The life of an expat, or “expatriate” to use the correct word, can be strange at times. I should know. I’ve been one since 1976.
To be honest, I’m not really sure what an expat is. My dictionary mentions “banish” and “exile” but I don’t feel I’ve been banished nor exiled from anywhere. I made a conscious decision to start the life of a nomad. And although no one knows what the future holds, I expect I haven’t stopped moving. As you will see from my blog, I certainly haven’t stopped travelling.
My dictionary also says “to withdraw oneself from residence in or allegiance to one’s native country.” Yes. That sounds more like it.
But the fact is, there are different kinds of expats, so I feel someone needs to invent some new adjectives.
The typical expat would be the employee of a multinational company who gets transferred to some foreign location she or he knows little about, and ends up with the expected “expat package” of high salary, paid accommodation, live-in maid, driver, club membership, and a well-funded expense account.
This type of expat usually knows that the length of time in the foreign “posting” is limited to a few years, and makes only a minimal attempt at learning anything about their temporary country of residence. They mix with other expats and spend their lives grumbling about “them” – a word that seems to encompass all the residents of the country to which they have been posted. Then they go home and forget they were ever away. I’ve always tried to avoid these people, so let’s ignore them now and move on…
Similar to the above are the diplomats. Except that they are supposed to understand the country they’ve been posted to. But just as they are getting the hang of things, they get posted someplace else. I’ve never understood the logic in this, so let’s ignore this group too. They’re not typical expats.
There’s the more adventurous type who decide to join a large company in another country, but who also are given the expat package. Even though they may be on a fixed-term contract – because they are the ones who have made a conscious decision to live overseas they do try to learn about the culture and lifestyle of their adopted home.
Fixed-term contracts are probably the norm around the world since Immigration Departments will only issue an Employment Pass, or Work Permit, for a certain number of years. In many cases they are renewable, but not ad infinitum. The usual scenario is that during your stay you are expected to train a local worker to take over from you at some point. That’s reasonable, but inconvenient if you’ve become highly attached to your new home and don’t actually want to leave.
I remember, in Malaysia, one time I was renewing my Employment Pass – after staying far more years than would normally be expected – when an Immigration Officer asked me “Why are you still here?”
It’s tough to explain that in a small consulting company consisting of just two expats, you can’t easily replace yourself, even if you wanted to. Anyways, he followed this question with the statement that “You’re not allowed to die here.”
That of course made me want to stay forever, in the knowledge that I couldn’t die in Malaysia! But eventually it was time to move on, so here in Thailand I’m allowed to die just the same as everyone else. Well, maybe that’s not true since everyone here seems to think they will be instantly reincarnated, whereas I’m sure that once my brain cells are starved of oxygen, that’s it, game over. I’m done and dusted forever.
Then there’s the entrepreneurial expat… the one who simply wants to find a way to live in foreign countries, absorbing everything possible about their adopted homes. They tend to move first and figure the details later. They may end up working for a local company with a local salary and none of the perks, or may decide to work alone – usually doing something online, writing, blogging, developing websites, anything that will make enough money to allow them to stay. Often they find it tough to stay in a country legally since few countries have Immigration categories for self-employed entrepreneurs, so they kind-of live under the radar.
Which type am I? A mixture really. I’ve been posted to foreign countries. I’ve accepted jobs in other countries and been offered the expat package. And I’ve been the type who has just decided to move.
But we all have one thing in common. We all have to learn to get over the hump.
You see, the first three months in a new country are exciting. Everything is different. Everything is exotic. The food, the people, the culture, the scenery … it’s all new. Spare time, especially weekends, is devoted to exploring and learning. With apologies to electronics company LG … Life is Good.
Then reality sets in. The things that are different about your new country no longer seem fascinating, they become irritating. Those with fixed-term postings start to see it more as a prison sentence. They start counting the days until they are released back to their home countries. Those who willingly and enthusiastically decided to move have ever-increasing WTF moments.
But, after a few more months, everything that was different – whether initially exciting, or subsequently irritating – just becomes normal.
If you live in a place with crazy traffic rules, like Kuala Lumpur, you eventually drive like everyone else. You no longer complain. You don’t see road markings. If you do, you assume they are for tourists, or newly-arrived expats. Red lights only mean stop if they’ve been red for more than ten seconds, or you’re driving a red car.
As an aside, I remember many many years ago entertaining a visitor from Ontario. Sitting at traffic lights with cars five abreast and road markings indicating there should only only be three, my visitor sarcastically asked “Excuse me, but just exactly which lane are you in?” So I looked him straight in the eyes, and barked “Mine!”
In a restaurant you scatter chicken and fish bones all over the table without giving it a second thought. If your favorite breakfast cereals are full of ants, you don’t throw out the whole package, you savor the extra protein. If you find monkeys on your garden wall, you no longer find them cute – rushing for the camera to put photos on Instagram or Facebook – you close all the doors and windows to stop them trashing your home.
The over-the-hump expat absorbs new cultures without realizing it. Every day you learn something new, and it changes you without you knowing. And if you remain an expat long enough, you discover you can’t stop. You can’t go back. You are no longer like the people in your original country. What you call your “home country” has become the country where you currently live, not the place you were born. You have no place to go back to where you would blend in like a native. You become an expat for life.
A lot of us like life that way. But we still have to get over the hump. Which is where I am right now with my new life in Thailand. I still haven’t reached the peak, but will soon. And then life will start to seem entirely natural again. Luckily I’ve gone through this so many times it’s not entirely unpleasant.
I guess it’s like being pregnant. It doesn’t last for ever, and it has to be endured. Right now I’m only in my second trimester, but it won’t be long before I give birth to a normal life in a new world.