Life as an expat can be unbelievably exciting, but doesn’t come without its hardships.
You’ll find yourself constantly flung out of your comfort zone, scrambling to make new friends, settling down in your new home and building yourself a new life, from the ground up.
So, is giving up everything to embark on a new life overseas really worth it?
From experience, I don’t think the answer to the question is that black and white.
Yes, living as an expat can be a wonderful and rewarding adventure. Yet, there are ultimately a lot of sacrifices to be made and sometimes the repercussions of your decisions will follow you all the way home.
This post is by no means suggesting you SHOULDN’T live overseas (perhaps despite its somewhat deceiving title!).
In my opinion, it’s one of the best things you can do in life.
You’ll meet amazing people and have all sorts of experiences you would never have dreamt of having if you’d stayed in your native country. I know I don’t regret doing it for a second.
This is merely a case of peering over the other side of the fence, past the Facebook posts and Instagram filters and appreciating the fact that some things in life aren’t as easy or simple as they appear… although typically, they are ultimately the most rewarding.
So – to expat or not to expat? The decision is yours and yours alone (as is the experience), but here are some points worth considering.
You’ll constantly have to build a new community
How easy was it to make friends when you were younger? Plenty easy, I’m sure is your answer. You could start chatting to people at school, university, an extra curricular activity, or a party, realise you had 10,000 things in common and become firm friends from that moment on.
This suddenly gets twenty million times more difficult when you become a fully-fledged adult. You and everyone else you know are suddenly so busy, rushing around with work, family obligations, gym time as you no longer have the metabolism that you did when you were 22, etc. It can be hard enough to pin down your well-established friends, let alone go through the motions of forming new ones from scratch.
Plus, you then get faced with the question of – wherever do you go to meet people?! Work is always a good place to start, but where on from there? Should you take up a language or sculpting class? Strike up conversations with people at your yoga studio? Go to a bar on a Friday night and try to worm your way into a conversation there? Attend MeetUp events? Give “friendship” apps a whirl?
It can take a really long time to form a new friendship circle – months, sometimes years in fact. And it will take a lot of effort on your part.
It can be ultimately rewarding – you’ll meet people from all walks of life and make some forever friends in the process. Yet, it’s an exhausting endeavour.
You’re going to be lonely
And ultimately, it takes time to settle in and find a group of friends.
You’ll have many moments of being alone – days and nights. Whole weekends, stretching ahead with no one to share things with.
Thanks to social media, you’ll quite possibly be inundated with photos of your mates back home, having a grand old time without you. You’ll think: “How dare they?! I am the life of the party!” and then feel quite sad.
I mean, there’s not much you can do. This is the path you have chosen and it will take time to adjust.
Relationships become temporary
It takes a big commitment for any relationship – personal or otherwise – to transcend distance. There needs to be a willingness to commit to FaceTime or Skype chats, text every day, write emails or letters, send postcards, all with the acknowledgement that it might be some time before you’re in each other’s company again.
Some friendships or relationships are like a burst of light. They shine brightly but are quick to fade out when the flame that fuels it – that being one on one interaction – is no longer readily at hand.
Thankfully, there are other, rare friendships that are constant and enduring. They’re not location based – you could live in the Arctic wilderness for thirty years and that person would still be your friend when you returned to sunnier shores.
A lesson I learnt early on is not to force friendships to carry on past their expiration date (unfortunately, some do have one). When one door closes, another door opens, as the age old adage goes.
Here are some more thoughts on friendship in the digital age.
People back home move on without you
It’s not just the people you meet abroad who move on when you leave – it’s the people at home too.
I used to get quite annoyed (am trying to be a calmer person these days) when I would read accounts of people coming back home after living overseas or long-term travel, where they would write something along the lines of: “time doesn’t stand still… people will keep living their lives whether or not you’re in it”.
Well, duh, because it’s not like you’re the sun and they’re some poor hapless planet that is forced to revolve around you.
Yet, to be fair, it is a bit tough to come home and see that some former friendship has disintegrated, without the one on one interaction needed to fill it. Absence makes the heart go wander and all.
However, remember this – there’ll presumably always be new people walking in and out of your life, to fill the gaps that others have left behind.
You can’t have pets or house plants
I dunno about you, but I love to fill my abode with living things. Succulents, ferns, cacti – I like my flat to generally represent a jungle. I’ve also always had pets around. If not at home with my mutts, I’ll buy a fish or a hermit crab to keep me company.
This is obviously quite an irresponsible thing to do if you know you’re going to be in a country temporarily. I save pet ownership now for my forever home, wherever and whenever that may be.
And what of those who are already proud pet owners? Some people move overseas, pet in hand and I am in awe of them. Others are left with no choice but to leave their precious Fido or Whiskers at home with family or friends. It’s tough.
