of the Local Language

No joke but the day I found out we were moving to Myanmar, one of the first questions I had was, “What language do they even speak?”
Ba-ma-za-ga would be the answer. (That’s Burmese in Burmese but using our Roman alphabet. Baby steps people!)

Now I know a lot of people who’ve moved abroad and never learned more than five words, if that, in the local language. To each their own, but that is just not my style.

Now I am by no means a talented language learner. I was born in the USA and therefore virtually monolingual aside from a few French and Spanish classes in school until I started dating that cute German (now my husband.) I have always been interested in foreign languages however, especially the “more obscure” languages spoken by few foreigners where the alphabets were completely different.

I believe that the very first words you should learn, even if you are just making a day trip to a foreign country are at minimum, “Hello” and “Thank You.” Particularly when you are traveling in parts of the world where the languages are mainly spoken only by locals, it’s worth it just to see the LOOK on people’s surprised and happy faces. Learning even just a few words of the local language says a lot about what kind of person you are. Being able to even just say “ thank you,” even if you botch the whole thing up, also means that you are respectful, empathetic, and humble enough to at least try.


This was a nice writing spot until a giant ant landed on my head from the tree above. OK. Moving on…

I tend to dive in a bit further if I know I will be staying somewhere for a few weeks or longer. I like apps like Rosetta Stone and Instant Immersion, Powered by Eurotalk. I was also able to download a free MP3 Burmese for Beginners’ course called Burmese by Ear I found online (doing my homework). Finally, after arrival, I signed up for an Intensive Burmese course for beginners at The French Institute in Yangon. Jumping into a class shortly after you move has many benefits and brings us to #3.


3.) Upon Arrival, Sign Up for a Class…. Stat!

It doesn’t have to be a language class, though for purely survival reasons I recommend starting there. (The downside for me is I now speak the most Burmese in our family so have to do all the taxi negotiations, restaurant ordering, and asking of directions…)

When you move somewhere new, suddenly you are a stranger. All your family and friends are thousands of miles away. Even the people from your old grocery store and coffee shop who said hi to you each day are nowhere to be found. The best way to start feeling normal again is to start putting yourself out there (sounds like dating!) and interacting both with locals as well as other expats.

This time around I didn’t have the luxury of having a new job to go to like I did in 2006 when I started working at The American University of Rome. I tend to make new friends easily through work so not having a job to go to at first was a bitter pill to swallow. My kids also started at a new International School that just opened up and we are one of the few non-Myanmar families, so there weren’t too many other expat parents to meet, at least not so far. So, failing those standbys, we need to go OLD SCHOOL. Yup… where did you make friends when you were a kid? At school! So try and sign up for something.

Great options include language classes, meditation groups, religious study groups, sports clubs, continuing education classes and more. Look for classes and other meet-up events for expats through groups like Internations as well as local Facebook and Google groups for expats in the city you just moved to. Try and join the expat groups BEFORE your move so you can make a few online friends and get information before you even set foot in your new home.)


4.) Helping Others Also Helps You

You may or may not know that moving to a new city or country is extremely taxing. Many people, despite brave faces and the best of intentions, end up depressed at first. It’s not easy starting a new life and you should give yourself the permission and space for both positive and negative emotions to pass through you. However, if you’re like me, you prefer to feel useful, happy, connected, and curious as opposed to down in the dumps. One great way to not only meet other locals and foreigners is to find ways to use your talents and skills to help the local community. -Ah yes… there’s that homework again!

While I was nosing around the internet before our move to see what was going on in Yangon, I came across a lovely little aid organization called The Aid Myanmar Society that were helping orphans in the Dala Township outside Yangon. I made contact with them and offered to help them raise funds for 23 orphans to attend school this year. I was able to do that from Rome, Italy months before we even got on the plane. But then what was especially gratifying was then going in person to meet the orphans once we were here in Myanmar. (You can see our visit on Youtube if you’d like!)

My last spot by Inya Lake before it got too hot.

       My last spot by Inya Lake before it got too hot and I got lost.

There are many many non-profit centers, schools, clubs, and individuals to help. You just have to find them and make contact. Not every situation is the right fit, so the key is to just pick something, get started, and see how it goes. Rinse and repeat.


5.) Now Go Get Lost

I just did anyway. In between this sentence and the last paragraph, my writing spot by Inya Lake got too sunny and hot. I went toward what I thought was a nice, civilized coffee shop and Myanmar Plaza but apparently took a wrong turn. I kept walking and walking, past nature, past more of the lake, past homes and markets. Now I’m halfway across town but now I know just a little bit more of it. I didn’t plan the long walk, but I’m all the wiser for having allowed myself to get lost.

So as long as you are safe (walking during the day in a generally safe area with other people around) then go get lost as well. It’s the best way to begin to orient yourself as well as clean out the cobwebs of your mind.

So those are just some of my top tips for making a smoother transition abroad. If you’d like some more, have a look at my new book with coauthor Jacqueline Seidel, Free At last: Live, Love, and Work Abroad as a 21st Century Global Citizen. And please leave your own best tips for a smooth move abroad in the comments! Thanks.