After over 12 years of full-time travel, seeing the world with an observational eye (as writers tend to do), I’ve become good at quickly distilling various cultures and behaviours to some core themes. Just take my expat friends in Tokyo, who when I listed my beefs with Japanese culture, replied only with “I don’t know how you figured all that out in just two months here”.
This is what I do.
I’m also very careful not to paint with too broad a brush, and I’ve learned that what I observe in a town or city is rarely representative of the entire country or people. Quite like my home town of Toronto Canada; it actually took me leaving Toronto (and eventually, Canada) to understand that Toronto is most certainly not Canada.
It is this level of perspective that travel affords us on the whole; perspective not only on the places we visit, but on our own backyards.
So it’s with this cautious caveat that I’d like to make some observations about expat culture: ironies, pros, and cons. While these observations may not be indicative of all expats and expat cultures worldwide, I’ve experienced a good cross-section of expat communities, the following places being just a few:
- Pisac (Peru)
- Vilcabamba (Ecuador)
- Cuenca (Ecuador)
- Veracruz (Panama)
- St. Martin (Caribbean)
- Grenada (Caribbean)
- Tokyo (Japan)
- Ubud (Bali, Indonesia)
- Chiang Mai (Thailand)
- Rishikesh (India)
- Koh Phangan (Thailand)
- Hoi An (Vietnam)
This post was originally published in 2018. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
Expat Life Irony #1: Segregation
People usually travel the world to experience other cultures, yet they tend to cluster in segregated expat communities. While expats all have different reasons for moving abroad, there’s usually some degree of wanderlust and desire for adventure in there. There’s a broadening of horizons, often while taking advantage of a cheaper cost of living. Thus, I find it bizarre that expats on the whole tend to congregate and coagulate (and I’ll admit that I’m guilty as charged on occasion).
While a little segregation isn’t necessarily a problem, I bristle when it’s accompanied by resentment of the locals and their culture, or some sense of entitlement or “better than thou” attitude. Like the woman I met in Cuenca Ecuador who complained – loudly and at great length, in the middle of a restaurant – that she’s sick of the phone company constantly calling her and talking in Spanish. “I told them, I don’t speak Spanish!” she roared. Like somehow, this was their problem.
See also: How to Become Fluent in Spanish and Other Languages
Expat Life Irony #2: Disconnection
Travel connects, but it also disconnects. Travel the world full-time long enough (like, oh, I don’t know, a dozen years), and you’ll likely feel more disconnected than connected.
I’ve actually reached a worrying point in my life, where I’m searching for “my people”, and I’m not sure such creatures even exist. I’ve been so coloured by all the places I’ve lived in and visited, that I don’t feel that I can fit into any one societal “box”, and instead feel like my greatest talent (and also my downfall) has been to fit in on a periphery level, but not much deeper.
This even happens in my home town of Toronto; one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world. I’ve never thought of myself as strongly opinionated, but the number of run-ins I’ve had with family friends – a well-educated cosmopolitain bunch, who instead exhibited closed-minded and even racist attitudes, has made me realize my tolerance for certain behaviours (and behaviour that I fear is more common than not) is minimal.
The irony is multi-fold in this situation. Most people travel to connect to the world around them, and yet, after all these years, I’ve discovered a greater sense of disconnection than ever before.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person to have felt this, because the desire for connection (and often lack of said connection in our home towns/countries) is one of the reasons why I believe expat communities exist. At least in an expat community, you’re usually surrounded by people from around the world, who generally share the common language of English, and who also tend to share the common experience of disconnection or marginalization – both by the locals at their destination, and also by their upbringings or home countries. More on this theme to come.
Expat Life Irony #3: Marginalization
This all leads to the third great irony of expat communities around the world: they’re often made up of people who don’t feel like they fit in in their home countries.
While this can often be a plus (I like people who don’t fit into societal boxes; they tend to be more interesting), it also can mean a mix of misfits that skew your sense of reality and social standards of what is acceptable.
I think of a conversation I had with an expat in Veracruz (Panama), who said matter-of-factly that the actual local town of Veracruz itself is an eyesore that should be bulldozed entirely and turned into a resort. I wonder at what point he ceased to care about the locals – in the very same town he called “home”, and at what point he decided that this kind of behaviour in a country not his own was okay. But for all his complaining about Panama, there was no chance of his returning to the U.S., where he vaguely indicated there were too many bridges burned – which made me wonder what circumstances drove him to leave the U.S. to begin with. (See also: Panama – A Wild West)
Expat Life Irony #4: Exploitation vs. Appropriation
I was recently perusing pictures of my time in Tokyo, when I attended a local festival in a borrowed yukata (a casual kimono) and did my best to “blend in”….which in Japan is a fabulous exercise in both irony and futility. I later watched a vlog made by some Tokyo expats who were accused of cultural appropriation for wearing yukata. Expats have a tough gig; don’t try hard enough to fit in and you’ll be accused of cultural exploitation. But try too hard and it’s cultural appropriation. You can’t win!
EXPAT LIFESTYLE: PROS and CONS
With these basic ironies established, let’s dive deeper with some pros and cons to expatriate life and expatriate communities around the world.
PRO – Connection
As much as I’ve been talking about disconnection, one of the initial things I’ve found about every expat community I’ve observed, is that it’s easy to connect with other expats. There are active expat groups on Facebook, with regular events designed to provide socializing opportunities. Even outside of organized events, simply hang out in a known expat establishment long enough, and you’ll be approached. This happened to me while hanging out at “Dingo Deli” in Hoi An, Vietnam, and it ended up being quite an educational experience. (See also: Expat Life in Hoi An)
In fact, it seems easier to meet and connect with other expats in such communities than it is to meet and connect with people “back home”, who are often beholden to a more rigid and isolating routine of work and family.
There’s a real bonding factor to being part of a select group of people who call a foreign town/country “home”. Friendships can grow quickly, perhaps because we are all marginalized to an extent. In Chiang Mai (the digital nomad centre of the universe) with minimal effort, I had a very active social life! (See also: Nimman: The Chiang Mai Bubble)
CON – Integration: Questionable
So while expats are all busy connecting with one another in expat communities, it also means they’re not busy connecting with the locals and the local culture where they live. This is understandable to an extent; in Asia, the linguistic and cultural divide is so vast, that (in my experience) it’s incredibly difficult to meet and have a genuine connection with a local. While it’s certainly possible, it takes a long time, and it’s more of an extenuating circumstance than a normal occurrence.
