The best and worst of living outside the borders of your citizenship.
Having recently joined a variety of groups and communities of traveling teachers, world schoolers, and expats in general, I’ve had a number of interesting conversations on the pros and cons of the expatriate-slash-globetrotter lifestyle.
I’ve been living in the Philippines, a country far from my own, for eight years now and the process of preparing to leave–whether or not for good I can’t say–was an interesting time to reflect on the good and bad elements of my life as an “expat” or, in plain English, an immigrant.
Since I’ve also lived in a few countries in Africa and many of my online coworkers live in China and otherwise all over the world, I’ll avoid centering this post on any one country or continent and try instead to include not only my own experiences but also what I’ve gathered from fellow expats along the way.
Having been raised as a third-culture kid and now being a mother myself, I will, of course, be discussing how the expat life impacts children. However, that’s not what this list is centered on.
Instead, I’m looking at the bare-boned questions of what makes an expat leave their home and what makes them miss it.
1. The Freedom
This, more than anything, is my personal number one. It’s why I will–if it’s entirely up to me–likely always live outside of my country of citizenship. It’s hard to say home because I’m not sure anymore which country I would identify as such.
When I say freedom, I’m not talking exclusively about that feeling of heading to the airport with a suitcase, walking away from what had been your life and excess belongings, feeling light as a feather and ready to explore the world.
I’m also talking about the freedom to do more or less whatever you want without the constraints of an often rigidly organized and restrictive western world.
Life in most non-western countries can be considerably less orderly, but far less restrictive as well.
(Although I should point out that some countries offer us the best of both worlds. I’m thinking of places like Taiwan, a country with excellent infrastructure where you can drink beer in public. No wonder it consistently tops the expatriation charts.)
However, excepting such examples as Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, and Japan, many less-developed countries in Asia, Africa and the Central and South Americas tell quite a different story.
Whether it’s the lack of modern infrastructure, prevalent and multilateral corruption, or perhaps that people simply don’t care about such trivial issues as whether or not one should be allowed to harvest rainwater, the tradeoff for a somewhat messy and unstructured life in a third-world country is that there are far fewer restrictions on what you can and cannot do.
When I bought a motorcycle and, having never ridden and with no lessons or license to my name, rode it home on Manila roads I basked in that freedom.
Granted, it isn’t always a good thing but it is what draws me to the expat life nonetheless–to the point, in fact, that I will likely never be able to (re)assimilate into either the Netherlands or–God forbid–the US.
Call it the travel bug if you will but for some, once we see the world, the place we had called home–no matter its size–will always be too small to contain us. Being contained, after all, is quite unbearable once you’ve had a taste of freedom.
2. The Learning Experience
This goes for you, your kids if you have them, and in some ways even your friends and family back home because the things you learn living abroad will change you as a person.
For one, your view of the world will widen as you begin to understand and grow close to people born and raised in a country and culture different from your own.
Additionally, you will pick up new languages and as you reach fluency in a new tongue you will awaken new areas of your brain and start to think in new ways.
If you travel with kids, they will pick up new languages faster than they can put away their toys and if they start speaking at a young age they will achieve near native-speaker fluency the way adults never quite can. This will give them a huge advantage and increase their options in any career path.
Finally, you will learn a lot about life in general, especially by seeing how simple and enjoyable it can be.
The things we find to stress out over and the first-world problems we create are laughable when you realize how little you need to live a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life. You don’t need many things (the less you have to pack, the better), or even much money, which leads right to a third advantage.
3. The Cost of Living
This ties right in with freedom and is another thing I’ve loved about living in the Philippines: cost of living is low. That means I didn’t have to work fulltime to make a decent living and that gave me the freedom to spend more of my time doing whatever I want.
4. The People & The Stories
The most interesting people I’ve met are travelers–ever since I was a child I’ve loved their stories–and there’s no better way to meet them than by traveling.
I’ll have to write a post one day on some of the fascinating people I’ve met and the insane stories they’ve told.
5. Being a Stranger (or feeling like a celebrity and a zoo animal at the same time)
This is at the bottom of my list of pros because in some ways it can definitely become a bit of a con. However, though we like to complain about it, I think deep down most of us expats secretly enjoy it.
