What does the term “expat” mean to you? If anyone had asked me that a few years ago, it would have conjured up images of sunburnt Brits on the Costa del Sol, eating full English breakfasts, wearing Union Jack shorts and waving cans of Carlsberg at anyone within shouting distance. Or is that just British holidaymakers in general?

At the other end of the class spectrum (because you know us Brits are obsessed with class!) further thought would probably have taken a colonial turn, women in twinsets and pearls, demurely sipping G&T’s at the Club while their husbands play golf. In either case it involved people living the high life abroad and keeping themselves apart from the “natives”. However you look at it, my knowledge on the subject was pretty ill-informed and largely shaped by stereotypes.

Life has a wry way of filling in our knowledge gaps, and now that I AM an expat, I can see the small-minded folly of my earlier view. So here is what I have learnt, through a smidgen of research and a hefty lump of experience. Please forgive its subjectivity…

Definition: expatriate (plural expatriates)

  1. One who lives outside one’s own country.
  2. One who has been banished from one’s own country. (Wiktionary)

These days it’s not so much “banishment & exile” that drives people to become expats, as global mobility. The concept, once the preserve of the military or missionary, has gained popularity with employers in the current, frugal economic climate. Better to re-distribute existing employees where skills are required, than bear the cost of hiring and making redundancies. International experience boosts a CV and broadens a skill-set so there are plenty of willing candidates, though not all have the sought-after skills or experience.

Your modern-day expat cannot be compressed into one convenient caricature. Granted, you still have your executive high-flyers, living in paid accommodation and dining out, but more and more people are choosing to arrange their own workplace tourism. These people organise their own shipping, find their own accommodation and relocate their life in its entirety, without the aid of Expat Coaches or the cushion of company HR. They are alone in unfamiliar, often baffling, territory and have no choice but to throw themselves into it and roll with the punches, or give in to the cravings for family and familiar, and go home. They have to start from scratch, building a network of friends, a credit history, a consumer identity, a new life.

Stranger in a strange land

Paying a bill, making a friend, shopping for groceries, or negotiating a major purchase are skills we don’t stop to think about at home. Overseas, they become achievements worthy of celebration. It’s tough when no-one knows you. Things you once took for granted are hard to obtain. Utility companies may want hefty deposits, insurance for anything is high (you’re an unknown quantity), banks might charge you for everything from cheques to exceeding your transaction limit, and, as a new customer, you have no power to challenge them. On a work visa, you are a temporary entity and no-one is willing to give you credit without major surety. It can be a costly experience, and that’s just the financial aspect.

A life on hold

In both the workplace and everyday life, it takes time to get up to speed with “how we do things here”, to learn the differences in communication and inter-personal relationships, to be sure you are making yourself understood. Simple things, like visiting the doctor, organising your finances, driving or crossing the road are done completely differently. You have to relearn everything, phraseology, directions, procedure. As with any learning situation, you need the ability to laugh at yourself and recognise your “ignorant” status. Charging around as though you know it all won’t win you any friends. It’s a little like re-potting a plant. Once you re-plant it in its new site, it takes time to put down new roots and secure its position. Only when this is done is it able to turn its energy to growing and maturing. People are the same.

Here one minute, gone the next

The transient nature of the expatriate lifestyle can have a negative effect on the interpersonal relationships of locals and expats, and their perceptions of each other. Even with the best of intentions and willingness to learn, expats cannot become locals – they have not shared the history or grown up in the same context. Given time, they can participate in their new environment to the point where they become a member of the community and not an outsider. Often though, they arrive, go through the initial period of culture shock and adjustment, and by the time they and their families have re-adjusted and are able to fully immerse themselves in their new life, it’s time to move to the next posting. People don’t always want to invest in a relationship they perceive to be temporary. There may be an attitude of getting as much as possible out of an overseas worker, which can feel exploitative and insincere to the expatriate, though often is not. Conversely, native workers may feel resentful that an outsider has been brought in, replacing the natural successor to the post.
As long as you “put yourself out there” and make an effort to get to know people, on their terms, they are usually more than happy to welcome you and feel proud to help you understand your surroundings. But you HAVE to put yourself forward – this is no time to be a shrinking violet.

Once you leave you can never go back

To succeed as an expat you need Emotional Resilience, the ability to adapt to the curve-balls life throws, while maintaining a strong sense of ones own identity. But how do you identify yourself when you no longer “fit” in any particular country? Expats and their Third Culture Kids (TCKs) have to find something deeper to identify with than nationalism/patriotism. They may still feel love for a home country but are no longer considered “kin” by its inhabitants, having adopted different attitudes, behaviours and perspectives. Once you leave and become an expatriate, your place in the fabric of your home country alters.

The loneliness of long-distance life

Ultimately, back home, your old ties and relationships change, the dynamic is different and life continues without you. You can no longer be around for the births, deaths and marriages you would have been attendant to. Before you know it, you no longer fit in either location. It’s as though you’ve been cut loose – very freeing, but also, potentially very isolating.

“The dirty secret of the expat life is that it can be a lonely and isolating experience.  Take away the novelty, the exotic flavor, the new experiences and you may find you are simply a person without friends and family.  That’s a sobering thought.”

Michael Harling, Author of “Postcards from across The Pond”

You just never know

Even the seemingly spoilt execs don’t lead a completely charmed life. If there is one certainty in the expat lifestyle, it’s the uncertainty. You can’t plan where you’ll be in the future. Once the job comes to an end, without permanent resident status, you have no legal right to stay in the country. In times of trouble, with cuts, redundancies or social unrest, expats may find themselves in the painful situation of having to pull children out of school mid-term, leave behind pets and go – severing friendships, ties and the hard-won familiarity of everyday life. The level of stress this causes is unimaginable.

It goes without saying that an expat lifestyle brings benefits and skills to both adults and children alike:

  • The ability to adapt quickly to new situations
  • Willingness to relocate
  • A sense of urgency (let’s do it now, before we move again)
  • Self confidence and independence
  • Observational skills
  • Fluency in more than one language
  • Cross cultural skills
  • A global network of social contacts (which may eventually turn into business contacts)
  • A big picture view

As an expatriate, persistence will pay off and you’ll find yourself breaking through restrictive barriers of language and culture. Expat life teaches you resilience and tenacity, and a lot about yourself. It may well be seen as “nice little earner” or a “cushy number” but it comes at a price. That’s the part few people realise.