Back in 2016, while I was working from the Wix headquarters in Tel Aviv, a colleague of mine built an app that shuffles random names of employees and matches them for a joint lunch. In a company with so many workers from all over the world, from many teams and departments, my favorite thing to do was to talk to new people. Through this app I met a developer from Morocco and a social media specialist from France, and thought to myself, there’s nothing cooler than that – meeting the people you’re normally trying to guess where their accents are from, hearing their life stories and showing them a good time in your city. But as fun as it was, after a while, my new foreign friends met other fellow foreigners to hang out with, and I carried on with my local social life and my group of Israeli friends. Only today, when I myself am an alien in a foreign country, I feel what it’s like to be on the other side.
Working abroad is a trend brought to us by talented millenials and companies that aim to appeal to international markets. Whether it’s for language reasons or top recruiting strategies, the new international designers and developers have created a sphere where different cultures and perspectives are mixed into a unique type of work environment. It’s a new kind of VIP immigration, where the process of moving might be easier and smoother, with better paychecks and all those well-known hi-tech perks – yet the process at its core is as complex as any big change in life.
Imagine all the little things you experience everyday, minute by minute. Things like communicating with people, running errands, doing your shopping, commuting, working, building relationships, seeing family, and on and on. Most of these things come naturally to you. You go about your day automatically, to the point that if someone would ask you about it, you wouldn’t even remember most of these tiny actions that are just another part of your routine.
Now picture yourself doing all of that in a new country, where the culture is unfamiliar to you and the language is different. And no friends or family nearby. All of these million little automatic things you do – shopping in the grocery store, buying a train ticket, talking to your neighbor – become brand new. All of a sudden, small-talk brings anxiety, a run to the shop feels like a failure and alongside these harsh feelings of incompetence, you have no one around to support you. This is what most foreigners feel in their first year of moving to a foreign country, and this is pretty much how I felt myself.
Two years after my big move, I know today that I’m not alone in this. With that comforting truth in mind, I decided to gather three of my Wix colleagues from different parts of the world, who all took a giant step towards the unknown. We hopped on a heart-to-heart conference call to talk about our shared experiences as aliens in our new homes.
The fantastic four
Alex Gerasimov, a senior software engineer at Wix, moved from Minsk, Belarus, to Berlin, Germany, three years ago to find something new. “I wanted to experience living in another country and culture, and Berlin is multicultural and foreign enough.”
Robbie Sims, a UX product designer on the Wix Editor Team, moved from San Francisco to Tel Aviv two years ago for the opportunity to check relocation off of her bucket list. “I was offered an opportunity to enter the Talents Program four years ago, a three-month-long annual design interview at the Wix Tel Aviv offices. I fell in love with the city, the job, the food, the Tel Avivian culture, and obviously the people. When I was offered a permanent position on the Editor Team, I packed my bags and swooped that baby up!”
Strahinja Janjusevic, a product designer on the Wix Editor Team, moved from Serbia to Tel Aviv, less than a year ago for different reasons. “I have a girlfriend here in Israel, we’ve been together for a long time, but a lot of this time we’ve spent apart. I was studying in Italy while she was in Serbia, and when I finished university, I moved back home to Serbia, but then she moved to Israel. So a year later, I thought it’s time to do something about it.”
And myself, Dafna, a web designer who moved from Tel Aviv to Berlin. My husband Alex is American, and after two and a half years of living together in my home country, he didn’t find his place. Berlin was one of the places he always wanted to live in, and since it’s a city that respects the arts and because I’ve always wanted to live abroad, we decided to make the big move. Thankfully, Wix had offices in Berlin so I was able to fulfill my dream and keep my job.
Moving is hard. Saying goodbye is harder
Being able to make such a big move is truly awesome, but then there’s saying goodbye. The thing about leaving your friends and family behind is that you don’t take into consideration how hard it is not only for you, but for them. “When leaving,” says Alex, “you need to know you’re leaving people you love but most importantly, people that love you. You constantly need to make them feel that they are still part of your life, so my advice to anyone who’s trying to leave the nest is to accept that the nest will follow you.”