This, from a reader:
“I was considering having a home base somewhere like Mexico or Guatemala, so I would be able to continue to live on $1,500/month and not have to go back to work. A friend of mine raves about his life in Guatemala, about how I should move there and embrace the Guatemalan culture. But when I look closely at his life, I see that he associates almost entirely with Canadian and American expats. He might live among Guatemalans, but he surrounds himself with people who share a familiar language and culture.”
This reader also quickly added that there’s nothing wrong with that (hey – different strokes for different folks).
In my experience, this self-segregation of expats can lead to bigger problems with the local community (especially in developing countries), who in turn can start to resent expats for coming in and exponentially raising the cost of living, which ultimately forces locals who have lived there for generations to move away. I saw this in Vilcabamba Ecuador, where for a while, the resentment ran so deep that foreigners were actually being attacked. I also felt something similar brewing in the little fishing town in Panama where I house-sat for a few months.
PRO – Variety
There’s no arguing this one: expat communities are rich in variety. People from all over the world gather to hang out in a place that is foreign for everybody. While English is often the common language, it’s also regularly a second language for expats, who can hail from various parts of Europe in addition to North America, South Africa, and Australasia.
CON: Same Same But Different
A friend of mine who has lived around the world for the last 20 or so years made some fascinating observations to me about expat culture. She distinguished two main groups of expats. The first (a much smaller group relatively speaking) is pretty well integrated into the environment, and makes every effort to speak the language and socialize with locals. As a result they are less engaged with expat communities – and also, are not the subject of most of the observations in this article.
Then, there’s the “Other” kind of expat. In her words:
“Expats who drift like oil on the top of wherever they are, taking as much as they can from the environment as it stands and then converting the environment around them into as much like “home” as they can manage. This can be okay in terms of availability of yoga classes and such, but it can also be stifling, as one sees the same people everywhere, and the talk is the same (in almost every country) and the integration is more or less what HAS to be done, and not much more.”
As soon as I read this, I made connections to so many of the expat communities I’ve visited, such as Pisac, Ubud, Koh Phangan, Vilcabamba, Hoi An, and even Chiang Mai.
Regardless of terrain, I’d met all these expats before; they all have different (but similar) reasons for being on the road, and you meet them while doing downward dog, taking a mandala workshop, or at some vegan restaurant or upscale coffee shop.
PRO & CON: Cheaper cost of living
People move abroad for many reasons, including wanderlust, escaping a detrimental situation in their home country, or seeking better employment opportunities. But on the whole, I would suggest that many expats (from western countries) fall into one of two categories: they’re digital nomads, or retirees; these two groups often share a common goal of wanting to live somewhere with a cheaper cost of living.
Retirees with fixed pensions that won’t get them far in their home country can move to a country where their currency goes further to provide a much more rewarding lifestyle.
And digital nomads who are getting their online businesses off the ground can also use currency arbitrage to their favour by living in digital nomad hubs like Chiang Mai and Medellin.
This is a pro because it’s an opportunity; an opportunity to (in some cases) survive on an income that wouldn’t otherwise support these people in their home countries. And those who are a little plusher can not only survive, but thrive abroad.
But it’s also a con because it breeds a distasteful sense of exploitation. It’s what creates gated/segregated communities of expats who make no effort to integrate – or even respect – the local culture. It gentrifies and changes the societal landscape, and reeks of entitlement.
Why I’m Writing This
For the first half of my full-time travel career, I didn’t really experience expat communities. Instead I was house-sitting and volunteering in places where I found myself often alone as a foreigner and thus, integrating as much as possible.
This served me well. I started to travel full-time with a dream to “break bread around dinner tables around the world”, curious about how other people live and love and think and work.
But after about six years I craved something more.
I was tired of the extent of my linguistic connection with locals being little more than “hello” and “thank you”. Even after years of learning Spanish and living in South America, I call myself fluent, but in truth I can only communicate with the true wit and intellect of a 12 year old. This has limited the depth of connection I could experience with locals.
In other countries where English is spoken, I remained on the fringes for being either a visible or cultural minority.
I found as a result, that I’ve leaned more and more on internet relationships with (English-speaking) friends and family for satisfying conversations and advice. This further increases time spent on my computer and smartphone (in addition to my online work), and thus decreases my interaction with the local environment. While I previously thought of myself as an extrovert, I’ve become very introverted after all these years of world travel.
In the latter half of my travel career (to date), I found myself staying in various expat-heavy locations. While I dabbled with expat social circles in the Caribbean yachting community, I fully jumped into it in Pisac, Peru. After Peru, I continued to explore many well-established expat communities, partly out of curiosity, and partly (I now understand) out of a desire to connect in person, on a deeper level with people who share some sort of cultural or linguistic tie.
Also not to be underestimated is the sheer absence of familiarity and comforts of “home” that comes as a function of world travel. It’s great when you have a home to return to, but challenging when there is no baseline or element of familiarity in life.
This is why, as my friend quoted above said, many expats work hard to convert the environment around them into as much like “home” as possible. And to an extent, I too have found myself doing just this in recent years.
I only now realize how much I’ve wanted to feel “at home” since leaving Peru in 2016.
I haven’t (yet) found a place abroad that feels like “home” enough to declare it so. Instead, I’ve found a list of ironies, a few pros, and a few cons, of life as an expat that I’ve discussed in this article.
This is why, in September of 2018, I decided to set up a home base in Canada. With this home base nestled in a familiar environment and with inherent perks of Canadian residency that include stability, comfort, health care, and lack of visa dramas, I continue to explore the world intensively, but without the same underlying feelings of marginalization and disconnection that have trailed me all these years.
(See also: My Epic Search for a Home Base)
Update December 2019: Establishing a home base in my home town was a terrific move for me. While I initially felt alien to my friends and family and the place where I grew up, that has shifted. I now joke with people that I’m a “walking cliché” – I had to travel the world full-time for a dozen years to come back home and appreciate it on a new level.
But my situation is not everybody’s; not everybody wants to (or even can) return to their home countries/cities. I found a few places while traveling that could have been home for the long run. Peru in particular was a place I’d planned to grow old in, before my circumstances changed suddenly. And given that I continue to travel for about half of every year, I could well find another spot that calls me to explore a deeper longer-term life there.
