The idea of living in a foreign land is dreamy.
But expat living or (semi)permanent nomadic life also its own unique drawbacks that don’t get as much publicity.
It’s less fun and glamorous to talk about resigning yourself to consistently finding small hairs in your food when eating out, and that the regular trip to immigration or the federal police makes the DMV back home look like a birthday party.
I hope this list helps anyone considering making the leap of faith that is leaving your own country for another, a place less familiar but perhaps more fitting to your lifestyle, personality, and goals.
(Depending on where you’re living, the expat life might also have its share of literal pros (prostitutes) and cons (people seeking to cheat ignorant foreigners))
The Pros and Cons of Expat Life
in Bangkok, Rio de Janeiro, and Probably Everywhere Else
Expat Life Issue #1: FRIENDS
Most of your closest friends are NOT located in the same city, country, or maybe even the same continent as you. Face to face conversations are physically impossible, and sometimes even difficult via skype due to totally opposing timezones. You’re forced to rely on facebook to stay updated on once-close friends’ lives.
For the friends that are in your city, their homes are likely transitory (like yours), and they will likely be there for less than two years.
You have friends all over the world, from many different cultures and spread out across the globe. It’s easy to find a place to crash almost anywhere, and it’s crazy how fast you get back in the swing of the old friendship when you’re together. You get to stay up to date on your friends’ awesome lives via facebook, and stay constantly inspired.
Because of the transitional nature of the expat life, you get to constantly meet new people, and then even after they leave, stay in touch and maybe even visit them later.
At the same time, you might slowly lose touch with people who just don’t “get” your lifestyle or decision to live abroad. That’s okay. Growth and change are a part of life, and not all friendships are meant to last forever.
Do try to stay connected. Write down everyone’s birthdays in a calendar so you can remember to send a special birthday message (or rely on Facebook like me), and schedule skype calls with close friends as much as you can. Social media is super convenient but it’s not always the most connective method of communication.
Expat Life Issue #2: FLYING SOLO
Sometimes, you get really lonely. When you first arrive someplace new, you might not know a single person withing 1000s of miles. And even after you do make friends, you don’t have the same shared history like you do with your friends “back home”: no long running inside jokes, and no one can truly commiserate about your crazy ex boyfriend or your nutty family because they’ve never met them.
You learn to appreciate yourself and really “be your own best friend”. You learn to break out of your shell and meet new people. No one knows you, so you can “reinvent” yourself, or really, be more of your true self. No one knows about that super embarrassing time you messed up in the 11th grade school play, and no one in this new place saw your panties when you fell down a whole flight of stairs on your 21st birthday… if you were wearing any.
Meetup and even Couchsurfing forums (not to surf but just to meet up with other locals) in addition to the local expat Facebook pages (they’re there! trust me!) and local activities are great for connecting with locals and making in-person friends. I met one of my closest Bangkok friends via a Facebook post on an expat page, where she was vulnerable and strong enough to post that she wanted to make more girlfriends. Another great way to meet people (mainly while traveling solo) is via cool hostels. No matter where you’re living, trying to learn the local language (like I did in Rio de Janeiro) is an awesome way to connect with other longterm expats and makes it easier to communicate with locals.
Expat Life Issue #3: ACTIVITIES
Your city may not have any of your favorites activities, or if they do, they’re so different from how you like/want/remember, they’re in a totally separate category. Yoga studios in your new city may be totally different than your studios back home – and you may not like them. AT ALL. (Sadly I met my “perfect” studio, Yogatique, in Bangkok only shortly before I moved to Brazil! Tears! If you’re in BKK, be sure to do a sun salutation for me)
Your city may not have any of your favorite kinds of restaurants (here’s looking at you, Rio, and your slim pickings on Arabic, Indian, and Mexican food). Or if they do, the dishes are not the way you like or remember (no, carrot is NOT an acceptable taco filling nor nacho topping!)
You try new activities and new restaurants! Your old favorites will always be waiting for you somewhere in the world, but now you have the opportunity to discover new favorites. Learning jiu jitsu in Brazil was a highlight for me (and a great way to make new friends) and opened my eyes to the fun of self-defense.
