Tips On Being A Good Ex-Pat

As I write this, it’s already been over eight months since I moved to South Africa! Time flies without a doubt and it’s been quite the experience considering the longest I’ve been outside of America was 3 weeks prior to this. It’s an unique experience to live abroad, one that I think everyone should undertake if given the opportunity. It’s not always easy however. Thankfully, I don’t have to deal with a family or significant possessions, but even so, there are hardships to deal with. With the right preparation, proper expectations, and a sense of adventure, the transition can go smoothly.

Although I’m living in South Africa, a third world country by any standards, I think there are some things that are just universally accepted for all expats in any country. Here are some of the things I’ve learned, and wished someone would have told me before moving here! Being a good ex-pat isn’t easy, but here are some tips to help with the experience!


1. Remember your passport number

Get your passport(s) ready, and remember the number. It's your new ID.
Get your passport(s) ready, and remember the number. It’s your new ID.

Anyone who travels a lot, this is already a given. Anyone who strives to travel a lot, start memorizing this. Anyone living abroad, REMEMBER these damn digits! Pulling out a New York State drivers license will only elicit a “Oh empire state building? So cool” response at best. The passport is the universal ID all around the world. When you live abroad, you’ll likely need to set up new bank accounts, phone contracts, car payments, and just anything related to life. They’ll need some sort of identification and the passport number is that. Memorizing it will speed up filling out forms and the inevitable phone calls with sub-par customer service (at least in SA).

In addition to memorizing passport numbers, it’s imperative to have all important documents scanned and ideally saved online so it can be accessed at all times. The list of documents in no order of importance that I had to show over and over again were:

  • Photocopy of Passport
  • Photocopy of Work Visa within passport
  • Employment Contract
  • Proof of Residence (get your work to get this for you)
  • 3 months Bank statement (SA bank)
  • 3 months Paystubs


2. Sort out communication with home

Whether it's Skype, Facebook, IM+, Gchat, Viber, Tango... on your phones, tablets, and computers, make sure to have your communication figured out with home.
Whether it’s Skype, Facebook, IM+, Gchat, Viber, Tango…

This is pretty much a given. Everyone living abroad needs to communicate with their loved ones back home. Thankfully, in 2014, we no longer live in a world where we mail letters and resort to leaving voicemails but rather a world with communication at our fingertips readily available at all times. While some less developed countries may charge exorbitant international dialing fees, South Africa’s mobile carriers don’t charge all that much to call to the USA. Still, there are many free forms for communication. Skype used to be the golden source of communication internationally as it allows for video chats but with the advent of Google Talk, Viber, IM+, Facebook Chat, Facebook Calling (which allows you to have a phone conversation with anyone that has Facebook Messenger), there are so many tools at my disposal that it’s no issue to contact home.


3. Try your absolute hardest to think in the local currency if you’re getting paid in local currency

The South African Rand, my home and native currency.
The South African Rand, my home and native currency.

If you’re an expat making whatever your home currency is, this doesn’t really apply. I, for one, am making the local South African currency, the Rand. It was tough in the beginning to not convert everything to dollars. It’s only natural. You want to gauge how much everything costs in your new environment, and this is only possible by comparing it to what things cost back home, which was dollars in my case. However, this gets dangerous after awhile as certain things that may not seem expensive because you convert it to dollars, actually are expensive because I’m earning Rand. Too many times do I hear people here saying to me, “it’s just 50$”. The thing is, I haven’t earned a single dollar since I moved here.

USD/ZAR over the last year in all its ugliness (or beauty depending on which side you're on)
USD/ZAR over the last year in all its ugliness (or beauty depending on which side you’re on)

Since I’ve moved here the Rand has moved from 8.7 to 11.1!!! So something that was 1000R would have been 115$ upon arrival and now it’s only 90$. So in essence, if I kept thinking in dollars, this suddenly seems so much cheaper?!? Oh wait, fml, I don’t earn dollars anymore so 1000R costs exactly the same today as it did when I moved here 9 months ago. Don’t give yourself an excuse to pretend something is actually cheaper.