Life, like travel, is unpredictable, and that’s where the magic lies.
I expect not everybody will share my observations and opinions of expatriate life around the world. That’s cool! Please share your own observations in the comments (remembering to be respectful of everybody’s experiences).
86 thoughts on “THE IRONY OF EXPAT LIFE: Pros and Cons”
It seems to me that an expat who speaks the language and has local friends (goes native) is a whole world away from the expat who just deals with other expats.
It sounds like you’re looking for your tribe…
You’re absolutely right about the expats who speak the language and “go native”!
I specifically mention this in the article; they’re hard to find because they’re so integrated, and they rarely if ever live in these kinds of expat communities.
I wonder what the line is between “expat” & “gone native”?
I also wonder about this, too, but I even take it a step further. Do I really have to “go native” to integrate into a community? I am not always sure that I want to or have to. I think it suffices that as an expat, I am in another country for a specific purpose and I will enjoy the culture as much as possible. I’ve lived away from expats, immersed in communities without any expats, and enjoyed it just as well, but never felt that I had to become a part of them and them a part of me. We are in fact different and we travel to enjoy those differences and not to become one another. So, I shy away from wearing their traditional clothing because I do not find it necessary and we are both authentic in our own interesting ways.
Great point, Ruth!
Also, I believe it’s a matter of choosing which communities we wish to be a part of. There is no right or wrong, and I think we can also enjoy the best of both worlds/types of communities if we desire! It’s about how we wish to relate to the world around us
Enjoyed your article. We keep our home base in the US so far but are spending more and more time in France. We tend to avoid the expat community. I also sense the amount of disconnect but hope on the coming years with better language skills that this will start to dissipate. I have found that joining local groups such as a cycling group and other volunteer organizations helps me to integrate into the French society. Thanks for your article.
I have heard from a few friends of mine who moved to France (and really worked hard to integrate) that it can be especially difficult to earn “local” status with the French. Participating in special interest groups is key in general, so it’s fabulous that you’re doing that!
Nora, you took on a fabulous topic and dissected it very eloquently. I was out and about for three years in volunteer capacity and immersed in a relationship (with a someone native to the country I was in). What you’ve so thoughtfully laid out in your article, I found to be so accurate on all levels. I feel so fortunate that I mainly was immersed in the local cultures so as to have organically been included and welcomed to partake of traditions (events, clothing, song/dance, etc.); a rich experience indeed.
Thank you for this piece. And, I agree that it sounds like you are in search of your tribe. Fret not, we’re out here… I’m in a holding pattern for a long minute here in the States but round two is just on the horizon. It is a unique kind of lonesome in the meantime. Chin up chica!
Thank you, Teresa!
“A unique kind of lonesome” sums it up very well! And yet, I’ve also discovered some gems back in my home town, so it’s not all bad. 😉
Where will round two take you?
Thank you Nora… reading your words spoke to me in volumes. After three years of traveling I’m heading home to be with tribe, some old and hopefully some newbies. I’ve felt disconnected for awhile and to recharge my batteries I need some ‘comfort’. That being my daughters, old friends, family and familiar ways of life.
Thx for the article.
May you recharge successfully!
Earlier this year, I found a lengthy return to my home town (and setting up an apartment there no less!) to be instrumental in helping me to ground myself and assimilate my experiences.
Even though I’m currently on the road for 5 months, knowing I have a place to return to (and the proximity of long-standing friends and family) has made my travels much “lighter”.
So when are you going to tell us where you are “on the road”? I’m always curious! We are in our “winter home” of Austin, Tx from our “summer home” of Comox, BC… It will get too cold come late January (although the weather is PERFECT here right now..) so we are headed to Maui to housesit for my nephew for a few weeks in February to March. I too want a more permanent home base and since I am a US Citizen I can’t make Comox it for a bit.. plus it rains too much in the winter. I’m from Austin but it’s a big city now and expensive! So we are considering Maui.. not too expensive there! NOT!
As you can tell, I’ve been busy creating so many “useful” guides and content for my site that I haven’t shared much in the way of personal travel stories. Never fear! More to come!
But….most of my content on here is delayed. If you want the real scoop on where I am from month to month, then sign up for my newsletter! In addition to the 2-week email course, you’ll receive monthly emails from me with a personal note about where I am, a specially curated discount or giveaway, and the latest posts on my site. You can sign up here: https://www.theprofessionalhobo.com/how-to-travel-full-time-in-a-financially-sustainable-way/
PS – I do so love Comox….but there’s no way I could hack the rain there, even in summer! I don’t blame you for escaping winters there.
Nora – I’m in no way, shape or form a long-term traveler but I can relate to so much in this story.
Since leaving my original ‘home base’ at the age of 17, I have moved from one coast of Canada to the other and back again – seven provinces (two of them multiple cities/times) while single/married/divorced. Throw in four years in Northern Quebec when I couldn’t speak French and a five year stint in Germany where I didn’t speak German. There were times where I relied heavily on defacto expat communities like the Anglophones in Quebec, the Canadians in German and my extended military family through most of. I would not have made it through the many personal/emotional/health challenges otherwise.
That said, and after 11 years in my current ‘home’ base of Ottawa, I feel more disconnected than ever and searching – always looking out for that special something that will invite me it. This isn’t it but I don’t know where/what “it” is. So I keep looking.
And in the interim, I’ve decided to travel more – my own ironic contribution 🙂
Ha ha – irony is the fabric of life, is it not?! 😉
A friend of mine who is Canadian but has lived all over Canada and the world, is currently in Quebec. She refers to being an expat in Canada, which I find a unique – and totally understandable – concept, especially in French-speaking parts of Canada as an Anglophone, where sometimes it can feel like another country.
But even moving from place to place within one’s own country can be just as isolating and challenging as moving to another country.
So I hear you….and I wish you luck in finding your own tribe and “happy place”!
Thanks Nora. btw – while I unfortunately never picked up more German than ordering appropriate food/drinks, I have become fluent in French which, while not grounding me, does facilitate some connection. I also look forward to hearing more about our travel/home base balance.
Certainly, this is so here in countries like Canada and America, where moving from one state to another, not necessarily even over a notable physical distance, can be a culture shift…if not shock. I grew up in Nevada, moved to Ohio in my late teens and found that simple change alone notable, significant, and definitely one where you either assimilated or were against the local view and honestly, exhausting.