Push your comfort zone limits and try new activities. Missing your hiking trails but have a great beach nearby? Take up beach running or try paddleboarding. The local theatre doesn’t have anything in English? It’s a great opportunity to practice your language skills, or forgo the theatre entirely, and read a book or go for a walk. Your city, no matter how small, is full of options, and you are the only limiting factor.
Expat Life Issue #4: FAMILY
Going home might be prohibitively expensive, so you rarely see your family. Maybe you can only afford a plane ticket home once per year, or even once every two years. Maybe you only get to spend a week at home each time – which is then packed full of requests for meetups and hangouts and family dinners and brunches and bloody mary bars (can’t complain about THAT, though).
Your family may come visit you! Your living abroad may inspire your family members to push their own boundaries, and travel to another country to visit you. My sister and brother both got their passports specifically to come visit me. Now, they’ve both been to Thailand and Mexico (twice!), and my sister has been to Brazil, all to visit lil ol’ me.
While visiting home may be expensive, it’s likely that visiting places in your new country is much cheaper, as is visiting the countries around you. During my almost two years in Thailand, I managed to visit almost every other nation in Southeast Asia. After living in Mexico for a year and a half, I’ve been to every country in Central America except Honduras and Nicaragua (with plans to visit both within the next 2 years).
Practice your prioritization skills. Make your visits home as intentional as possible – cut out the “fluff” and only do what is important to you, only see who is important to you. The short time with them and long time apart will also cut down on any recurring petty arguments, as you can focus on the shortlived happiness of spending time together.
Take advantage of living in a new place and see as much around you as possible. Become a permanent tourist in your new home. You don’t know how long you’ll be there, or if you’ll ever return in the future.
Expat Life Issue #5: PAPARAZZI
If you look unique (as in, a blonde in a South American or Asian country or most anywhere in the world other than some places in Europe and North America), you will probably be stared at. A LOT. Random people will take unauthorized photos of you, or others may constantly ask to take photos with you. People notice you everywhere, and you stand out. You’re on a date at a quaint little restaurant? Your office cleaning lady definitely saw you and has already discussed with the office gossips by the time you arrive on Monday. You’re buying a lacy bra at H&M? Your cashier notices you on the metro a week later.
If you’re a female foreigner in Latin America, be prepared for street harassment.
In most places, this can be taken as innocent curiosity or as a compliment.
In Myanmar, which doesn’t get as many tourists (especially young solo blonde ones), I went to the zoo in Yangon and was definitely the most photographed animal there. Families, groups of girls, and even zoo workers asked to take a photo with me. At Schwedagan, after telling them I am American, a family of 13 women (from toddler to great grandmother with no teeth) each took a turn sitting next to me, holding my elbow and taking a photo.
You might also get asked to be in a TV commerical! I had a frightening experience with this in Bangkok, which you can read about here.
Feeling uncomfortable with having your photo taken will also make you more mindful of other people’s privacy and dignity when you’re in other countries.
Try not to get flustered and to remember that you are the ambassador of yourself, and your home country. Treat curiosity with kindness, but be firm if you feel creeped out or your space invaded.
In Kuala Lumpur, teenage boys would frequently ask to take a picture of me (at least they ask!). I always ask if they want a picture WITH me instead. 9/10 times they blush tomato-red and run off. The 10% of the time that they take me up on the offer, they smile like they’re the coolest guy in the world and then show their friends. No harm.
Expat Life Issue #6: LANGUAGE
Likely, the native language is NOT English. So if you’re monolingual like a lot of us native English speakers, you’re out of luck. Language barriers can be tough and frustrating. Depending on the number of second language English speakers in the city, doing ANYTHING will be hard, and maybe even impossible, without a friend or translator… or the help of Google translate.
You have the perfect opportunity to learn, study, and practice a new language! This is a great skill and will really open up the culture for your better understanding and integration. Even if you plan to leave after a short time, a second language is a great resume booster, and studies have shown that subsequent languages are easier to learn.
Also, language schools are great for making other foreigner friends who have similar interests in the local language and culture, just as I found at my language school in Rio de Janeiro. If you’re already abroad or preparing for a move, the online language school Rype has been an absolute blessing for my busy schedule (and is also extremely affordable).
