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Seven Reasons Not to Become an Expat

Many people harbor a secret dream of trading in their current life to become an expat. Making a break and moving abroad.

Not surprisingly, the frequency of such dreams tends to spike after you return from a wonderful vacation overseas.

Who doesn’t know someone who has sighed and murmured, ‘What I wouldn’t give to live in such an amazing place like Provence/Rome/Tahiti/fill-in-the-blank?’

But before you decide to chuck it all and head for a new life overseas, you might want to consider what’s really going on.

Here are my top seven reasons NOT to become an expat:

1. You’re ready for the ‘easy’ life. Sorry, for most of us, it doesn’t exist. If you live in Fairbanks Alaska or Aberdeen Scotland, I totally get how too many hard winters might drive you to a warmer locale. Why do you think we refer to Americans and Canadians who head south in winter ‘snow birds’?

Maybe you’ve bought into the idea that life in a tropical paradise is everything you’ll ever want: relaxing, rejuvenating, stress-free. Or you want to move to a quaint country village with the idea of living life at a slower pace. Admirable goals. But behind the easy going facade of most places, the day to day reality can be quite different. What you thought was relaxing might actually turn out to be boring; what you once considered a leisurely pace may be more of a snail’s pace.

Life is rarely what it seems. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have all of the people who thought it would be great to own a bar/restaurant/bed-and-breakfast only to learn it really meant long hours, hard work, miniscule profits, rare days off, getting up early, staying up late, making beds, cleaning bathrooms, and so on.

2. You expect to replicate your current life, and just add travel. Not going to happen. Oh sure, depending on where you move, you may be able to achieve a similar lifestyle. And for the lucky few, you may find a higher quality of life than you left behind. But for many, perhaps most, their way of life changes quite a bit. So if you dream of moving overseas and still living exactly as you do now, doing exactly the same activities, you may be disappointed.

What seems like a ‘must have, must do’ in one culture may not even be an option in another.  Which means recognizing that you probably have to leave behind your former way of life.

3. You’re unhappy with your life. Whether it’s your never-satisfied boss in your demanding drudge of a job, your inability to stomach one more day of carpooling through bumper-to-bumper traffic, or your irritating next-door neighbor that has put you over the edge, it probably isn’t enough to justify turning your world upside down, packing up and moving halfway around the world to start over. Not if you expect everything to magically straighten itself out.

Running away sounds good in theory, but rarely works in real life. Regardless of the origin of that famous quote (Buddhism? Confucius? Buckaroo Bonzai?) it’s absolutely true: no matter where you go, there you are.

4. You can live cheaply and save a ton of money. Perhaps in some places. But more than likely, this won’t be the case. In some areas, costs are considerably higher than ‘back home,’ or the taxes are more onerous.

For those places where the cost of living really is significantly lower, then you need to ask yourself why that’s the case. You may find that things are cheaper, but the selection is poor. Or local jobs pay significantly less than you’d hoped.

Maybe you’re hoping you can choose the right place abroad to make more money doing the same type of job you’re currently doing. Possibly. Just remember that when salaries and wages are higher, there’s usually a good reason: the weather is atrocious part/some/all of the year, rental/sales options on property may be limited, there’s a lack of decent schools, traffic is horrendous, the air and/or water quality are iffy, it’s challenging/boring/dangerous to live there. There’s some reason why employers have to pay more, other than out of the goodness of their hearts.

Oh, and if average earnings are high, you can bet that costs for available consumer and other goods are higher, too. Funny how the marketplace works like that.

5. Let’s just go, we’ll find work once we’re there. Maybe. But maybe not. I recognize that some expats have the luxury of being able to work anywhere in the world. (And for many of them, the caveat is ‘as long as the internet connection holds up’, which may prove to be a little dicey.)

For others, they figure it will be easier to approach employment agencies, contact companies, apply for positions and get interviews if they are actually there. That may well be true. But for every expat-to-be who has taken this tactic and succeeded, there are another dozen who run out of time, money or patience and head home.

Keep in mind that it isn’t always easy to get approval to work in a foreign country, let alone find actual work. That nasty credit crisis that has wracked the economies of so many countries is global. Companies in many countries have cut back hiring or been forced to lay off employees.

And those companies that have traditionally employed lots of expats? Many have cut back on expat packages – forcing current expats to choose between converting to ‘local hire’ status and losing some of their previous benefits and allowances for such things as housing, school and transportation costs or being let go.

6. It’ll be just like it was on vacation. No, it won’t. Not to say that it might not be great, but you can’t expect to replicate the carefree relaxation of vacation because it isn’t vacation. By definition a vacation is an escape from everyday life; if this is your new daily life, it isn’t always going to seem vacation-like.

When you’re soaking up the rays poolside at that great rental property in Tuscany, shuttling by Vespa into town for casual dinners of handmade pasta and a carafe of the local red wine, it’s easy to assume you could live like that all the time. Until you find out that riding a scooter the 3 miles into town isn’t fun mid-winter with howling frigid winds, and the darn thing only seems to work on alternating weekdays anyway.

Or that you don’t become best friends with your neighbors because they’re too busy farming the land or working in town to hang out with you, let alone spend hours helping you improve your language skills.

When you were on vacation, you never had to worry about fixing the leaky water heater or maintaining the yard or garden or paying the confusing tax bill or trying to find a reputable local contractor to help with the repairs and renovations you find yourself knee-deep in.

7. It sounds like fun, so why not try it? Well, yes and no. It can be fun. And exciting, educational, eye-opening, energizing, amazing.

It can also be uprooting, disruptive, alienating, challenging, lonely and just plain hard work.

Much has been written about the transitional phases of dealing with expat life. Labels differ according to various experts, but essentially the stages are:

  • honeymoon: everything’s so new and exciting!
  • disillusion: why do they do it this way? back home we always/never…, why is everything so hard?
  • bottoming out: feeling anything from moody to irritable to withdrawn to unhappy to angry to mildly depressed, and occasionally worse
  • acceptance: it is what it is so I’d better make peace with it, learning to appreciate the differences, looking for the positives and not dwelling on the negatives
  • flourishing: embracing what makes your expat home unique, making the most of what it has to offer, building a life that is engaging and satisfying and rewarding

These stages have been identified and discussed precisely because most people tend to go through them. Maybe not in exactly the same sequence or for the same amount of time. It may take one person six months to work their way through the phases,  another a year, someone else longer.

So in light of all this, would I still recommend becoming an expat? That depends.

IF you can:

  • let go of the fantasy of the seven reasons I’ve listed above;
  • conduct the necessary research about the potential places you’re seriously considering both to evaluate and then to prepare;
  • carry out the personal soul-searching about your motivations and whether you’re truly ready, willing AND able to embrace the roller coaster of change coming your way;
  • commit to riding out the tough times with a sense of humor or zen-like acceptance (and preferably both);
  • realize that you will likely have to give up some of the old (the familiarity of your routine, the closeness of existing friendships, seeing family as often as you may like, etc.) in order to pave the way for the new;
  • understand that it may not be forever, but just a phase in your life;
  • and you STILL feel a sense of excitement and wonder at seeing life through the lens of another country and culture…

then welcome to Expat Land!

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