Hi Sherry from someone born in Ottawa. I have lived here forever except for 2 years in Victoria, BC, when I got a taste of what it’s like to land in a new community not knowing anyone. I’ve travelled all over Canada and a number of times internationally solo. If I can help you to decipher the Ottawa mentality and attitude let me know. Happy to help.
Hi Linda and thanks! Very kind of you. I’m not sure how we can connect without publicly sharing emails. Perhaps Nora can help offline?
Nora, can you help us?????????????
I am connecting you both via email. Glad I could help!
#1 is true Nora and even more fascinating; people who integrate, moving away from expat communities. We are house sitting for an American expat in her 20’s here in Oman. She lives in an Arabic neighborhood – no expats here – and speaks fluent Arabic. So far, all her buddies we met are Omani. Such a change up.
Well, good for your house-sitting host for integrating completely into Omani society! I’m sure it has been a challenge, and she’s a rarity – not the types of expats I am generally referring to here.
How are you finding your time in (local) Oman?
How interesting. My plan is to be an ex-pat in my own country, although in reverse, as I moved to Australia in my 20’s and now going back to somewhere in Central Europe (most likely Prague). I will have many choices between hanging out with expats only or not at all… in reality I think everyone has to choose their path in whatever suits them best.
Great point Lubosh, that we all choose our own path and whatever suits us best. Good luck with your move!
Hi Nora, I can totally relate to everything you said. Fully matches up with my experiences, and one of the reasons I decided Ubud wasn’t for me was for lack of a suitable community for a 56-year-old single Asian-American guy. I think fluency in the local language is a huge thing. I think it takes about a year to really get to the “let’s discuss some philosophy” level of fluency where you can create a real connection with someone. Unfortunately that’s a huge investment in language learning. I consider my Spanish and Portuguese to be there. You might find this blog post to be thought-provoking: https://www.moretothat.com/travel-is-no-cure-for-the-mind/. At the end of the day I’ve made a conscious decision to have my homebase be in an English-speaking country for many of the reasons you describe. Hugs!
I had wondered how long you stuck around Ubud! Any idea where your home base will be?
By the way – that’s a fabulous article! Thanks for the link. 🙂
Living in Toronto shows you how this happens with pretty much every group of non-native people; we have Little India, Little Koreatown, Greek Town, Little Ethiopia, Chinatown, etc etc. Life is easier when there’s a shared language and culture. “birds of a feather flock together”!!
Absolutely about Toronto! In many ways it’s a city made up of expat communities. 😉
Lots of very good points, Nora. I guess my husband and I are snowbirds (though I don’t like labels!)–for the last 13 years, we have spent our winters in Guanajuato, Mexico, the rest of the year in Eureka, on the North Coast of California. I do speak excellent Spanish but never consider myself having “arrived”–I just hired two tutors to help get me to the next level.
I speak better Spanish than most expats I know, but I’m also aware that some people are just not great at language learning, no matter how much they try. My husband did time taking Spanish classes and finally decided it wasn’t his skill set. He does communicate fine in basic Spanish and Mexicans love his spirit. I’m critical of those who won’t even make an effort.
I would like more Mexican friends, but it’s not that easy to find them. Many Mexican women I know, certainly in my age group, are grandmothers taking care of their grandchildren and amas de casa, and don’t circulate. One way I meet people is by teaching and facilitating groups in Spanish, as I do in English, and that is a win-win–it helps me connect and hopefully it is helpful to the folks in the group.
You bring up a great point about how it is difficult to truly befriend locals. I guess it depends on both locations and demographics. I’m glad you’ve found a way through your classes to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to meet. It’s so important – especially when you spend half your time there! I’m glad you’ve made a go of it.
(Also, I hear you on the language learning – it’s a pet peeve of mine when people don’t try to learn or practice).
I felt like I could have written this exact article…but never as eloquently! I totally understand and I think we probably have more in common that we know. There aren’t many of us who have been traveling for 12 years – it’s great and it’s detrimental at the same time.
Congrats on your new home! It is really exciting isn’t it? As you know – I settled in my new ‘home’ in Denver last year and I”m still getting used to is and having struggles and trying to fit in. It’s hard when I”m still gone for 50% of the time. But I’m still happier here than anywhere else and I feel like I”m going in the right direction!
Thanks for weighing in! I think you and I are two peas in a pod….we just haven’t had much of a chance to hang out in the same pod together! 😉
It was shortly after you set up your place in Denver that I thought “what a great idea!”. So you’re part of my inspiration. 🙂 I too, feel like I’m moving in the right direction with my latest home base, and despite the fact that I can’t fit a couch and a desk into my luggage, I’m feeling pretty good about it all. Ha!
As a former expat who lived for a few years in Chiang Mai and later Madrid (by way of London), this is all so so true. Thank you.
Thank YOU, Diana! Glad this resonated for you.
Oh this can be a touchy subject and I think you wrote about it so well. I kept nodding my head on all your points. I too have a few article ideas drafted that also talk about entitled expat (and traveler in general behavior.) Like you example about the phone company, how many times I will either be sitting or overhear a server ask someone if they would like another beer or something and they so loudly yell, ‘heck yes, it’s so cheap I’ll have 3 more!’ Or something like that. It always makes me cringe bc the product might not be cheap for the local community and it always seems insensitive to me. Anyway – great points. Thanks for sharing.
Funnily enough, the cheap cost of living is a double-edged sword for the local communities, in my opinion. I’m drafting an article at the moment about how we unwittingly harm other economies/cultures by (for example) knowingly overpaying for things because it’s cheap for us.
If a child who stands outside a hotel in local garb and sells mass-produced keychains can earn more money than a doctor, why on earth would they go to school? Now, what if an entire country thought the same way? PROBLEMS. 😉
Totally insightful, Nora. After spending a couple of years in Europe and seven in Asia, I think about expat life a lot. I was mostly in expat communities (due to no one else wanting me haha) but in other cases I plunged into full-on local immersion. Both nomadic experiences had amazing highlights, painful lowlights and everything else between. Coming back to Canada, the disconnection – your point number two – was worse than any culture shock I’d experienced in a new place. Not so much with other people, but disconnection with my travelling self, I think.
Fascinating that you identify the disconnection on returning to Canada being with your travelling self rather than other people! I’d not thought of it that way. Wow!
