It can be a tempting idea to let go of your current life and responsibilities, pack your bags, and start anew in a foreign location, but of course nothing is ever as simple as that. The expat life can be extremely exciting and rewarding, but it has its share of challenges and difficulties. Everyone has heard the nightmare stories of expats who have been through hell, and who have returned home discouraged and worse off than before they left.Sometimes these situations can be the result of sheer bad luck, while at other times they can emerge as a result of changes in laws or the economic climate. In many cases however, the problem is a lack of research and planning, and sometimes an excessively – and unrealistically – positive outlook. It needn’t be a catastrophe that knocks you off your feet while you’re chasing your expat dream – often it’s the little things that wear you down gradually. It’s important to have a thorough knowledge of exactly what it will take for you to successfully establish a life in your choice of foreign location, and to plan the entire move thoroughly, not just for the first few months but in the long term. And while it’s great to have a positive outlook, it’s also important to honestly consider the worst-case scenarios when undertaking something as massive as relocating to a new country.
Here’s a look at a few common expat dreams, and how they can quite easily turn into nightmares.
Living a life of leisure
The very vagueness of this all-too-common expat dream is a recipe for disaster. For the majority of people who think about such things, the idea is merely a pleasant daydream to be indulged in for its own sake. However, there are a surprising number of people who actually go ahead and act on it, sometimes with unpleasant results.
Relocating to Bali, Jamaica, or Spain will not automatically change the way the world works. You will continue to need an income, and you will continue to have most of the expenses you had back home. As a result, you’re unlikely to have much more time for leisure and travel than you did before. Sometimes, you might even have less. Moreover, local salaries in many of these seemingly relaxed locations tend to be low, which can make simply traveling back home for a visit difficult. You may have the budget to live a sufficiently comfortable life within the local economy, but international flights may be a luxury you’ll need to save up for.
In addition, the relaxed life that you see when you’re on vacation usually has its own stresses and frustrations Because of your cultural background, personality, and life experiences, you may not be as well-equipped to deal with them as you are with the more familiar ones you’re trying to escape from. After the disruption, the letting go of family and friends, and often the huge expense of moving abroad, it can in incredibly frustrating to find yourself working longer hours, struggling to make ends meet, and unable to even return home to recharge.
Some expats also move abroad expecting to live exactly the same life they always did, except that they hope to save more money, have more free time, and perhaps travel more often. This again is a mistake that is bound to result in disappointment and dissatisfaction. It’s impossible for your life to not change when you change countries, and it’s important to be aware of these changes in advance, and also to give yourself the chance to acknowledge that you may not want to change your life that much.
Retiring in a sunny, cheap location
Retirees make up a large percentage of the worldwide expat population, especially in places where the cost of living is low. European countries like Spain, East Asian countries like Vietnam, and to some extent even countries like Australia attract a lot of expats who expect to live out the rest of their lives comfortably on their pensions. Unfortunately, for many pensioners, this plan doesn’t quite work out. In many cases, the problems arise with the pensions themselves and the expectation that this modest monthly amount will go much further in a foreign country than it would back home. In the last couple of years, for example, many British expats have returned home from places like Spain and Australia, since their pensions are frozen under British law and cannot keep up with rising inflation. However, even without the freezing of pensions, expat retirees can sometimes find it difficult to make ends meet.
In addition to financial struggles, most retirees who move abroad must let go of the support of friends and family, and miss out on things like seeing grandchildren grow up. Integrating with the local community can often be a challenge. Many expat retirees struggle to adjust to life in their new location, even if they have loved it from afar. Many are too old to change their ways, and grapple with culture shock for a long period of time. Infrastructure can often be poor, especially in developing countries and in rural areas, due to which they must deal with issues they took for granted back home.
The quality of local healthcare is a particular concern, and some expat retirees find that while regular aches, pains, and sniffles can be easily treated locally, they must rush back home to address anything more serious. In the worst situations, instead of paradise, expat retirees find a lonely, frustrating, and expensive life that is difficult to get away from.
Building or renovating a house abroad
Some expats decide to take on the challenge of building or renovating a house, and more than a few of them fail to fully think it through. Not everyone is suited to the task, and it can be difficult enough to pull off even in your own country. In a new place, everything becomes much tougher, especially if there’s a language difference. Communicating with and monitoring all the people who will be involved in the process of building or renovating a house can be frustrating and overwhelming if you’re not fluent in the local language. Things like understanding the legalities and your tax liabilities and negotiating your way through the various bureaucratic processes also add a layer of difficulty when communication is a problem.
As an expat, you are less likely to have a wide network of friends and relatives to recommend and vouch for trustworthy people to hire, and this is particularly important when it comes to people like lawyers, real estate brokers, architects, and contractors. There are also cultural factors that you will have to accommodate, which you may find frustrating. In many of the places where expats choose to build or renovate houses, the work culture is rather easy-going, and appointments will be missed, schedules will be stretched, and workers may simply stop turning up. The legal system may also not function well, which means that enforcing a contract is sometimes impossible.
Many expats also run into problems that they could just as easily have faced back home, because of a lack of proper planning – for example, failure to research every detail from costs to laws to materials, and failure to thoroughly work out a budget and a financing plan.
Starting a business in a foreign country
Many expats move abroad to start their own business, with varying degrees of success. In many ways, the location is extremely important – countries like Singapore, Canada, and New Zealand are known to be very business-friendly, and are great locations for expat entrepreneurs. On the other hand, there are many locations that are a nightmare for business, because of the amount of red tape or levels of corruption.
At other times, cultural factors may make it difficult for outsiders to set up and run businesses. In many Asian countries, for example, personal and political connections are crucial if you want to get anything done. Many expats who don’t have such networks find themselves losing time and money while their business crawls along, waiting for permits, licenses, and even deliveries of goods. Others tie up with locals, but later find themselves at the mercy of dishonest or manipulative partners, forced to make deals that go against their interests. Resolving disputes through the legal system can be difficult, sometimes because the system itself is flawed, and at other times simply because the standards and expectations are different from those that expats are familiar with.
For many expats however, things begin to go wrong at the planning stage. Too many people have vague ambitions about starting dream businesses in exotic locations that they have enjoyed visiting on holiday but don’t fully know or understand. They underestimate the funds required, the legal and other processes they need to go through, the viability of their product or service in the market that they are entering, and the local infrastructure needed for their business to run the way it should. If they’re lucky, they may just realize that their business is more work and less fun than they expected; the unlucky ones can face huge and debilitating financial losses.
Some even start well-meaning projects to help the locals, perhaps with the aim of protecting the environment or helping local craftspeople to earn a better living; eventually, many come face-to-face with the realities of working in their chosen country, and find that they’re not only hurting themselves but not doing much social good.
Finding romance with a local
The process of dating in a foreign country can be confusing and challenging. As an expat, it can take a lot of work to understand and adapt to cultural norms, in terms of what is and isn’t acceptable, what is expected of you, and plenty more. In addition, both expats themselves and locals can have unrealistic and unfair biases, perceptions, and expectations of each other.
The worst situations however are those in which expats rush too quickly into marriage with a local, and then find that they made a mistake. This can often be because of personal incompatibilities, but cultural differences can play a central role too, and can also make other personal issues more difficult to resolve. Finding yourself in a bad marriage is difficult enough in your own country; the same situation is much worse in a foreign place, with an unfamiliar culture, without the support of friends and family, and with a legal system that may make it considerably more difficult to break up.
Did you move abroad to follow an expat dream? How did it go? Let us know in the comments!