If you plan to be there more than 6 months, try to learn at least the language basics. Language learning is hard, but so rewarding! Some language schools are much better than others, and your research will pay off.
Expat Life Issue #7: CULTURE
Even if you have the language under control, cultural barriers can exist. Especially if you are from an individualist culture, living in a collectivist culture can be a tough and frustrating transition. Everything from getting directions, to setting up wifi, to taking taxis, to buying fruit can be a pain. Speaking to locals or friends who live there, reading up on To-Dos and To-Don’ts online (like, did you know you shouldn’t touch children’s heads in Thailand?), and remaining open and perceptive by watching what others do and how they act is very important.
Full cultural immersion is the best way to learn more about a different culture. You get to learn about a new perspective on life, and perhaps incorporate some of these ideas into your own life. In Rio and in Thailand, the slow paced and relaxed way of completing tasks reminds me to slow down and appreciate my own life, and concentrate on what I’m doing, when I’m doing it.
Try not to get frustrated, and think about how the locals in your new city would feel if they came to your hometown. Every place has its positives. Use long grocery lines or outdated bank procedures as opportunities to reflect on your maybe fast-paced life. Invest in a Kindle and keep it stashed in your bag to bust out a new novel when you’re hit by an excessive wait, or start a little gratitude journal that you write in during long delays.
Expat Life Issue #8: VICES
Your new home may be subject to a whole range of societal problems that you had never before experienced, or maybe even been aware of. Your country’s government may not be a democracy, and maybe the police are corrupt. Prostitution (and further, child prostitution) may be a common and almost socially acceptable form of “entertainment”. There may be severe poverty. Every day, you may see conditions that shock and upset you.
Rather than becoming numb to the suffering around you, you can become grateful and aware of the opportunities that you were given. You can do what you can to improve the conditions, and to be more open to offering kindness. Use your compassion and knowledge to educate others, both in your new community but also your friends at home.
Try to use your gifts and privilege to help. Volunteer English teaching is extremely rewarding (I do it too!), and is a very valuable skill for your student. If you have other skills (especially medical and computer), local organizations could have great need for help from you. Ask around!
Try your best not to compare. Different places are different places. You’ll miss out on the positive if you’re always being negative.
After moving to Rio, I got really nostalgic for good ol’ Grand Rapids, Michigan (my hometown) when bureaucracy was a major pain in the ass, or when I found a blender that would cost $10 at Target was $60 at Extra in Rio. I also had terrible saudade (that’s a Portuguese word there!) for Bangkok, where I felt so safe and could flit around the city with ease. I loved the restaurants, street food, temples, and culture.
loving life in Bangkok
It wasn’t until I committed to my Rio de Janeiro expat life, and dedicated myself to appreciating Rio for all its awesome attributes (rather than focus on the negatives) that I have truly been able to enjoy myself there.
At first, all I could do was complain about Rio. It is more expensive, the food is much worse, it is much more difficult to get around or do anything, and practically no one speaks English as compared to Bangkok. There isn’t a skytrain and the Metro doesn’t go through the whole city. I feel unsafe at night, I feel disrespected by the constant catcalling and lewd comments from men, and I just all around feel uncomfortable unless with a big group of people.
But Rio also has amazing beaches in walking distance, better pollution control, more green spaces, a jungle WITHIN the city (and monkeys), a more learnable language, a better, healthier quality of life (for me), and more long term expats in my demographic. Also – CAIPIRINHAS. And pao de queijo.
maracuja caipirinha? I’ll take 3.
Appreciate your new home, and do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you’re at, to make yourself happier and the world a better place. Try to be grateful for trying something new, because you never know when you’ll be on to the next place.
If you’ve given your new place a fair shot, and it just isn’t for you.. that’s okay too! As long as you know you’ve tried your best, it isn’t “giving up” or failing to return home, to a previous city, or to just try another new place!
After a year and a half living in Rio de Janeiro, my then-fiance and I decided it just wasn’t for us. We decided to move to Mexico, which has proven to be a much better fit for our personalities and preferences. You just don’t know until you try!