I hope we get a chance to sit down over coffee and discuss this further….when I return to Toronto after the winter. 😉
Such a good point about ‘the disconnection of coming home, not so much with other people – but the disconnection with travelling ‘self”. I came back into a huge depression (honestly), from doing 8 months travelling/moving across The Americas – which as you said can be VERY lonely but also exhilarating and liberating. The photo’s ‘look cool’. Firstly I was young and so still ‘lost and searching’ deep down. Secondly I did an ‘extreme’ trip moving consistently and hiking in physically challenging conditions (aka came back literally physically a whole new shape as a ultra distance athlete….LOL!!) and thirdly I had no financial career set up, so home became overwhelming with routine and unemployment. Now I’m 26 I sense it will be very different if I make a move, this time for work. In that I am aware of the potholes, the mental health stuff, the need to keep my days fuller, the lack of being able to rest on my laurels financially/security wise, the dissonance moments.
So lessons for late twenties me (personal to my preferences):
1. I decided that I would only ever do such a long trip (more than 1 month) if it was intrinsically work related (expat life).
2. I would prefer to have a financial set up at home (… Not sure how to do that in Sydney hahaha $$ but that would be the dream).
3. I must get up early and keep trying new things when overseas. But acknowledge my boundaries – SLEEP!
4. My go to with anxiety is overeating ahahaha so, to mitigate this with more physical activity like hiking with a new friend.
5. Learn the language as best as possible, try to find some local friends (… What can I offer them in their lives that will help, or inspire them in their routine?… If anything…? Rather than just expecting they would want to invest their few non work hours into someone who can’t find their humour, is a fully fledged adult and who knows I’ll leave eventually).
6. Find a way to contribute to my DIRECT community back home. A tangible way (not just on emails, phone, photos). Community takes effort and improving the local community takes sacrifice. I notice that it’s these people who show up everyday who feel more fulfilled but also beloved because they’re actively maintaining or improving the direct land on which they were born/are earthed to. Sort of an Indigenous Australian concept that I have found to ring true.
7. Always have a good set of health (not just insurance) funds for back up. I always get sick or injured. Australia is pretty breezy for that stuff fortunately.
8. Maybe go with a partner, best case scenario? Haven’t tried it. Could also be stifling – unless truly in love and understanding of each other.
9. Don’t expect to feel, like you haven’t been a bit of a blip in time (for yourself, but mostly others) unless you truly give back. It takes time. Even in Sydney I don’t feel that so much because I shy away at home too much and everyone’s so busy.
10. The loneliness, and the void haunts everyone, at home or not at ‘home’. Relax into it. Have some sort of spiritual (or something) practise. Even just a mini shrine of some self care items. Brighten up your space.
This applies to travellers and expats perhaps. Perhaps not.
I might be moving to Geneva for short time, which I heard is voted the worst for expats hahahaha wish me luck.
What I learnt about myself. I am actually very comfortable as someone eloquently said ‘being unashamedly myself’ and therefore I am OK not relying on all the feedback from my friends about who I am, and how great I am. Ok, of course I need it, that’s human, but I think that makes me someone able to adventure and play with that unknown more easily. Though I do need something that links me to purpose and belonging of course. An overall ‘purpose’.
As much as I want to experience living in countries where I don’t speak the language and where the culture is vastly different to my own, I have enjoyed being an expat in other English speaking countries because, while the culture is similar and the language the same, there were still a large amount of differences to my home country of New Zealand, differences that really start to become apparent once you live there. Because of the shared language I was able to connect with locals on a deeper level and had no need to be part of an expat community. I have lived in the UK, Australia, Canada and now the US for a total of 14 years and have a much deeper understanding of the people of these countries than I would have, have I only been a tourist.
You make an excellent point! I too, spent the first half of my traveling career (thus far) largely basing in English speaking countries – quite unintentionally! And like yourself, it was easier to make meaningful connections with others in these places.
As a traveler for nine years, I’m appreciating all your points–and they are all delicate points, difficult to describe. It’s ironic that travelers often end up in a virtual no-man’s-land. I’ve found, too, that a corollary of the disconnection abroad is a disconnect ‘back home,’ when friends and family ask about your travels but don’t really have the interest or capacity to listen to the answer.
Ah yes….the ever-present “tell me about your travels!” question/lie. I’ve learned that people are genuinely interested, but for various reasons lack any kind of attention span for you to go into any depth about the trip.
I deal with this by giving a very quick summary of what I did, and leaving it at that. (It’s usually just enough for their eyes to start glazing over – ha ha).
Then, over the course of time, I work travel stories into conversations contextually, and in a way that isn’t threatening or too showy.
Thanks for a really thoughtful dissection of expat life Nora. Sherry’s Facebook post brought me here.
I definitely agree it’s easier to make friends with other expats than it is (generally, at least in my experience) to create new friendships in one’s 30s and 40s back at home. It’s not impossible to start new friendships at home but there is something magical about the creative people who left their home countries to try something new. I complained of loneliness back in the Bay Area where everyone was so busy, and there are different reasons to feel lonely in Buenos Aires. But it’s possible I spend more time in person with my friends here.
I find my expat friends in Buenos Aires to be very adventurous and creative. One left a dictatorship in Turkey, another left a more sexist environment in Colombia. So there are other reasons that people migrate around the world. My reasons are economic at this point. Since I want to focus creatively on a book, it’s easier to do that in a city with a lower cost of living for a person earning in dollars.
In Buenos Aires the tango expats have the tango culture to share–that’s a whole other story of integration and not. The expat tangueros, the local tangueros.
On the flip side, the expat life feels temporary and my desire for roots and community has been growing. As serious health crises happen for loved ones at home I feel more of a pull home.
I do think it could come in waves though–time at home and time abroad. It’s such the archetypal tension, the desire for adventure and the desire for roots and community. I too will be looking to create my home base soon!
Thank you for your thoughtful comment and observations!
I agree that it’s common to meet up with expat-friends more often than friends in your home town. Something about the adventure of travel, perhaps? Makes it more important to connect? Dunno.
I hope you find your perfect home base!
Oh so true, and well expressed. We all feel this I am sure.
Back at home ‘with roots and community’ and I almost feel ready to shirk it off again. Because, partly, I don’t feel I am contributing much here anyway. In late 20s, it’s already getting to that slightly tricky time where appreciation, new friendships, energy levels are dwindling. People know what they ‘want’ now, and don’t want to be influenced or give up their safety nets or boundaries. I found acting, improvisation – one of the first times I felt connection and childish joy again.
