Becoming a Glomad: A beginners guide to living abroad

OK first things first, what is a glomad? Well, it’s a word I made up because none of the existing ones – expat, migrant, emigrant – really captured the life experience I wanted to convey.

Glomad stands for:

  • Global – People who see themselves as citizens of the word, whose everyday life is an international experience, and whose perspective on things reflects the same. 
  • Local – As international as they are in outlook, glomads are also expert at ‘growing where they are planted’ - embedding themselves in local life for as long they happen to live there. In this sense, glomads can be quite different from traditional expats who move from enclave to enclave seeking little contact with the locals in each place.
  • Nomadic – The perpetual movement of glomads is what distinguishes them from the emigrant who moves somewhere and stays. Always moving on to somewhere other than the place they call home is what distinguishes them from other temporary migrants who go to live abroad, then come straight back home again.

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Some common paths to glomading

The self-initiated approach is the most common path for Kiwis, though many have no intention of becoming a glomad when they first set off on their big OE. Then they fall in love with a foreigner, or their visa runs out, but they don’t want to come home and decide to go somewhere else instead. Maybe the initial impetus to leave NZ is to get ahead professionally - to gain experience in multiple markets en route to the C-suite. Or, the self-initiated path becomes more career focused and a job in your first port of call leads to an intra-company transfer or two…or three. Then there are the trailing spouses, those indispensable husbands and wives, who often sacrifice their own life goals or career plans to support a spouse’s perpetual wanderlust, career prospects or both.

The glomadic lifecycle – Regardless of which path you take, the experience is more or less the same:

1.  Weird is the new normal

The first phase – setting up and settling down - will take at least the first year in each place. This phase is focused on survival needs – finding somewhere to live, setting up services, finding your way around and navigating the shops.

In English speaking countries, there is often an assumption that this will be more straightforward than in countries that are not, but even with a shared language, practices around renting property, hooking up utilities, job hunting and shopping can be quite different from what you are used to at home.

The only thing you can be sure of is that the first year or so will be a real learning curve and that you will experience a roller coaster of emotions to match. You'll quickly discover that all the assumptions you brought with you (but didn’t know you had) about what’s normal and how things ‘should be done’ are entirely arbitrary and not what anyone else in your new country might consider ‘common sense’.

Giving yourself time, suspending judgement and expecting everything to be a bit weird – at least until you’ve done everything for the first time – is a good way to approach each move, secure in the knowledge that whatever felt weird when you first arrived will be what you carry with you as normal when you go on to the next place.

2.  Hello, will you be my new friend?

The first few months are often a flurry of activity as you navigate the new place but, once you’re through the survival phase, boredom and loneliness can set in and it’s time to make some new friends.

Making friends as an adult can be difficult and many underestimate the time and effort required to meet people you actually like and want to connect with. Other glomads may be your best bet initially but given their penchant for travel and the likelihood that they will leave at some point, it’s also important to befriend some locals and connect with the community in which you now live.

International networks like Inter Nations, are a good place to start meeting other glomads. Meet-ups and groups centred on interests ad hobbies may be a better way to connect with locals. At some point you will probably want to connect with other Kiwis. This is usually in the second half of the first year, when you’re exhausted from all the newness and just want to connect socially without having to try too hard. ‘Kiwis In’ facebook groups, NZ Society networks and local KEA events are good ways to do this.

3.  So, who are you?

It’s not until you move to a new place where no-one knows you that you have to consider who you really are. Stripped of all your external markers – family connections, friendship networks, educational status and, quite possibly your job – you are now entirely reliant on your personality, character and behaviour to see you through.

For some, this can be quite confronting, unused as they are to having to explain themselves or prove their worth through merit alone. For others it is liberating - no longer encumbered by the assumptions and expectations of others that boxed them into a particular role or position in their previous life – they get to figure out who they actually want to be.

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Why do it?

Traipsing around from country to country, constantly starting anew and leaving again just as you’ve made a few friends, figured out how things work and where you fit in, may seem like an odd way to live your life. However, the way I see it, there are some real benefits to living your life (or at least part of it) on the road.

Living your life on a constant, conscious learning curve can be both humbling and confidence building in equal measure. Constantly being in the position of novice can shake your confidence, at least in the early days but as you go through this process again and again, you realise that you can learn and adapt to anything if you are curious, open minded and patient enough.

Go through a few cycles of this and you become much more confident in your ability to deal with whatever comes next.

Increasing your Globility Quotient (GQ)

If you are thinking this might be the life for you but you’re not quite ready to head off into the great unknown, there are a few things you can do to develop the skills that will stand you in good stead as a glomad.

Say yes to invitations you would normally ignore. As one wag quipped, ‘you’ll say yes to a letter opening’ when you first move abroad, so desperate are you to get out of the house and be in the company of others. While there, you might meet some people you wouldn’t normally come across in your life as usual, which opens up the possibility of making new friends. 

Cultivating some location independent hobbies that you can do alone can also be useful for managing the solitude that often characterises the glomad experience, especially in the first year. Swimming, yoga, arts, crafts or even puzzling might be avenues to explore. These can also provide a much needed constant in your life when all around you is in a state of flux.

Tricia Alach Square 400x400By Tricia Alach

Tricia Alach is a freelance consultant specialising in leadership development, talent management and OD. She has recently returned to live in NZ after 12 years as a glomad living in the Netherlands, the UK and the US. She is also the author of How to have a Happy Homecoming blog, which tells the stories of Kiwis returning to live in NZ. Feel free to connect via LinkedIn.

Feel like you want something more? This blog is based on a seminar delivered for the University of Auckland Business School Alumni network. To watch the full presentation, click here.