You’ll have to adopt a minimalist lifestyle, which isn’t for everyone
Expat life really suits a minimalist outlook, but for some people (like myself) this can be a real challenge.
You want to collect things – souvenirs from your travels, books, cooking implements, whatever. These things are important. They help you feel at home!
Suddenly, you find yourself in a position where you’ve actually bought a small library over the course of two years and are having to ship seven boxes back to your home country, at a somewhat upsetting expense.
But giving the books away would of course, be out of the question. What if you want to read them again?!
It’s difficult to get involved in causes you care about
As an expat, you’re usually in a place for a good time, not a long time. If you’re even slightly socially, politically or environmentally minded, you may see the odd cause that you really want to sink your teeth into.
Some of these need a surplus of time invested before you can start to see a payoff. It can also be disappointing to have to move on, particularly before you feel you’ve given it your all.
This doesn’t necessarily have to be in your adopted country – it could be a cause directly affecting your home. You’re seeing stuff play out and you want to get involved – to volunteer, to protest, to fight – but you’re just too far away.
It’s harder to commit to a hobby
There are two things I’ve wanted to do my entire adult life – take self-defence classes and start playing the violin.
However, I’ve never really taken the plunge back into either of these hobbies, as I’ve never stayed in a city long enough to do so.
It’s pretty easy to adopt a mindset of “I’ll take up ‘x’ thing when I’m in a place long-term”. Realistically – what if that day never comes? You’ve wasted years thinking about doing something, when you could have spent that time, well doing it and probably getting really good at it too.
It can hurt your finances or career long-term
Life as an expat can be beneficial for many reasons, but sometimes it’s more of a hindrance than a help.
If you’re lucky, you can move overseas to a place that has fair visa laws (so, not Australia) and nab yourself a job that correlates directly to your career. I’ve been pretty lucky in that when I moved to Qatar and the UK, I was working in the same field that I’d been involved in whilst in Australia. I walked away with international experience that I could then add to my CV, which would hopefully impress future employers.
Other times, it can be a real struggle. My heart tends to go out to those who travel to Australia for work and play. As aforementioned, our visa laws kinda suck and the jobs you can get on the average working holiday visa don’t always pay enough to thoroughly enjoy what is rapidly becoming a hugely expensive country to live in.
Those who do make the trek out here tend to make the most of it. However, the come down of returning to their home countries sounds tough, if the blog posts I’ve read about the experience are anything to go by.
Truth be told, I know I’d probably be in a better place financially if I’d never moved overseas – but I saw it as an investment in myself and my future happiness… which is priceless!
You may have to do taxes for two different countries
When really, filing taxes for one country is upsetting enough as it is.
You will have to learn and navigate a whole new tax system, which is definitely a challenge (it can be hard to understand your own country’s system, let alone any others!). In some cases, you’ll have to continue to file for two different countries, or at least continue to let your home country know you’re still abroad.
And if you’re extra lucky, you’ll hail from a country where you’re still expected to pay tax even when you’re not living in it. Which is insanity, but that’s just the way it is.
The places you know and love best will inevitably change
Big cities in particular are vibrant organisms, forever changing, evolving, adapting. I remember venturing back to Sydney after a year abroad and there being whole buildings in the CBD (Central Business District) which had not been there previously.
Yet, it’s the little changes that wig you out the most. Coming home and discovering that the café you used to while hours away in has permanently closed. Or that your favourite burger bar is now a well-known institution. Or that Coldplay of all bands filmed a music video in your hood and it has changed beyond recognition. Thanks Coldplay, you jerks.
You’re always leaving something behind
Friends, family, a favourite library, yoga studio, bar, café. No matter where you are, there’s guaranteed to be something that you’ll be missing.
You get used to and so, addicted to moving
Sometimes moving abroad can feel a bit like running away. You’re leaving any problems you have in your current life well and truly behind, in order to forge a new life, elsewhere.
Yet, as an expat, it’s easy to believe that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. When I lived in Sydney, I dreamt for years of moving to the UK. Upon arriving, I immediately started longing for home, a feeling that grew with intensity over time and eventually pulled me back.
Thing is – despite regularly professing to wanting “an easy life”, I didn’t go home. I migrated even further south to Melbourne instead, a city where I knew few people and there were subtle differences to my home state.
Living here sometimes feels like being in another country and I often have moments where I want to leave any crap that’s happening in my life behind and forge a new identity elsewhere.
I am reminded of a quote from the memoir Without You There is No Us, where author Suki Kim writes about how a parent once said to her:
If you keep moving like this, one day you’ll be too far away to come back.
And as an expat, the most important thing is knowing when it’s time to come home.
Have you spent time living overseas? What did you find was the hardest thing about being an expat?