It wasn’t competitive, it was silly and I felt safe, free and alive. I recommend it to anyone feeling ‘disconnected’.
As I was saying, I guess I don’t feel entrenched or valued at home as much here either. This is partly because I’m not giving/sacrificing as much, and most of my job is back ‘online’ – HARDLY CONNECTION. For an animal sensory body this is just looking at a screen all day – this is the key truth I’ve come to. But I think it’s also because of this… There are less ways to actively feel one has had an impact or genuinely valued in the day to day. Whether it’s everyone’s differentiating focus. Rather than on building community spirit, it’s on the wheel of family/self focuseddrudge of work life/lack of vulnerability or fun/complacency that builds up when you’ve lived somewhere your whole life.
I think the older I get, it feels harder and harder. More and more sort of isolated and irrelevant. The greatest gift in life is to give so much, you feel appreciation and need in return. Slightly egoic perhaps but also a great reward for giving. Love I think they call it? Not just in the codependant/romantic type.
Gosh this article is really interesting. I am an international school teacher and I have spent most of my career living in other people’s countries. It’s true what you say about feeling disconnected when you go home but also finding your own ‘tribe’. Interesting about language too, I’m from the UK and I have spent the last six years working in an American school with mainly American staff. Another massive disconnect even though we speak the same language we actually don’t at all! For about three years I had to explain that I had just made a joke as the British humour is often darker and my colleagues just thought I was a horrible person. So I do think that language closes some barriers but truly a shared culture is what it is about. Isn’t it funny that I’m currently looking for my next overseas posting but trying to get further from beautiful Asia and closer to ‘home’. It’s a funny thing but as you said, when you’ve been out so long it’s hard to know where you actually belong!
I’ll admit, I’ve enjoyed more than a few cultural surprises through the English language! I spent many years basing in places like Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, and even the Caribbean – the common denominator for all places being English as a first language.
As a linguist, I enjoy observing the differences in language, but you bring up a great point about humour and intonation being a struggle at times.
I hope you find an International School that ticks all your boxes! Happy searching. 🙂
I’ve been an expat for 8 years. German girl in California. I’d thought the period of being an “expat” expires after a while and you will just be “at home” but now, I truly believe that you will never fit quiet in despite mastering language, culture, humor, slang etc. First, I had other expat friends because it was a great way to discover the country together. As an expat you are on a different schedule despite full time work. After about 4 years, I stepped away from the expat community and actively looked for local friends. I avoided any new arriving expats at all cost because I was tired of saying hello and goodbye. For about a year, I really tried hard to make local friends – I have to be honest, it turned out to be a pretty lonely year with only superficial friendships despite me trying so hard. I spend 6 years in college and I never felt as segregated. I just couldn’t make any friends. I almost doubted myself: what’s wrong with me? is it my accent? Am I not fun to be around? I now believe that people fear anything that is different/out of the norm and they rather mingle with their “own”. I even noticed that at the California State Universities students would literally congregate according to their nationalities even though everyone grew up in the States – filipinos on one side of the class, Koreans on the other, white dude surfers in the back. I got along well with my filipino classmates but I never really felt completely integrated. So I gave up: but then without trying I made a local friend and she is awesome- fun & open-minded – just like us expats. It took me 8 fucking years to make 1 single friend but it was worse it. 😀
I’m sorry you’ve had such a hard time finding your niche in California. (Yay for finding an awesome friend! I believe just a few solid friendships are better than many superficial ones).
I think your observations may be more common than we think. I also think it depends on the location. Perhaps in a place like Toronto or New York (very multicultural places) you may have had an easier time. Then again, who knows.
Enjoyed your article and agree with most of what you said. I will add one additional take on our experiences living for the past four years in Thailand, coming from America. Maybe it’s because we are over 50, maybe not but learning Thai is extremely difficult. It is a tonal language, and the alphabet is completely different. It takes years and hundreds of hours of study to even come close to being fluent. And that is the only way to truly integrate here where the level of English spoken by locals is low.
That said, no one wants to wait that long to have friends. So we tend to gravitate to the expat groups for a social life. We are lucky that many of the expat men are married to locals whose English is quite good. They help us with our Language skills and teach us about the local culture. We often travel with them and have much more immersive experiences than we would with just other expats. They are also good at keeping us in check for not “spending” in a way that makes it difficult for the locals; as in paying too much for local help just because we can afford it, making it difficult for the Thais to afford the same help as expectations rise due to our overpayment.
So, it is possible to have expat and local friends in this way which has been a real joy for us.
Wow! Thanks for sharing. Sounds like you’ve struck a great balance to get the best of both worlds and also remain culturally sensitive. Language can certainly be a barrier, especially in much of Asia where it involves foreign characters and tones that are very difficult for Westerners to pick up. Good for you for trying!
I can definitely identify myself in your article. I’ve been living for almost a decade in Berlin (I originally come from Athens) and most of the pros (some cons, too) apply to me. I have lived in the past in Oslo and Paris, but in Berlin I thought of integrating properly: I learned the language and I had some (odd) locals-only policy: I almost refused for a couple of years to have non-German friends. I thought that I would never be part of society and also I didn’t want to have somebody with my daily life stuff (taxes, banks, etc). In the end, I somehow felt that I limited myself so I tried to meet with people all over the world. Berlin is a fantastic melting pot and I think it’s by far the most multicultural in Europe.
Anyway, I don’t want to take advantage of your comments area, but thanks for writing this post 🙂
Thanks for sharing, George! Indeed, one of the appeals of Berlin for me is its multicultural nature. Glad you’ve found a good balance now!
I can totally resonate with your article, Nora. It’s hard to find a balance when traveling for decades. We all crave friendships and like-mindedness, yet, where to draw the line as an expat to not alter the environment we chose to settle in the first place? Pretty ironic situations, really. BTW when you mention “Medellin”, do you mean the one in Colombia?
And, I hear you about faltering friendships and not fitting in your home country. Guilty as charged. Actually, one of my bio’s starts with “she never fit into any box”. 🙂 Yet, lots of international friendships have become better than ever thanks to the internet.
