I’m regularly asked about moving to Thailand (and now I’m being asked about Cambodia). There was a point when I was emailed so often I considered creating a standard reply, but in the end laziness reigned supreme. Interestingly, I’ve made friends though these initial inquiries. I’ve met up with a few and one time I even received a beautiful pair of earrings as a gift!
But as time has whistled by, I find myself feeling wary about giving advice. Here’s why:
// There are almost always unforeseeables. A family member back home becomes seriously ill and the newly expatriated must return home. The job you got turns out to be a nightmare, but your visa is tied to your employment. The country you are living in suddenly has a military coup, and you watch as friends are asked to leave for xyz bullshit reason. Welcome to the Jungle…
// Living abroad can create a strain or challenge on personal relationships. I don’t think anything really prepares you for this either. If I had known that moving to Thailand was going to break up my 6+ year relationship, I’m not sure I would have gone. Of course, you can argue that it would have happened anyway, but I don’t think so. We were fairly cozy. No regrets though. That’s life. (And don’t think for a minute, please, that my relationship was the only one. Many couples break up overseas.)
My friend K brought her two teenage kids over and one of them took to Thailand really well and the other just holed up in their house playing video games. He hated it. And so, you have to be okay with this kind of possibility.
// Being an expat just means you are living life, but with the additional work and trials that come with thriving in a foreign land. Obviously, this can be very exciting and life-changing, but it is also stressful as all hell. You won’t believe the amount of things you take for granted back in your passport country. Simple tasks like buying a towel or getting Internet hooked up can become an Amazing Race without the million dollar prize.
// Integrating back to your home country might be your biggest heartache yet – or you might get stuck living abroad. I was terrified when I learned that there were expats who were unable to financially return back home. Then there are those who have used expatriating as a way to “escape,” but now, the U.S. government has the power to revoke passports. Suddenly, you don’t feel as free as you once did.
I’ve also heard stories from former expats having a damn hard time finding employment back in their birth country. Given the economic climate, many find work abroad only to return and face the additional burden of not having any connections + a CV that looks like you played “hooky” for a few years.
The longer I live overseas though, the more impossible going back seems. Apparently, US expats are giving up their citizenship in greater numbers. Many are fed up with paying taxes for two countries (as America is the only country that taxes its overseas citizens). I’d consider giving up mine, too, if it wasn’t for my mom and the exorbitant price it now costs to do so.
Then again, I made the decision years ago to not return. Here’s why:
// Life’s an adventure. Sure, there is monotony and the droll of routine and work, but there is also the wakefulness and jolting awareness that you are living in another country. Every expat seems to go through this, “I live in ______” epiphany moment. It’s like a shot of “I’m alive!” that runs through your body and you can’t believe where you are at.
(And trust me, you need these moments of gratitude and wonder to offset those days when you experience great antipathy for your foreign environment.)
Yes, finding a place to eat becomes an endurance test, but each day holds the promise of a cultural encounter, a language breakthrough, and a beautiful awakening. You’re living in the NOW because sleepwalking is almost an impossible poor second choice. You have to pay attention or you might step in that oily puddle of kitchen waste that looks like solid ground (true story).
// Relationships, relationships, relationships. OMG! Never in my sexiest dreams could I have known how many people I would meet from all over the world. America, for all its melting pot ways, is not a hotbed of international individuals. Yes, there are exceptional industries and communities, but for the most part, you’re not going to be working + meeting Brits, Canadians, Australians, Kiwis, French, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, South Africans, etc., etc., not to mention fellow Americans from all over, on a day to day basis.
// Being an expat brings out the best and worst in you. There’s something about travel and living abroad that tests every fiber of patience in your body. It’s easy to be enlightened when everything is easy. But when existing feels like a s-t-r-u-g-g-l-e, you GROW. Okay, you have mini-meltdowns, too, but you have to push to survive and thrive.
You also learn what’s important to you. (Do you like to stand out or fit in? How much living space do you really need? Are you okay with eating local? Can you be vulnerable?) You’re perspective on what you need and what you want gets shaken and stirred, and just when things feel like they have settled, they get shaken and stirred all over again.
All those trite sayings about how expanding your horizons make you a better person start to be part of your inner playlist – and it’s a song that can change the way you see yourself and the world.
// Where ever expats end up, the people, the culture, the language and food are sure to be a massive part of the reason why they are there. Learning another language gives you exciting and playful insight into the way people think and view the world. Living side by side with folks so unlike you allows for more barriers to fall away than the opposite (which is radically different than what the media wants you to think). I’ve learned more about my own culture, too. It’s crazy how much we are the products of our culture and how boxed in we can become in our thinking as a result.
At the end of the day though, choosing to be an expat can be another rite of passage, a birth into adulthood (or childhood), but it ultimately depends on you.
What do you think?