Thoughts & Tips For The Expatriate Musician
Being an expat is hard, but having a passion for music can make it easier. On the flip side, the blow to your music that moving countries takes can be disheartening. The key is to accept the sudden momentum stall, use your music to help build your new life, and trust that expanding your life to a new country will ultimately enrich you and your music.
The challenges of being an expat are shared by many, and some of them are universal. Your specific experience, however, will depend a lot on where you move to, where you moved from, why you moved, and what kind of person you are.
All expats experience loneliness, culture shock, and something like the experience of going to a public high-school for the first time in a new city, where everyone already knows each other and you’re the new kid who has to make new friends or else eat lunch alone every day.
This can be particularly complicated if your new country has a different official language than your home country, if the culture is significantly different, if you don’t have a day job (a place to go every day where you’re forced to be with the same people), or if you’re shy.
Expats are your friends
This may be a controversial statement, but expats are your friends. Before I moved to a new country I always heard that it was bad to move to a new country and only surround yourself with other expats. Some do this and create an expat bubble, never learning the local language or truly assimilating into the culture. While this is bad and I do think that you should start learning the local language as soon as possible and practice it as much as you can, the simple fact is that you share a culture with other expats that can be utterly invaluable. This may be biased on my part, due to the fact that I now live in a culture where it can be very difficult to form true friendships with locals. Depending on where you live, this can be easier or harder. No matter what, other expats (whether from your home country or not) share the experience of moving away from their families and friends as adults and trying to make it in a new culture where many of the locals’ bonds are already formed. They’re away from their families during holidays and celebrating days no one in their new country even recognizes (here’s looking at you, Thanksgiving), just like you. All of the close friendships I’ve made since moving have been with expats, and many of them not from my home country.
Familiarize yourself with cultural differences, both those of your adopted country and your new country, as well as those of nearby countries and of the expats you meet. One of my closest friends in Portugal is from Austria. She is an entrepreneur working the field of intercultural communication and her boyfriend is Portuguese. She opened my eyes to a lot of things about Portuguese culture that were very alien to me as an American. “Now” in Portuguese really means “soon,” and, “I’m arriving,” can mean anything from, “I’m on my way,” to “I’m leaving soon.” Before she clarified to me these differences and taught me to learn and accept them, I was very frustrated. Additionally, I know that her culture and my culture share similarities around values of timeliness, which is one reason why our friendship works so well. We know what each other means when we say, “I’ll be there at 7,” and we can trust each other to satisfy the need to feel that our time is respected. So familiarize yourself with the cultural expectations of the people you meet and you’ll get along much better with people around you. In my experience in Europe, Latin cultures share cultural similarities, Germanic cultures share similarities, and Americans are actually somewhere in between. It can be fun to observe the differences and similarities and also can be a great topic of conversation, especially in Europe where people are used to being in close proximity with vastly diverse cultures.
Music can be a great help to your assimilation and to finding like-minded people, especially if you work with a type of music that’s common in your country. Unfortunately for me, as a classical, cabaret, and performance art fusion artist, there’s not a lot of my kind of work going on in my chosen city. That made things very hard for me during the first year. It took me an entire year to find a suitable voice teacher. But if you’re a jazz musician or you’re moving to a new city specifically to further your music career, you will have it much easier. If that’s you, then you know what to do. But if you’re like me, and you’re trying to continue a musical career while living in a place that has nothing to do with your music, trust me, you can still have your career. Some countries have a more active online presence while others are more word of mouth. Talk to people as much as possible. Shamelessly ask them for their contact information and tap them for help getting into the scene. Research using Facebook, find venues, send them messages, find artists, follow them, go to events and talk to people. Use google translate. Accept that depending on where you are, this process can be slow.
Then, if you don’t already, make your presence known online. When looking for opportunities, whether local or international, having examples of your work readily available online is key.
Embrace the journey
It is going to be frustrating to be suddenly without the connections you had at home. It can make you feel that you’re going nowhere or that you’ve ruined your career. I truly believe that expanding your life into a new country enriches you and your career as well. Overcoming the adversity makes you stronger, and the networking required to get your life up and running again is a skill you’ll need to expand your presence in the world as a musician. Adversity is good. Embrace it and be patient.
A few resources that may be helpful:
Facebook – Good for finding events, venues, local expat support groups, and for connecting with other musicians.
Meetup – Good for finding events to help with making like-minded friends.
Expat forums – Great for getting questions answered in English about local specific or general expat questions. Google ones that are relevant to your new country.
Google Translate – Get the app and download the local language to use offline. Helps in daily life as well as online searches.
“Fluent in 3 Months” by Benny Lewis – An any-language learning guide that really helped me getting started with Portuguese.
– Guest post by Allie Mazon