We’ve all had that conversation where you tell a friend you’re planning on moving abroad. Their eyes light up as though they are talking to a movie star and they say something like, “living abroad is so glamorous.” Once they’ve calmed down and stopped fantasizing about drinking G&T whilst watching peacocks roam across the lawn of their vast estate, you can tell them the truth. It’s not going to be so exciting.Whilst many see expat life as an adventurous chance to live carefree without the stress of modern life, they are looking at it all wrong. Expat life isn’t an extended holiday; it’s going to work and buying groceries. Just in a different place.
Maybe that’s a tad too simplistic. But there are a lot of myths out there about the lifestyles expats lead, and the stereotypes of expats themselves can be more fiction than fact.
Of course, we’ve all been guilty of making assumptions about people, and are usually proven wrong. Sometimes the book does resemble its cover, but rarely. We’re sure you’ve heard most of these misconceptions, myths and downright fictions before, but here is the definitive list of misconceptions about expats.
Expat life is tough on kids
It is easy to see the expat experience as a continual wrenching separation from family, friends and the familiar. A disorienting and bewildering stumble through a new culture and having to learn the most basic habits of life all over again.
One would think this can be doubly distressing for kids. They’re just adapting to one culture and finding their place in it when everything gets turned upside down. There’s even a mental health condition that refers to the problems this can cause, Expat Child Syndrome.
Of course, this term only applies to a very small number of expat kids. The majority enjoy an exciting, multicultural upbringing. Dutch psychologist Kate Berger specialises in helping youngsters adapt to new lives in foreign cultures. She wrote in The Telegraph, “Parents are the key to helping an expatriate child adjust to life in a new environment.”
Kids need to help before, during and after any move to anticipate the changes in their lifestyle and to adjust to them once in their new homes. For little ones, the separation from friends can manifest emotions akin to grief if not prepared for in advance.
But if parents make family time a priority, helping offspring to adjust and encouraging them to communicate their likes and dislikes about their new world, it boosts confidence and helps them to enjoy the adventure.
Once settled, expat kids tend to enjoy schooling and extracurricular activities more than other youngsters. Berger suggests that growing up as an expat gives children a head-start: “Children who have grown up in an expatriate environment often possess additional language and enhanced interpersonal communication skills that make them special.”
Expat life is only temporary
This myth is takes a bit of explaining and can be mostly busted, but not entirely. A lot of non-expats assume that a stint abroad is a one-off sojourn away from home, and that once you return normal service will be resumed.
They assume that expats just need a short dose of adventure before settling down again in a sensible way. Of course, for many expats their time overseas may well be a brief interlude.
For others, a life abroad is destined to continue for as long as the correct paperwork can be applied for and granted. Their ‘situation normal’, their ‘home’, is living and working in this new culture surrounded by supposed foreigners.
Other expats may globetrot from country to country and contract to contract. These nomads may return to their home base or jump straight into the next project.
Expat lifestyles are as varied as the expats themselves; there is no one-size-fits all approach to living abroad.
Expats feel right at home
They say ‘home is where the heart is’, but with loved ones around the world, your sense of belonging can be pulled in several directions at once.
There will be happy memories from wherever you grew up, things you enjoy that are unique to your current location, and the strange little habits peculiar to the people you keep closest.
The knack is to carve out a niche of familiarity in your present location, without isolating yourself from the good, positive things to explore out there. So when the unpleasantly unfamiliar does attack, a cosy pleasant haven awaits.
Expats will always be aware of their non-native status, especially in countries where they stand out physically. Usually this just makes for a feeling of self-consciousness and rarely becomes rudeness or open hostility.
Expats take everything with them
Fleets of trucks, giant shipping containers and an endless parade of cardboard boxes is what most people imagine about the move from one country to the next. But for many expats, the secret is travelling light and buying local.
Teachers and anyone on a short-term contract are likely to be travelling light. By the time luggage arrives on a slow-moving cargo ship it’ll be time to pack things up and send them all back again. It’s also very expensive to ship all those bookshelves around the world when they can be bought cheaply from around the corner.
For a growing number of expats there’s no need to go shopping at all. Employers are more frequently offering furnished accommodation as part of the remuneration package. Simply yet fully furnished, these apartments are comfortable enough to require little in the way of decorating.
Expect this myth to change to depict expats keeping their belongings in a storage locker whilst subletting their home and staying in the company-provided pad.
Homesickness is for wimps
Who gets homesick? School kids away from home for the first time and softies who just need to ‘man up’ and get on with life. In truth, even big, burly soldiers get homesick when posted away from home; nobody is immune.