Of course, if you’ve saved a lot of dollars and are content running through the savings, this doesn’t apply either.


4. Make an effort to learn the local language

Yep. I want that tshirt.
Yep. I want that tshirt.

Having moved to an English speaking country in South Africa, I’m lucky that I don’t have to learn a new language. However, most countries don’t speak English so making any sort of concerted effort to learn the local language will likely drastically improve lifestyle. Aside from the French (and I can actually speak some French), every country that I’ve visited react so warmly to any sort of effort in speaking the local language. Whether it’s a few words, or a sentence, it’s the effort that counts and it’s a great ice breaker.

Although SA’s main language is English, it is home to 11 different languages and although I’ve made little effort to learn the big ones like Afrikaans and Zulu (some languages just aren’t meant to be for me), there are minute differences in the English spoken here, of which I’ve picked up on. I’m now an avid user of “howzit”, “bru”, and I’ve even caught myself saying ridiculous phrases like “just now” and “is it” (pronounced izzit). I’m sure I’ll immediately stop saying these words when I move home but my life is here now so why the hell not embrace these ridiculous phrases? No one else thinks I sound ridiculous after all.

I’ve also taken it to another level these days. South Africans have a hard time registering the R sound. Now that I think about it, all English speaking countries outside of America and Canada pronounce R like an “ah” sound instead of an “arrrr”. Example is when I first went to KFC here, I wanted to order the spicy zinger burger. Speaking into the intercom, “Hi I’d like two zinger burgers” elicited a confused response and it took me ages to tell the person helping me what I meant. They kept saying “Zingah buhgah?” and I would respond, yes “Zinger Burger”. This went back and forth a few times before they finally got my order. Fast forward till the present day, I’ve learned that if you can’t beat them, you gotta join them. Nowdays when I go to KFC, I will pull right in and say, “Hello, I’d like a zingahh buhgahh please, just the buhgahh”. No more questions. No more confusion. Just my buhgahh.


5. Live like a local and be open minded

While a new expat may naturally seek out other expats from the same home, it’s only natural and comfortable, especially in non English speaking countries. Nevertheless, most people in the world can speak English nowadays so there’s no reason not to befriend local people. South Africa, as it turns out, has a love affair with American culture and I’ve found the people to be pretty similar to Americans back home, except they all speak funny. Nothing beats experiencing something through the locals eyes. The experiences you’ll get will probably be much more memorable and unique.


6. Try the food until you realize you don’t like it.

Lamb Spitbraai, a very South African delicacy. Can't complain about this one...
Lamb Spitbraai, a very South African delicacy. Can’t complain about this one…

Well this may be easier for me than others. Food is my one passion in life that rivals all else. Everywhere I travel to, I make it a point to experience the local cuisine and hit up all the top restaurants. I’m like a vacuum when it comes to food. Unless it’s extremely strange insect type (though I’m not opposed to this) foods, or extreme emphasis on internal organs, I’ll try anything once. Thankfully, South Africa doesn’t deviate too much from the norm and steakhouses and seafood restaurants dominate the landscape. As for the native cuisine, there really is nothing uniquely South African as it is such a diverse country. The only things I can think of that are uniquely South African are things like Biltong (although this is Namibian too), Potjie, Bobotie, Bunny Chow, and Malva pudding. There is a large variety of game meats and I think I’ve eaten my way through many of the animals seen on a standard game drive!

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I'm a dual Canadian-American from NYC that moved to South Africa for work and ended up traveling all through the continent. I'm currently living the expat life in Frankfurt, Germany and traveling the world as much as I can. I'm a bit obsessed with scuba diving, churning credit cards so I never pay to fly, and eating the most questionable of foods in the most peculiar of places. My bucket list is the world, and some day I might make it there.

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