For those who are drifters at heart, the word "expat" conjures up many vivid images of adventure and excitement. But what is the REALITY of living abroad? In this weeks post, we will discuss 2 of the reasons why you should consider becoming an expat, and 1 of the most difficult things that may stop you in doing this.
The first time I heard the word 'expat' I wasn't sure what it meant. I wasn't much of a seasoned traveler back then. I had only been to a few places, but it was nothing extensive or life changing. Someone I met while traveling introduced themselves to me as an expat, and although I found myself curious, I was too embarrassed to ask what it meant. It wasn't until I looked into it more on my own that I realized the word expat is short for expatriate, or someone who is living in a country not their own.
From that point on, it was always a dream of mine to someday move to a foreign land. There was something exhilarating about the thought of uprooting from the familiar and transplanting myself into a new place, learning a new language and experiencing a new culture. The life of an expat began to be romanticized in my drifter mind.
But now, after having lived as an expatriate in Asia for almost 3 years, I have a better, more realistic idea of what it means to be one. There are many good reasons to live abroad, of course, but for the sake of brevity, I have narrowed it down to just two main benefits. I will also share with you one challenge that has (unexpectedly) proven to be my biggest headache as an expat!
Benefit #1: Challenge Your Mind, Learn a New Language
I have found that learning another language has opened my mind and has helped me to see the world from a different viewpoint.
There is so much more to learning a language than just knowing how to translate words. When you learn a new language, you learn a whole new culture. It gives you a glimpse into how the people of your host country sees the world.
For example, the Chinese character for the word 'good' is 好. Now at first glance, this character may seem like nothing more than a bunch of squiggly lines, but when you break it down in parts, you may see things from another angle.
This character is actually made up of two parts: 女 meaning 'woman', and 子 meaning 'child' or 'son'. For me, this carries with it the Chinese thought that it is only when a man has a complete family, a wife and a child (or son) of his own, that he can finally sit back and feel that his life is all 'good'.
This, by the way, is my own interpretation. There are other more accepted explanations to the origins of this character.
Another example of understanding culture through language is when you learn the Chinese greeting casually said to someone in passing: 吃飽了嗎？ Which literally means: Have you already eaten your fill?
This helped me to see how important food is in Chinese culture, and in fact it is often one of the most talked about subjects in conversations.
Ways to learn a new language: As an expat, there are many avenues to learning the language of the country you live in. Many countries offer accredited language courses in universities or colleges or in language centers. You could enroll for a few hours a week or more. Another option is one-on-one tutoring. In Taiwan, many locals are willing to tutor you in Chinese if you in turn will tutor them English. For example: You could make an appointment to set aside an hour a day with an individual, 30 minutes learning the target language from them, and 30 minutes teaching them your language. Of course, the best way to learn a new language is to immerse yourself in it! Make friends with locals, eat with them, socialize with them and surround yourself with the sights and sounds of your target language.
Benefit #2: Less is More, Learning How to Simplify
Coming from a 'Western' country, as many here like to refer to the US as being, meant that I was used to a higher standard of living. Although I grew up in Hawai'i ona small island where life was simple and uncomplicated, I never really realized how much I could do without until I moved to another country.
When I first arrived here, my cost of living seemed a lot cheaper in comparison to what I was paying back at home. $100US/month for a shared, fully furnished apartment in the center of the city, $15US/day for 3 full meals, $10US/day for fun money. All of that added up to be a reasonable price for what I got. Little did I know how much more I could simplify my lifestyle.
After almost three years of learning how to cut back and watch my budget, I've been able to learn the importance of weighing my NEEDS against my WANTS, and I can now see a stark difference between the two.
Now I spend only $33US/month on rent, $3US/day for 3 full meals and $10/week for fun money. And no, I'm not emaciated and starving on a street corner. I've just learned how to do without.
Ways to simplify: Again, make friends with the locals! They will be able to help you find the rental deals that they will pay for, which is almost always less than what foreigners are charged. You may even be able to live with your local friends. Skip the western-style restaurants and learn how to eat like a local. Find the best street stalls and farmers' markets in your neighborhood, and cook at home. And finally, GO SOBER! Okay, well maybe not to that extreme, but you could try and realize that you don't always need to top off a work week with massive amounts of alcohol.
Assessment So Far...
Becoming an expat is a rewarding experience. As you can imagine, there are more benefits than just these two. Of course, the life of an expat is not all chocolate covered gumdrops and toasted marshmallows. To be honest, sometimes the challenges may seem to outweigh the benefits.
But, do I see myself moving back to Hawai'i anytime soon? Despite the challenges, my answer is: No. Life is just too good here, and I wouldn't trade the experiences I've had for anything else.
However, despite the benefits, it's still good to acknowledge that you will face many difficulties while living abroad. Here is one challenge that may make you want to give up and go home, and some tips on how to counter this challenge.
The Challenge: Alien Resident's Burden, A Constant Struggle to Stay Legal
What is my number one challenge when it comes to being an expat? No, it's not getting used to a foreign cuisine, or having to deal with the inevitable dose of culture shock. While all of these are true, they are not the hardest to overcome, at least not for myself.
So what is it? Keeping my legal status. Surprisingly, this is one of the hardest things for me to have to deal with as an expat.
Of course, a lot of this depends on what country you are living in and what the legal requirements there are, but in most cases, getting, and keeping, a visa long term will almost always be a real headache.
How so? Some countries allow you to enter visa free for periods of 2, 3 or months, some for even a year. This, however, changes from time to time, and even with this arrangement, you would still need to leave the country when the time limit runs out. You will need to get out...no excuses, no mercy, just get out of the country!
Of course, other countries require you to have some form of visa. Again, this comes in different time increments and with differing guidelines. And for most countries, even if you do have visas that allow you to stay in country, there are still many restrictions enforced upon you as a citizen of another country.
For example, it is often times difficult to finance things, so you'd better have quick access to some cold hard cash to make your purchases. Also, if you get into a traffic accident, be prepared to shoulder most, if not all, of the blame, even if you weren't the one at fault. After all, you are a rich 'western foreigner' that can afford to go halfway across the world, so you may be expected to pay more even if it was clearly the other party's fault. Speaking of traffic, as a foreigner, you may not even qualify to drive on the road! Some countries do not let foreigners apply for driver's licenses or open bank accounts. Another difficulty is that health insurance and service options may be very limited for foreigners.
How can I overcome this challenge: Keep up on the visa requirements of the country you will be living in. Most governments have official websites that carry full explanations of necessary visas, permits and residency applications. Google the country's name along with the word 'visa'. Always reading the information from official government sites will help you understand the best ways to keep up on your legal status. In regards to financing a purchase, see if a local friend can help you, perhaps as co-signer. Keep your vehicles registered, legal and up to date, and your driver's license or permit accurate. That way, if an accident occurs, you may have less fingers pointing your way. And last of all, invest in some good travel health insurance no matter what. In matters of life and death, paying in the few bucks a month as preventative measures will be well worth it.
The above information is just an overview of the things I've learned since I've been living in Asia. I hope that this information can at least give you a general idea of what life as an expat is really like.
If you are thinking about uprooting and making a move to a foreign country, please know that you can succeed. Despite the challenges that may make it harder for you to stick to it, if you stay focused on the benefits of being an expat rather than on the problems, you can definitely make a success of living abroad no matter what!
And now we'd like to ask you: Would you ever consider living abroad for more than a year? Please take the poll and share your comments below.
I'm JR. I come from a long line of adventurers, some were nomadic explorers of the sea and others wandering cultivators of the earth. Ultimately, this legacy of drifters has deeply affected my view of travel. Read more...