What Are the Best Books for New Expats to Read?
There are numerous “how to” guide books for expats out there. They detail the finer points of moving overseas, from arranging international shipping to getting your taxes in order. While these texts have their moments — mostly explaining the minutiae of the endless visa forms an expat must complete — they don’t provide much practical assistance and inspiration to expats in their new lives.
Here, then, are my top five books new expats must read.
In the original 1936 edition Carnegie opened by reminding readers that “dealing with people is probably the biggest problem you face”. Learning to deal with this problem is the basis of How to Win Friends. Despite its age, the simple truth that dealing with other people is both the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity to getting on in life was true then, and is truer than ever now.
For expats, in particular, disconnected from the social crutches of friends and family and thrown into a new and unfamiliar society the simple lessons in this book are vital. Fortunately, Carnegie’s central rule — make other people feel important — applies across almost all cultures.
As an expat who has just moved thousands of miles and is excitedly trying to fit into a new culture you may be tempted to talk all about your own new experiences, but Carnegie reminds us that “you can make more friends in two months by becoming more interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get people interested in you.” Get it online here.
If you’re a native English speaker living in a country where another language dominates you are going to encounter innumerous English learners. When you do — as you will whenever you ride in a taxi, go out for coffee, or enter just about any store — you’re going to need to know what you’re talking about.
Mother Tongue provides the answers by telling the story of how a language so second-rate and inadequate as English came to be one of the most widely spoken (and the most widely learned) in the world.
So the next time you’re asked to justify — as I have been by English learners from Bangkok to Budapest — why English has so many damned homophones, for example, you’ll be in a position to explain the long and complex history of the language. Bryson’s witty analysis of English’s unpredictable grammar, inconsistent spelling and often arcane sentence structure will instil more than a little empathy in you as you witness non-native speakers grapple with the language. Get it online here.
“Why should anthropologists travel to remote corners of the world and get dysentery to study strange tribal cultures?” asks Kate Fox in the introduction to Watching the English. Such travel is unnecessary, she says, when the “weirdest, most puzzling tribe of all is right on your doorstep”.
Fox goes on to not only present a detailed analysis of the quirks, habits and social anxieties of the English, but also to explain the complex sets of unwritten rules and Byzantine codes that govern English social life.
Her analysis of the rules of weather-speak, pub etiquette, class anxiety and the English social dis-ease will both illuminate the English to outsiders trying to fit into English life and allow natives living abroad to obtain a new and enlightening level of self-awareness. Get it online here.
It sounds bizarre to those who have only ever been tourists — that is on a mission to see and do everything a location offers in a defined period of time — but as an expat it can be difficult to remember to take the time to explore all of the wonders of your new home.
Paul Theroux’s epic tale of his journey from London to Tokyo by train is the perfect tonic for reigniting a love for adventure, travel and diving into the unknown. Crucially, Theroux is interested — above all else — with the interactions he has with those around him: “I sought trains and found passengers” he writes. Theroux’s vivid, often literary, descriptions of the characters he encounters along his route will awaken you to the possibilities of the random encounter and the fleeting conversation. Get it online here.
All who travel to live in a new country experience some degree of culture shock. Imagine, though, leaving Zimbabwe as it teetered on the edge of civil war for a culture so immensely different as the American Midwest.
Bulawayo’s first novel is a powerful depiction of culture shock. It follows Darling, a young Zimbabwean girl, as she travels from the chaos of Zimbabwe under the tyrannical Robert Mugabe to the chaos of the United States of America in the throes of recession.
The latter stages of Darling’s story will resonate most with expats and migrants as she describes how America both meets and fails to live up to her hopes. The most poignant sections are Darling’s inner monologues as she deliberates on what parts of her new culture to embrace and what to surrender from her past. Get it online here.
Suggestions from Twitter (updated)
I asked my Twitter followers (@TheExpatBlog) for their thoughts on the books new expats must read. Here are some of their recommendations:
Vagabonding is about taking time off from your normal life to discover and experience the world on your own terms. Veteran shoestring traveler Rolf Potts shows how anyone armed with an independent spirit can achieve the dream of extended overseas travel. Potts gives the necessary information from financing your trip to adjusting to life on the road. (with thanks to @JeddahExpats)
The setting is Hong Kong, 1963. The action spans scarcely more than a week, but these are the days of high adventure: from kidnapping and murder to financial double-dealing and natural catastrophes — fire, flood, and landslide. Yet they are days filled as well with all the mystery and romance of Hong Kong — the heart of Asia — rich in every trade… money, flesh, opium, power. (with thanks to @KeyesBill)
The charming true story of a spirited young woman who finds adventure–and the love of her life–in Paris. “This isn’t like me. I’m not the sort of girl who crosses continents to meet up with a man she hardly knows. Paris hadn’t even been part of my travel plan…” (with thanks to @DanaLCraig)
“I did nothing but dream about moving to Spain until another minute in London threatened to push me over the edge! Turning up in Madrid without a word of Spanish, I soon found a job, alluring intercambios, amazing journeys and wild fiestas. Then I met Marina, bought a scarily run-down flat in Lavapies, and got in with the in-laws! If I can do it, couldn’t you?” (with thanks to @KirstieTravels)
Rapeseed is an unusual coming-of-age story about an extraordinary woman, her bright and quirky teenage son, and their family. Carolann Cooper is a synesthete — she sees her letters and numbers and turbulent memories in color. Her family’s move from small town Kansas to London cracks open her complicated history and exposes secrets she’s been keeping with her husband — and from him as well — just as her son begins to enjoy new and dangerous freedoms abroad. Carolann must urgently figure out who she really is to reconcile her past with her family’s future. (with thanks to @NancyFreund)
The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them all they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it―from garden seeds to Scripture―is calamitously transformed on African soil. 9with thanks to @Bexnoell)
An enlightening look at the challenges of children of expatriates, missionaries, and others who grow up outside their home culture. (with thanks to @Denizenkofi)
What books would you recommend to a new expat? Share your book suggestions in the comments.