After all that emotional goodbye comes the big move you’ve been preparing for a while. Moving to Berlin, the one thing I didn’t expect is how judgmental I would become towards myself. Every small thing that I didn’t succeed in felt like the biggest failure, and it affected other experiences as well. I was so stressed and feeling down that making friends just wasn’t an option, and the language barrier didn’t help the situation. The most trivial things like speaking to someone on the street or asking for help seemed impossible. “ When I started working with my team,” Robbie adds, “it was very hard, especially with the language. I was new and felt uncomfortable to ask that discussions be switched to English, but otherwise they’d be in Hebrew. It felt almost impossible to do my job. I didn’t expect it would take so long to establish stronger connections with people.” Strahinja’s experience was quite the opposite to Robbie’s, yet surprisingly no less difficult. “When I just arrived to work, everyone was super polite to me and spoke English with me. But as time passed they got comfortable again speaking to each other in Hebrew and leaving me out.”
The key to fit in is language
Soon after a few months of living in our new homes, it became clear to all of us that learning a new language, is the one thing that can burst your own bubble. “Learning the local language is almost unavoidable if you want to integrate into the society and integration really has its perks,” says Alex. It begged one important question for him: “Why move to a country and not be able to explore its culture which happens to be accessible through learning the local language?”
While that seems like the right thing to do, it’s far from the easiest choice as Robbie would argue. “Moving to Tel Aviv, I hit the ground running with no intention of staying longer than a year,” she remembers. “At that time the most important focus was the gain in work experience I would obtain. So, learning the language fell to the wayside and didn’t seem as relevant then as it does now that I find myself starting year three.”
Learning a new language takes time, so while doing it, my advice is to try and shake that embracing feeling you get when you’re breaking your teeth trying to pronounce a word, and add your sense of humor to the situation. And if that’s not working for you, take it from Strahinja, who made learning the language into a nobel mission. “I want to learn more because I owe it to all these good people that speak English only for me every day.”
Always remember why you did this
Talking to fellow foreigners helps put your struggle in perspective and makes a great outlet. But when in a foreign country, far from your friends and family, the important thing is to remember why you did this to begin with and be thankful for the opportunities you created for yourself. For Strahinja it’s about being with his true love. For Robbie it’s about gaining a new sense of responsibility in life: “I have no family members and few close friends who have moved to a different country. People seem to be curious and they maybe even look up to you. Doing this makes you feel a bit like you have your shit together,” she laughs.
One thing that did it for me was my new found headspace. Coming from Israel, where culturally, family and friends are super close, sometimes it feels as if you don’t get enough mental space. Moving to Berlin physically freed some space for me, and now the quality of my relationships with friends and family have actually improved. Visits as well, though short, have become really meaningful and fun. For Alex, it was about the experience. “you get to see your country, your people, yourself, from the outside. How you can do things differently, live differently. It gives you just a whole new outlook on life in general and hopefully you become a bit wiser.”
On to the next one
It’s ironic how once you count your blessings and are finally at peace with the giant step you took, is also when you suddenly open yourself up for a chance to go through this again. “It doesn’t feel scary anymore once you’ve done it”, Robbie points out. Having already moved country twice before, Strahinja says that he now knows that he can move again whenever he wants. “I’m planning on doing so in the future”, he promises. Like him, Alex has embraced a new approach to life.”I moved once, now I’m like a tumbleweed. I don’t have so many things in my apartment and I can see myself moving again in the future as well.”
Hearing my colleagues expressing their new found strength with such confidence, filled me with a sense of belonging. We all left a familiar home in the hope of creating an even better one for ourselves. In the process of doing so, we became part of an exclusive club that is responsible for creating the current work environment in tech companies around the world. Moving was a big step for all of us, but perspective puts it in its rightful place. Yes, it can get lonely at times, but we’re definitely not alone.