What Not to Do: A List for Expats

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Today Go. Serve. Love is pumped to welcome back Rachel Pieh Jones–marathon runner, camel rider, mom, cookbook author of Djiboutilicious, and general all-out lover of Djibouti. This post originally appeared on her blog, Djibouti Jones.

From Rachel’s blog, Djibouti Jones: this post has stirred up controversy and passion that I confess I was naively not prepared for. I understand that many feel judged and I can see why and I apologize. This is not a list of commandments and it is a list of things I have done/still do. It is not a call for feelings of guilt or failure. It is not a perfect list based on research or facts. Mostly, it was meant to be a fun way to look at the choices we make as expats, with tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, which doesn’t translate well via the written word. I’m not going to change the post to soften the reactions people bring to it, I’m simply saying that I hear you, I’m sorry to have caused offense, and I’m human, both as an expat and as a blogger.

*Here is a helpful resource for expatriates, by Clara Wiggins

Hey all you expatshere are some things we need to stop doing. You’ll last longer overseas, enrich your time, leave a more positive impression, and you will never be the same. (Confession: I’ve done/do all of them myself, so an added bonus, #21 Remember no one is stagnant.)

  1. Stop complaining.

    It’s too hot, too cold, too expensive, too religious, too confusing. Keep it up and that’s all you will see. Concentrate on the good things, repeat those, talk about those. You’ll discover even more.

  2. Stop putting off language learning.

    No one is too busy to learn at least a few words in the local language. But if you are planning an extended stay, don’t be a burden on coworkers or shopkeepers. Make their day by putting in the time, effort, and laughter to honor their language.

  3. Stop judging other expatriates.

    You don’t know their motivations or thought processes. You don’t know the life circumstances and lessons that have brought them to make certain choices in lifestyle or clothing or food or behavior. Learn from their experience, take their advice with a grain of salt, and then forge your own way.

  4. Stop leaving the country for vacation.

    Take a vacation in-country. Experience local resorts or camping, find off the beaten path places to stay. Ask locals for suggestions and you will find unique locations and relationships.

  5. Stop hanging out with other expatriates.

    Knock on your neighbor’s door and ask for help, soon you might be drinking tea and learning to cook a local specialty. Learn the name of the neighborhood shopkeeper. Ask a local for help finding hardware supplies or fixing the plumbing. Celebrate local holidays with gusto.

  6. Stop shipping everything from abroad.

    Can’t find the brand of laundry detergent you used in the United States? People do wash clothes in your new country. Ask their opinion on brands. You might find something you like even better.

  7. Stop your addiction to social media.

    You won’t stumble into the best gelato café on the planet if you’re on Facebook. You won’t start to appreciate local television shows or music if you’re glued to Twitter. Turn it off and get outside.

  8. Stop trying to fix everything. 

    Yes, the stairs might be crooked and construction workers could have need of new skills. Yes, the lack of lines at grocery stores isn’t what you are used to. Yes, the buses don’t drive between the lines, neither does anyone else come to think of it. This is how it is. Enjoy speeding into the wrong-way lane or elbowing someone out of the way.

  9. Stop expecting your spouse/children/coworkers to have the same experience as you.

    Expect a range of emotions. Expect some things to make you laugh and your child cry. Expect to learn language and cultural appropriateness at different paces. Listen to each other and check in often to see how everyone is doing.

  10. Stop taking yourself so seriously. 

    You won’t make it if you can’t laugh about the language faux pas or the time you got ripped off in the market or about when you wore your local dress inside out by accident and everyone thought you were announcing that your husband was looking for a second wife.

  11. Stop thinking you know the place after a year or two or ten.

    There is always something more to learn, look for it and appreciate it. Share the knowledge you’ve gained with newcomers but let them discover on their and come to their own conclusions.

  12. Stop pretending you still live in your home country.

    Try new food and new fashions. Try a new way of walking – maybe a contemplative sway instead of a purposeful march. Use local hand gestures and don’t insist ‘your’ way is the best way.

  13. Stop ignoring beggars.

    That doesn’t mean to start giving to them, decide your own convictions on that, after seeking local counsel. But look at them and talk to them. Ask their names and listen to their stories.

  14. Stop ignoring local press and events.

    Subscribe to the newspaper, watch local news reports. Find out what is happening. Go to the music festivals. Ask about parades or about who died when you see a funeral procession. Learn the customs.

  15. top shopping at expat stores. 

    Prices will be jacked up and you won’t meet the farmer who grows organic tomatoes. You won’t find the hidden garden, the only place in town to find spinach.

  16. Stop saying what you won’t/can’t/shouldn’t/don’t do.

    Be curious and adventurous and courageous. You’ll make mistakes. Shake it off. Don’t refuse the neighborhood playground because a slide looks tippy. Kids have been sliding down it for decades, why not yours?

  17. Stop being afraid.

    At that park? Your kid might step on a nail. You’ve got your vaccinations, right? Pull it out and play on, or go to the doctor. Get to know people. Learn how to get around the city in a bus. The more familiar things feel, the less scary they will seem.

  18. Stop thinking you can solve the country’s problems. 

    As an outsider you can see them clearly (or think you can) and as you gain credibility, you might be able to offer suggestions. But don’t go around telling everyone what to do and how to do it or telling other expats about how badly things are run.

  19. Stop boasting.

    Don’t boast to newbies about how long you have been here or about all the terrible things you’ve been through or about how perfectly you have adapted. Don’t boast to the people back home about how wonderfully you are handling this difficult new place. Stay humble and keep learning. Share your stories but not as the center of attention.

  20. Stop forgetting to call your mom.

    Communicate with the people you have left behind. It will make it that much easier for them to understand you when you return, filled with fun stories and fascinating experiences, and missing the place you bonded with.


I’ve done all these things (shipped that container this year) and still do a lot of them (sorry mom) and (I’ll be at Casino, the main expat grocery store this afternoon) but aren’t we all on a ‘journey’ anyway? Most of us are chameleon expats but I, for one, would like to keep trying to change and grow and improve.

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