In this interview, Sandra shared her expat story with us.
Tell us about your expat move?
My whole working career has been international. I’d usually stayed maybe a month or two months max in whatever place I was working in. I’ve worked in Asia, all across Africa, Europe, South America and North America, but I’d never lived permanently in another country.
The opportunity came up in 2016 when I was working for the African Wildlife Foundation. They asked me to split my time between my home in Washington DC and Kenya, where their headquarters were.
That meant spending two months there and then a month home and then back. So that gave me great exposure to Kenya and I fell in love with the country.
So coming here was probably easier for me compared to those moving to a place without being there before. I already had a good sense of international work and being in Kenya especially. I think that helps out a lot.
Depending on the type of organisation you are joining for work, they may not be able to handle every part of the move. So I think if you are moving for work, it is best to keep that in mind. Try and be mentally ready for that.
In my case, I enlisted friends to connect me with estate agents, banks, drivers, etc. and managed to find a serviced residence near my office. I think anyone making a move may need to mentally prepare to be self-sufficient while working at the pace of the local culture and not expect their company/organization to take care of all your needs.
I always recommend that people visit the country beforehand as well. If an employer is recruiting you, try and ask them to fly you over so that you can get a lay of the land beforehand.
What did you find were the best ways of making friends as an expat abroad?
Most of my friends have come from former companies I worked for and through networks I had back home – namely my graduate school club (Fletcher Club).
I made an effort in the first year to only socialize with local people as opposed to other expats in order to assimilate and understand the culture in more depth. In my job, I was one of only three international hires and the only westerner, so it was important that I learn as much as possible in terms of cultural and business norms.
I had a chance to come to Kenya for work several years before I made the move. That gave me exposure to the culture and way of life and also provided a foundation for friendships I had made at that time. I would highly recommend anyone considering a move to visit and spend time in that country first.
Just how important is it to have accommodation sorted before you go?
Yes I think it can be very helpful to have accommodation ready before you move. Depending on where you are going, my advice would be to put the to-do list aside a little bit, and instead, try and go at the pace of the country you are in. Patience is a big virtue.
People do watch you and observe you, so they may try and test you. It can add a level of stress but it is important to remember that making an expat move is exciting and it’s a big adventure. So you should soak in every moment of that.
The way I like to see it is that it is an amazing adventure that not many people in the world get to take.
How did you find moving to Kenya?
I have a great story that I tell a lot, when I was taking on the role at African Wildlife Foundation, it was a role based in DC, and it was literally right down the street from my apartment.
After almost 6 months of recruiting me, I was asked if I wanted to move to Kenya for the job. Before then, I had never even been to Kenya.
So I thought about it, maybe for about 60 seconds on the phone, about me moving there. We then decided it would be possible to split the role between the U.S. and Kenya.
It was a huge risk. I flew to Africa with some of my colleagues and I remember being a bit overwhelmed at first. I arrived and thought to myself, “What have I done?”
But I quickly fell in love with the place. I think there is something deep inside people that connects them with the Africa region.
It feels like home to so many people and the people here are just fantastic. I’ve never looked back since that first trip.
How much do you enjoy being an expat?
Whatever place you are living in, it becomes part of you. I realised early on, that I need to adapt to Kenya, not the other way around. For me, I just clicked with Kenya very well and I really loved it.
I did a lot of observation when I first arrived here and noticed there was a lot slower pace compared to what I was used to back in my city days in the US.
That works well there but it definitely isn’t the same in East Africa where it is a much slower pace. I really feel like I am so different now compared to how I was four years ago when I first came here.
It has had a beneficial change and allowed me to be more relaxed. I’ve also really grown in terms of listening to others, respecting others and really just taking life as it comes.
What have been some of the biggest highlights from your expat journey so far?
The biggest highlight for me has been the amount of travel and interaction around the continent I have been able to do and the extraordinary people I have met. It really does change you fundamentally.
In Kenya, the concept of ‘Hakuna Matata’ is now deeply embedded in my way of being and now I am much more at ease with life. There is also a respect for others and a civility to life here that I love, and I think it is what separates Kenya from many other countries.
The added bonus is you are able to view your country of origin and culture from an external perspective. Over time, you start to see patterns and have a more balanced view. The more time moves on, the more you start to lose some of that cultural imprint.
What advice would you give to those who are considering making an expat move?
Although you come to one country, you will interact with different cultures within it – either large immigrant communities who settled years back or different cultures geographically spread out in the country. So, you may not be adapting just to one culture, you may have to adapt to others as well. Flexibility is the key.
Simplifying is another key. Go easy on the to-do list. When you arrive in country, breathe. Things will not go perfectly to your plan. Matter of fact, skip the plan altogether or any stories or outcomes you have in your mind as to how things will progress/become. They won’t and possibly something better will happen in its place.
What have been some of the biggest challenges so far?
The biggest challenge in the beginning was adapting my style of working and the pace at which I was conducting my life to the local context. In other words, learning patience. Having the earlier exposure helped me greatly as any mistakes I made, I had started to learn from.
As a woman, there was some typecasting in effect within the different communities I interacted with. The great part about that is local women started to ask me why I may have spoken up in a meeting or why I asked questions of the CEO or why I felt comfortable going places alone, unaccompanied by a man. I would then explain why.
Over time, I saw them become more confident in their self-expression and individuality. That’s a key element for expats to consider, it is not only your evolution within the cultural exchange, you also leave an imprint on your environment.
Observing is also super important. How does everyone great each other? How do others interact in the office? I would highly recommend that expats take their time and not try to operate as they normally do.
Instead take time – weeks/months – and observe others around you. Socialize with them and ask questions. Find one local person who you can trust that you can go to and ask for cultural and behavioral guidance.
What do you miss about your home country?
The level of freedom you have in the US and the outspokenness of life there. Oh, and ice cream from my home town. There’s nothing like the ice cream from the dairy farms in Massachusetts. I measure my time away by when I last had an ice cream cone.
How much do you enjoy being an expat?
I really enjoy it. Being an expat enables you to challenge yourself and experience new ways of living and working. It’s almost like you are clay interacting with an artist’s chisel.
Each interaction imprints on you and changes you until you are moulded into a new version of your old self.
What would you say to someone considering a move?
If you feel like it will help you to advance in your career, or see the world in a different way, then go for it. Try to have a purpose for your move. If you are younger and exploring a gap year, some countries like the US don’t have that, and I think that is a terrific concept.
A lot of expats never go back permanently. Prepare for the outcome to be different from what you expected. Home is such an intrinsic part of who you are so severing that tie can be challenging, but the expat move is so rewarding.
What would be the one piece of advice you wish you’d known before moving?
There is truth to the notion that you can never go home again. You can go home but you will do it as a different version of yourself than before and will view things differently.
At the same time, your country and culture has also evolved, and you may not recognize it or fall out of step with the latest news, slang, style, etc. You may start to feel between two worlds and that you belong nowhere, but that is part of the process, especially in the first six months to a year.
Finally, how would you summarise your expat journey?
It has been extraordinary; it has permanently changed the way I view the world and my place in it.
Or to quote Robert Frost “Two roads diverged in a wood, I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”
To read more of our Expat Stories, please click here.