Nor is homesickness unique to the young. In fact this could be exacerbated as an adult because the pull of aging parents or other commitments that induce guilt at being overseas.
The initial shock of arrival in an alien culture may cause the biggest bout of homesickness, but waves of it can be triggered by milestone events. Your first birthday as an expat will make you long for the friends you’d usually party with, Christmas won’t be spent with family, and there may be nobody there to cheer on your sports team when watching the grand final.
Some expats also report a reverse homesickness on their return. What they knew as ‘home’ will have changed during their absence, just enough to feel unfamiliar and leave the jet-lagged expat pining for their ‘foreign home’
It’s perfectly normal to feel homesick occasionally, though for some it can become severe enough to warrant professional help, or even a return home.
Expats are too arrogant
This one pops up a lot in expat blogs and articles in expat magazines.
Expats gravitate towards each other and in some parts of the world enjoy a close-knit community of Brits abroad or Americans in exile. This club can be seen by non-members as an exclusive, foreigners-only affair for which locals need not apply. This makes expats appear aloof, declining to mix with those they see as unworthy of their social time.
Of course, most expats spend the vast majority of their time surrounded by locals, working and studying alongside them, travelling to work with them and enjoying what the country has to offer. But it’s the limited time spent in expat-filled bars, watching sports from home and drinking familiar beer, that has given rise to this myth.
With time this myth is bound to disprove itself, especially with the continuing increase of the global nomad who moves from one country to another, not settling long enough to form a clique.
Living abroad is all about adventure
Expats collect passport stamps and tales of derring-do in equal measure. Right?
Sadly not so. Most of expat life is dominated by the same dullness that the rest of the world trudges through. Expats go to work, sit in an office, get stuck in traffic jams and go to the supermarket.
There are chances to see amazing things and to try new hobbies, food and sports. But there are also bills to pay, meetings to sit through and an oven to avoid cleaning until it’s too disgusting to ignore.
All the usual mundane details of life happen alongside the adventures.
Expat wives are ladies of leisure
This one is wildly out of date. It’s assumed by many that the male half of an expat couple is the one with the important job and the wife has tagged along.
The days of the ‘suitcase spouse’ is long gone; if couples travel abroad together, it is often the case that both are working. And if only one is bringing home the bacon, it could just as easily be the wife.
Occasionally visa restrictions mean someone in a couple may not be permitted to work, but increasingly employers are providing assistance to help find work for other members of the family.
Expats are all bilingual
There’s a romantic image of the culturally aware, multi-lingual and ultra-chic man of the world who instantly picks up the local lingo and effortlessly assimilates into the community.
James Bond may pull this off, but he’s also got a car that turns into a submarine and exploding pens, so the rest of us shouldn’t expect to copy him. Instead we should resign ourselves to the fact that learning a language takes time and effort, even when surrounded by it.
And some expats may find themselves working in their mother tongue. There are industries which operate on a lingua franca basis, with English appearing across the aviation world and increasingly in business.
There is never a better time to learn a new language, but not every expat needs to. Some enclaves of foreign workers operate as self-contained environments, with some residents never having cause to utter a word of the native dialect.
Expats earn a fortune
It’s true that many expats are experts in their field. It’s also true that the average expat salary outstrips the local income.
But as soon as you balance out the costs involved with the lifestyle, these supposed big bucks start to wither away. Flights home for Christmas, international shipping costs, visas and work permits, school fees, insurance, healthcare, and pension payments all bite chunks out of the salaries of expats the world over.
English teachers in China might take home US $700 a month, which is a fortune by local standards, but far behind what similar hours would earn the same teacher back in the west. For a gap year traveller looking to earn beer money for their next trip, this is not a problem. But for an expat trying to raise a family, pay into a pension fund and save for a return home, this is a meagre income.
In terms of cold, hard cash expats might not be rolling in it, but a well-negotiated contract can help stretch the budget. Make sure your employer is picking up the tab for moving you, your family and their possessions to your new patch. Employers should also offer an accommodation allowance, to help with the cost of housing during your stay.
Other assistance may be offered by larger companies: helping a spouse find work, settling the kids into a new school and offering you language or cultural training. These all help you to be more efficient and to keep you working happily in their company for longer.
The biggest pitfall awaiting technically skilled expats is offshore or intensive working contracts. Any engineer, technical diver or security consultant asked to work 28 days straight, followed by 28 days of leave should carefully read their contacts to make sure they receive pay for the days not spent working, but still living in the country.
An expat life may be rich in many ways, but not always in terms of bottom-line profits.
What are some expat misconceptions you’ve come across? Let us know in the comments!
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer