How moving to another country can change you

How moving to another country can change you

Exploring what it takes to step right out of the familiar into the great unknown - as you do when you move to brand new country for the very first time

By Sukayna Kazmi

Published: Fri 16 Aug 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 23 Aug 2019, 11:19 AM

Is the grass always greener on the other side? There's often no way to know, except to make a giant leap of faith - even if it means uprooting yourself to a land thousands of miles away, where you likely don't know a soul, in search of those better prospects. Some do it for love, others for better education, far more for the chance to build a better career. Whatever the motivation, the move is one marked by much struggle but also of triumph. It's every expat's story - and the lessons learnt never get old.

Struggle is the expat's code
Pakistani expat Muhammad Hussain recalls the struggle of moving to Dubai in 1992. "It was a new place for me, with new people and a new language. And I was on my own," says the now-53-year-old, who believes challenges in life are not anything to be afraid of, as they are inevitable. It's a pragmatic approach he credits with getting him through.
Muhammad ended up switching jobs - and careers - multiple times, as he worked his way higher up the ladder of professional success. One of his very first jobs was as a cashier, and he tells of how starting small is often the reality of expats. During particularly tough times, he admits he was sorely tempted to give everything up and move back home. But then he'd remind himself that he'd come here seeking a better future and that, if things worked out, he would earn triple the amount he would back home.
One such time involved a former company refusing to cancel his visa, forcing him to remain jobless for three months. Though those days were riddled with anxiety, he's grateful for friends, who got him through by taking care of his needs. He finally managed to join another firm, where he worked for 14 years, making his way up to the head of the division. Today, Muhammad heads his own company in Sharjah, and has even helped other family members find jobs in the country.
Ask him if he'd wish for a different route up to the top, and he declines. "I would never change anything that happened in my past, because my past prepared me for future challenges. It gave me more power to reach where I am today," says the entrepreneur.
If there's any advice he could give his ambitious 26-year-old self, it would be this: "Have a clear target in mind that you want to achieve. It's crucial for when you're moving to another country. I came here willing to take on any work I could find. But I believe that if I'd come here with a specific target, it wouldn't have taken me so long to excel." Nothing is going to come easy, he cautions. "You will struggle - but you may also be able to build a whole new future there."

LEAP OF FAITH: (from left to right) Muhammad Hussain, Marwan Mohamed Eliwa, Andleeb Zahra Parhar
One giant learning curve
Attitude is everything, when it comes to making such a big move. For students who choose to move abroad for higher education, the journey can be particularly life-defining. The experience - daunting yet exciting - is just part of the parcel that comes with such growth. And learning new things was Egyptian native Marwan Mohamed Eliwa's goal when he decided to move from Dubai to the Netherlands after high school.
"I chose to study there because I didn't want to move to a country where English was commonly spoken. I wanted to learn a new language - which I quite enjoy - and Dutch is the spoken language here," says the 20-year-old, speaking by telephone from The Netherlands.
When Marwan made the move a couple of years ago, he was just 18, but his family was very supportive of his decision. And there was a lot to learn. It took him 7-8 months to learn the language alone. "The first couple of weeks were the hardest," he shares. "To find a way to commute to university, learn to prepare food - all while not knowing anyone and leaving behind family and friends. It was really hard." Thanks to his social skills and determination to keep learning, however, Marwan managed to settle within a month.
He's quick to note that it's not everyone's story. Sometimes, homesickness can outweigh the desire to grow. Marwan recounts the time his friend quit and moved back home, because he just could not adjust to the new surroundings and missed his family too much. "I don't think it's for everyone," he says. "I know many who were so attached to their parents that when they got away, they got depressed, and had to go back, because they just couldn't handle it. Personally, as much as it's sad that I don't have my parents here with me, making decisions every day is really helping me learn and adapt as an individual."
The most challenging thing to learn for him was to cook and keep the house clean. Back in Dubai, he recalls, the food was always ready for him and the house was always clean. "I was basically living off junk food everyday (not something I'd recommend!), until I eventually learnt how to cook," he says with a laugh. "I was asking myself questions I'd never bothered asking before. Things like: do I have the ingredients to prepare this recipe?"
Living alone brought him independence, but a whole lot of responsibilities too. For Marwan, moving out was all about learning from the very beginning, but he adds, it doesn't end once you settle down. Two years in, and he is still learning something new every step of the way.

For better or worse
Not all expats move for themselves. Some do so for their better halves. Twenty-six-year-old Andleeb Zahra Parhar is one such partner, who recently moved from Canada to Dubai, where her husband resides.
The greatest thing that helped her prepare for the big move were the discussions and mutual understanding the couple shared before they got married. "My husband and I discussed a lot of things before I moved, how we'd work together to get my licence transferred, get a car, help me find work and more. It was those conversations that prepped me and helped me understand that moving out to Dubai didn't necessarily mean my life was going to turn upside down," says Andleeb.
These are big decisions that should be thought out carefully, she says. "Take your time in getting to know the person you're moving for and ensuring that you are on the same page because, at the end of the day, you're giving up a lot for that person. If you just get caught up in the emotional aspect of it without really figuring out if you both see life the same way or want the same things out of life, then it's just going to make things 100 times harder."
And research will be key, she adds. From talking to people who have had the same experience to getting to know your spouse's family better, be clear about what to expect. It's one way to avoid harbouring resentment over what you may later perceive as lost opportunities for yourself. A nurse by profession, she tells of how her husband's support - whether she wants to work or study further - means the world to her. "The decision to pursue whatever gives me purpose is completely up to me and he's said we'll work through whatever needs to be done together."
Quite naturally, she misses her family very much. "It's very different knowing your mom is no longer five minutes away or that you can't just meet up with your sisters for a lunch date. I don't feel the void though, because my family here has been so great."
Growing up, she never imagined that she'd end up moving countries, let alone continents. "I never envisioned this for myself. The furthest I planned to be away from home was the States - certainly not crossing the Atlantic Ocean."
But that's what you do when you love someone, she says; you move not because you have to, but because you want to. "I think it's really beautiful to love someone so much that you're willing to leave everything behind for them. Marriage is a huge commitment in itself, a declaration of forever loyalty. Buying myself a one-way ticket just solidified that commitment."
Life is filled with decisions that may change our lives forever. Sometimes, we're afraid of these decisions because of the size of the 'jump' it involves. However, it is these very decisions that often allow us to experience life to the fullest. So, do your research well - and jump!

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