While I’ve been a (digital) nomad since 2003, I’ve never been an expat or I have never lived in one place for years at a time. Which brings me to the last part of your post… Travel is tiring and I totally understand your desire to have a home base. Once in a while, I’m wishing for this as well, but we don’t have the money, and quite honestly, we haven’t found the ideal place yet. One day, we might get ourselves a tiny cabin somewhere, maybe in the tropics, to finally put those tubs of souvenirs, stored with family, to good use. 🙂
You’ve been on the road longer than I have! Thank you for sharing your experiences and opinions.
I think if we travel slowly enough, perhaps the need for a long-term home base lessens. Certainly each of my home bases came right after a really active bout of travel that exhausted me. Having one place to stay became a necessity in many of those times.
A tiny cabin in the tropics sounds idyllic! I hope that you find the perfect home base when the time is right.
BTW – Yes, Medellin in Colombia. 🙂
Lots of spot-on observations here, Nora. I am a third culture kid who lived entirely among the locals (no other expats around besides my mom and sister!) in Mexico as a child (from age 8-13). We lived the same lifestyle as our Mexican neighbors and our friends were all locals–friendships which have lasted to this day in many cases. Having traveled all 7 continents as an adult, I’ve observed much the same things as you in the expat communities. It’s the main reason we opted for Loja over Cuenca or Vilcabamba while spending several months in Ecuador, for example. Thanks for writing this. I think it’s important to raise awareness of these issues.
I must admit, knowing of your experience, I was wondering what you’d made of these observations, so I’m glad you weighed in!
Wow so happy to have found you! Your experiences and outlook truly fascinate me! I really wish we could meet. I can definitely relate to your perspective and insights. I appreciate that you share your experiences with us all!
Thank you, Amanda! It’s nice to meet you virtually, if not in person. 🙂
Great post Nora. I relate to a few of these points as an expat/trailing spouse for the last 6yrs (Singapore and US). Fitting in with locals is definitely easier when there is a common language, but complicated by socioeconomic and political differences.
I’ve also begun to wonder if being an expat is one of many life choices that keeps me separated from others. Maybe I’m just fundamentally different and wanting to travel/live around the world instead of a more traditional lifestyle is a symptom of that!?
For example, being childless by choice. I have a community of locals and other trailing spouses around me, but I’m the only one without kids and that’s a big connection/ disconnection point. If I went home, I’d be in the same boat with my lifelong friends. Just something I’ve been pondering… I guess I too am looking for “my people”!
OMG I totally get where you’re coming from! And in my humble opinion – at least for me, with a dose of perspective – I do think that making the choice to travel/be an expat on the move as a lifestyle comes with the consequence (whether intended or not) of separation. Not always, and not everywhere, but….
I can also say, now that I’ve had a chance to set up a home base in my home town, that I feel a sense of separation much less than I had anticipated. I would have figured that there would be a social chasm even among family and lifelong friends (who have children themselves, while I choose not to). In fact, there is no chasm for the most part. Perhaps I’m lucky, or perhaps this is common. Either way, I’m pleased to have a home – and tribe! – that is familiar and welcoming.
I hope that you are able to find the same! I’m just here to say it’s possible. 🙂
So glad to hear fitting in back home has been easier than anticipated, Nora! Definitely hopeful news for those of us yet to return.
Wonderful article, Nora. I am nearing retirement age. My husband and I would like to live somewhere less expensive than the U.S. We aren’t particularly wealthy and don’t have to have the best of everything. However, our main social group is the Episcopal Church – a branch of the Anglican Communion. It’s English-speaking. If we choose to live in a foreign country, will we ever find the kind of community we have with our church? We have dinner with church friends 1-3 times per week and have active roles in services a couple of times a month. Any expats out there who are active in church?
I have no idea about church activities abroad, however it shouldn’t be too difficult to find out if Episcopal/Anglican churches exist in places you’re considering.
Once you determine if there’s a church there, you can visit the country – and church – and see if the vibe is what you’re looking for.
Generally speaking, churches are very local and community-oriented, so joining a congregation abroad could be a way into a considerably more integrative life abroad than just hanging out with expats.
Very interesting article. I’ve read it, and the comments. I’m a white US male considering spending some early retirement years abroad in a developing nation. In that context, it sounds like:
— The purposes of studying a language I don’t already speak are (a) day-to-day functionality and (b) making a gesture or displaying respect to the people of the host country but probably not (c) reaching a point of deep or meaningful friendship or mutually entertaining camaraderie with locals. At best, I may acquire some secondhand native perspective through bilingual natives who are married to or otherwise involved with me or my circle of expats.
— Unless ties to the home base are deep, its personal significance may erode more than one might expect, though this erosion may not become apparent until one returns to it. A person who plans to spend years away may be best advised to think of it more for its practical uses (e.g., a place to return to in case of medical emergency) than as a social or emotional refuge.
— Among those who move abroad for reasons of lifestyle (as distinct from career or business opportunity), social life among expats may be better than social life back home, for several reasons: expats tend to be somewhat isolated from the society at large, due to language and culture, so their social energies may be more focused on the expat community; the local expat community is smaller than Chicago (i.e., at some point you may have to learn to get along with the people you have, because the supply is limited); and the expat population is easier to have fun with because it is much more oriented toward social and tourist activity than the population of any place back home, where most people are working, raising kids, or otherwise busy.
— Social depth among expats may be limited because many (especially non-retiree) expats are relatively transient: there for a year or two, but then off to somewhere else.
— Social interactions among expats may be variously fostered and/or impaired by the probability that many of us are there because we didn’t like, didn’t fit into, couldn’t afford, or were otherwise not embraced into the bosom of our communities of origin. Like, a jigsaw puzzle composed of pieces randomly lifted from other puzzles may be strong on novelty as distinct from coherence. The key word may be “individualism.”
That’s how it sounds: not grim, but also not enchanting; mostly just different from life in one’s homeland, in ways that could be promising but could also take some getting used to.
Wow – a very thoughtful summation of what you learned from reading my article. Thank you!
I also adore your reference to an expat community being like a jigsaw puzzle composed of pieces randomly lifted from other puzzles. Brilliant.
While I believe you grasped the overall picture by summing it up as “not grim, but also not enchanting”, I’d also say that expat life can be downright delightful if you find the right place and the right “tribe”. I would encourage you to check out a few places, and stay in each one for a few months, before you commit to one place being your expat haven of choice.