The simple truth is that in most cases, being different from everyone else allows you to do things most people won’t or can’t.
For example–as a Brit living in China pointed out–because you’re already an oddball, you can go ahead and do all the odd things your heart desires. Since you’re attracting attention anyway, you might as well make the most of it.
Once you get used to constantly being stared at and talked about, it stops mattering. Well, either that or you become really good at ignoring it.
For me personally, this is a tough one because it’s a feeling I have almost everywhere, including at home in Holland. When I’m in Holland I’m not really Dutch; somehow I still tend to stand out, especially in the small village where I went to high school.
When I visited America, I did not at all feel American and found it difficult to identify with the culture. Visiting Australia earlier this year was uniquely enjoyable, on the other hand, because I felt significantly less odd than I do in most countries–probably because it’s such a melting pot of immigrants from Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world and people are generally laid back.
1. The Mess (infrastructure, bureaucracy, trash)
Whether it’s the mess of infrastructure, the bureaucracy, or the literal trash, messy is often a part of expat life, and again I put this in the first place because it’s what I find the most difficult to deal with.
By nature, I’m a fairly organized and efficient person: I don’t like messes, especially ones that result in wasted time. I also despise bad smells and stay as far away as I can from the Pasig River.
Sydney, where I am now, is such a welcome contrast from Manila because it’s so fresh and so clean. On the other hand, it is a lot more expensive.
2. Lack of Access to Specialty Items, Your Favorite Things from Home, Your Friends & Your Family
Whether it’s English tea and meat pie, any good European cheese or sausages, Canadian cheese curds, or salty Dutch haring and licorice, there will be things you miss from home that may be near-impossible to find.
But, if visiting friends and family isn’t enough, at least it’s a reason to make that trip back home every now and then.
Right. I haven’t talked about family yet.
Yes, being away from them is tough but honestly, the most difficult part is saying goodbye. After that, you go on building your life and with social media, there are a million ways to stay in touch.
I will say that when you have kids, not having family around to help you take care of them is especially difficult. Beyond that, family is important to kids: my daughter cherishes any opportunity to see her grandmother, uncles, aunts, and cousins.
However, I see missing home or family and friends in other parts of the world as just another wonderful reason to travel.
3. Health & Safety
Honestly, based on personal experience, it hardly seems appropriate to list this as a con. I have been asked over and over if living in Ivory Coast, or Nigeria, or the Philippines, was dangerous, and I’ve honestly never felt that it was. I visited Baltimore once though; there’s a city with some spots to avoid.
However, just because I’ve never experienced what I would consider a serious threat to my safety in a third world country doesn’t mean that I don’t know people who have. For some, safety is a primary reason not to travel or relocate to a third-world country. To that, I can only say: danger is everywhere.
I ride a motorcycle to get through Manila traffic and people tell me it’s dangerous. Yes, maybe it is; so is driving a car; so is crossing the street. You can either live your life in fear of danger or–with a few reasonable precautions–you can live your life.
If you’re going somewhere that might be considered dangerous for foreigners, take some reasonable precaution.
For example, if you want to shop at Divisoria–Manila’s massive and crowded commercial center–dress plainly, don’t wear expensive jewelry or accessories, and keep your valuables and/or your bag in front of you and not on your back or in your pockets.
Another safety-related concern includes health care: there’s a good chance that it won’t be on the level of what you’re used to back home.
Conversely, some forms of healthcare can be available at a high standard and more affordable prices than in western countries. Dental and optical procedures in the Philippines are an example of that.
4. The Discomfort
Whether it’s extreme weather conditions, uncomfortable transportation, or socially awkward situations, travelers and expats alike have to be comfortable with discomfort.
More so than the sticky heat and heavy humidity of Metro Manila, what tends to make me most uncomfortable is the blatant staring.
5. A Different Kind of Etiquette
Finally, the people in your new home may be intolerably polite or outrageously rude but either way, you’ll have to adjust to new social norms and a different kind of etiquette.
You may very well find after living somewhere for years that you still struggle to relate to the culture.
Conversely, you may find that you have adopted so many elements of this new culture that you experience reverse culture shock when visiting home or repatriating.
At the end of the day, I feel that the reasons to leave home and live a different kind of life–if only for a while–decisively outweigh the cons.
Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!