Moving Across the World in Your 30s

Growing up, I always considered myself very lucky to have traveled quite a bit with my family, from short weekend trips to nearby cities and states to a few trips to other countries. It definitely lent itself to nurturing a bit of wanderlust in me. I would feel myself longing to travel somewhere to explore different places and varied cultures if I had stayed in one location for too long.  So naturally when an opportunity arose for my spouse and me to take an expatriate assignment to Sakhalin, Russia, I was very excited and happily accepted.

A view of the Sakhalin Energy Prigorodnoye LNG jetty from a nearby public beach in Prigorodnoye.


Taking the plunge

As you might imagine, there is a lot of preparation that goes into getting yourself and your family members moved abroad, including lots of questions to answer and things to consider such as whether to bring family pets along, whether to travel together, whether any additional vaccinations or preventative medications are needed, when do the passports expire, etc. 

For me, life went a bit upside down in a hurry when it went from a hypothetical “Would you…” question to sitting on a plane with a multiyear visa in my passport and an extra-heavy winter coat in my carry-on suitcase for the still-frigid weather of my April arrival.  From start to finish, the whole process was only about two or three months before we were on our way to our new home. 

Preparing for the transition

I tried to do my best to prepare myself before the move by reading some blogs and articles online about the expatriate experience. Most of them talked about the ups and downs that come along with moving to another culture, from the initial honeymoon phase to culture shock before finally adapting.  One thing which helped ease my own culture shock was spending time during my preparation phase to learn the Cyrillic alphabet and some basic Russian phrases. This paid huge dividends on early trips to the store to be able to read labels (albeit slowly) and make sure I was buying shampoo and not conditioner or body wash! 

A view of the author's dogs on a snowy morning in Russia.


Expat life and its realities

One part of expatriate life that can be both good and bad is that expat communities tend to be fairly tightly knit.  Naturally, all of you can relate to each other a bit more readily as foreigners living outside of your home country. This can also lend itself to living inside of an “expat bubble,” where you only spend time with other expats because it feels more comfortable and gives you a break from the sense of being on the outside. 
I have found that this actually makes me feel a bit more isolated and lonely, as it underscores the “otherness” instead of embracing and exploring differences with locals. So while it is great to have a built-in support community, I highly encourage branching out and experiencing the host country and culture.

For me, the last eighteen months of living in Russia have been very eye opening and a huge growth opportunity, both personally and professionally. I have been able to act as a mentor and a role model for local engineers while receiving more responsibility than previous assignments. I have also become a more deliberate and effective communicator. As for culture shock, my best advice is to try to embrace the differences and keep an open mind. If you spend all of your time feeling homesick or wishing things were different, you will miss the beauty of what things already are. Fortunately for me, my two dogs always remind me to enjoy life and stop to roll in the snow!

Stay tuned for an upcoming post about this chemical engineer's worklife in Russia.