Also regarding language – if you learn the language well enough, you can indeed transcend cultural and intellectual barriers that may keep other expats at the periphery, and you can integrate more fully into the local social scene and develop deep bonds with local people, which can be very rewarding. There are plenty of expats who do this; ironically you’re also less likely to meet them as they don’t tend to hang out with other expats as much.
In the end, it boils down to your intention for living abroad. If one doesn’t have a deep desire to really know and integrate with local culture, then it won’t happen, and the experience will be different. Not bad, just different (and maybe a bit ironic – ha ha).
Wow! I just started reading your observations, and I love your analyses. I’m looking forward to going back and finishing reading your thoughts. We’re thinking about moving to somewhere else and for now, I’m trying to look out for unanticipated downsides to doing so. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!
One thing I’m starting to appreciate is the difficulty of arranging information and knowledge about one’s prescription medication needs, especially if one is older and considering moving to a different country. Clearly, that hasn’t been a concern of yours to date, but, given the difficulty, it is interesting to note overall, how little is easily accessed about such a basic need for many.
I am signed up with IAMAT and am digging in there, but, so far, my sense is, one needs to contact, country by country, an embassy and ask for specific information of who to contact…if one plans to stay somwhere longer than 30 days.
Also, it seems, possibly talking to someone with a travel insurance company, one could get in country links/resource contacts to ask before staying somewhere long term and risking mailing one’s prescriptions regularly through shipping companies from one’s US pharmacy.
Do you have any thoughts?
I think you may be pleasantly surprised at what is available at pharmacies abroad; you won’t likely need to bother with mailing prescriptions from the U.S..
If I were in your shoes, I would take a close look at what medical facilities are available in the country/countries you’re considering moving to. Ecuador, for example, has a pretty comprehensive program that seniors can pay into and have all their medial needs covered.
The problem with travel insurance is, in most cases, existing conditions (which would include issues for which you have prescriptions) won’t be covered under the policy, so they may not be super helpful for you.
I would highly suggest reading a book by my colleague called Better Life for Half the Price. It profiles many destinations that people might want to relocate to (for example, to make retirement dollars go farther). It includes a ton of resources, including a rundown of medical programs in each country, and much more. Here’s a link: https://tinyurl.com/yx34num3
Very thoughtful. Thanks for pointing out how easy it is to segregate yourself and not get to ‘know’ your new home. This article provides a balanced approach that does not over romanticize being an expat.
Thank you, STBJ! I wish that every aspiring expat (especially retirees and digital nomads) could read and consider these points before they move abroad.
These are fantastic observations and while I don’t relate to many of them personally, I have made very similar observations.
The part that spoke to me the most was the ever-growing need for home after years of being “in transition” so to speak. That’s something that really struck a nerve in me. I guess after years of exploring you kind of just don’t really care what else is “out there”. Instead, you just want to feel comfortable in your own skin and in your own space. It’s lovely to read that it’s possible to find that place.
Thank you for such an honest post!
Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad you could relate.
For me personally, now that I have my own comfortable space, I am able to relate to the rest of the world a bit differently (and I’m excited about each trip I take again, with renewed energy and contextual grounding).
Hey Nora, thanks for the great post! There is so much in here I can relate to in this especially the feelings of disconnection I am going through. You are so spot on about the self-segregation. I just wrote a post on a similar topic and quoted you: https://www.antoineart.com/artist-blog/the-life-of-a-serial-expat
Happy travels! x
Thanks for sharing you thoughts! I love what your kids say: that they’re American, with South African parents, living in India. This is the world we live in! 🙂
I really resonated with this article.
I lived in southern Spain for 20 years – in the middle of the countryside about 3km from the closest village, which was 50km from Sevilla. I lived with a local chap, and so mixed with the natives… although being introverted and not really into the wild partying partaken of in southern Spain on a continual basis, I did not always get involved. There were one or two other Brits in the area, who I was also friends with – although we were certainly NOT an expat community and were all way more integrated than that!
I spent the first about 15 years translating online, so tended to go out to shop or mix with my partner’s family and friends…
The last 5 years, I worked as an English teacher in an academy in Sevilla… The other teachers were a mixture of younger people, who were travelling and stopped in Sevilla for a year or two, and older people who were more settled in the area. It was, however, interesting that the majority of them were much more “ex pats” and tended to mix more with English-speaking friends than locals.
I have never really felt at home anywhere and, for the last year (until the lockdowns) was travelling around Spain and France in my motorhome, doing a lot of housesitting… Doing this I felt much more in my element, as I wasn’t expected to feel at home, so could just get on and do my own thing, while fitting in as well as possible with the animals and the neighbours… I am currently staying with my parents, which WILL be “home” for a while, as I’ve been offered a cottage here while I help them in their declining years…
I guess that one day I may find my place.. but meanwhile, the travelling lifestyle seems to resonate well with me!
Thanks for sharing your experience, Fiona, and for your insights.
I hope you start to feel at home in your cottage near your family. I never thought I’d feel at home again in my home town (where I’ve returned to be close to my parents as well), but I must admit I’ve done pretty well by it.
Love this! Completely resonated with me. I’m in a similar situation and am working on making my home base my home country whilst also being able to satisfy my travel addiction.
Good luck in your search J! Now that I have a couple of years of experience in having a home base in my home country plus traveling about half of each year (cumulatively, pandemic notwithstanding), I can say it’s great.
Hello. I stumbled upon your site because I was thinking about some of the ethical implications of expat life. In particular, countries in central and south America whose citizens have been exploited in the United States. Some of the same people who treated them like dirt are now living in these countries, exploiting them again for the low cost of living.
I am considering a move to Portugal this coming year and am following several expat groups on FB and elsewhere. Frankly, the entitled attitudes of some of the members is appalling. Then there is the business of locals losing their homes because of gentrifying expat high prices. Yes, it gives me pause.
I guess what bothers me is the idea of “living your dream” and “having your adventure” in a place where the locals are struggling with low wages and poverty. It all just seems so shallow, especially when combined with isolation into expat communities.
You’ve made some great points and thanks for the article (and for letting me vent).
Absolutely. I agree. Where is the line between enjoying a higher quality of life through currency arbitrage, and exploiting the place you’re visiting to the point of leaving the locals worse off?
My experiences traveling and living around the world have brought me to the conclusion that the single strongest way to feel assimilated is to speak the native language. It does not matter if you suck at it. Expressing yourself in the native tongue has such a powerful effect on how you are accepted and perceived.
I couldn’t agree more, Michael! Well said.