This one thing will make or break your dream expat life


Expat life is something special and I’ll never forget my first move almost happening by accident. I was terrified yet excited about the whole idea of living in a foreign country and settling into a new world where everything I knew from home would be upside down.

Many years have passed since and I now look at my life in two different chapters: before and after I moved abroad for the first time. That’s how life changing it has been.

The Nomad Capitalist blog has coined the term “go where you are treated best”. It’s a great idea and after having lived the expat life for quite some time, I believe that even though we’ve become accustomed to life at home and it is a big part of who we are, there might be a better place for us out there.

If we forget expat life for a second and instead focus on our time before going abroad, what is the likelihood that we grew up in the right place for us?

Statistically, it’s pretty slim as there are more than two hundred recognized countries on earth. Although we are a product of our environment, we like many of the things we do because we grew up with them. I imagine that’s why everyone’s favorite food is whatever they had at home growing up.

Before diving into what your expat life could look like, let’s look at the biggest challenges most expats run into and the one thing that will make or break our experience abroad if there ever were one.

The challenges of expat life

You’ll notice other expats have some great points as to the good and bad sides to expat life. I’ll give you a quick rundown of the main points before focusing on the two points that trumps them all.

The common insights are:

  • When we move to a different country, it feels like starting over and over again
  • It’s stressful to have our life abroad tied to a visa (but if you are ambitious and hard-working there is a great solution to that)
  • Crazy shit at home might happen and there is no playbook for how to react, in which situations to fly back, etc.
  • Many expats complain about loneliness (but there are many more that don’t)

If you’ve been reading up on expat life, you might have noticed a complaint about some people living in an expat bubble, that they should get out of it and mix more with locals. I find that it’s a bit of an unnecessary worry and I want to address it if you are considering moving abroad for the next step in your life, as it can give a distorted idea of what expat life is really like since many of us don’t share the same dream.

The reality is that whether we live abroad or at home, we all live in a bubble. Even if we live in our home country, travel a lot for work, and meet many people, it’s still a bubble and it helps us move forward in life. In a way it’s similar to how we function mostly on habits on a daily basis – life is simply easier that way and it allows us to spend our energy on new stuff instead of constantly reassessing what we have already done a million times before.

The difference is that we don’t notice the bubble as we are growing up since we are born into it. It slowly expands and changes over the years with different life events happening, like moving from high school to university, to jobs, etc.

When we move abroad, that bubble bursts and we need a new one to live in. We realize it because everything is different, our old friends aren’t the easy go-to anymore and we suddenly have to make new friends that can become our old friends one day. It’s that whole leaving our comfort zone thing that everyone in the self-help industry seems to talk about.

It can be a huge benefit especially for us that are career-focused since we will have an easier time putting together a day-to-day that works for us. It allows us to focus on something we really want because there often are fewer family obligations, etc. to distract us.

On the contrary, it can also be an excuse to not do anything and develop bad habits since no one will ever know. I’m sure plenty of expats fall into that habit or do it on purpose. The harsh reality is that simply moving to another country won’t eradicate our bad habits as soon as we touch down but it can be a good place to start to make a meaningful change in life if that’s what you are looking for.

I’ve saved the most important insight for last. If there’s one thing that can make or break our expat life abroad it’s the people we know.

The end all be all in expat life is the people we know

Expat life in itself feels risky, stressful and a bit crazy at times–like some sick rollercoaster with a baseball team standing on the side throwing curveballs. When there’s trouble with the paperwork, loneliness, the next career opportunity or whatever it is, the people we know make all the difference.

There is a saying that sales jobs are the safest of all as long as we are good at it because even in a recession, what kind of business will say no to more sales? This is in the same ballpark and I’m sure you’ve heard the cliche that our network is our net worth.

I’ve found that expat communities are among those that take care of each other the most and when I look at all the challenges I’ve had with expat life over the years, the common denominator to the solutions have been friends. 

My experience has been nothing out of the ordinary compared to other expats but there are many challenges and details that we aren’t used to from home because we haven’t been in those situations before. It can be as simple as the necessary paperwork required to open a bank account or process a visa because the standards are different from country to country.

Expat friends who get us and understand the experience play a different part in our lives than people from home.

In fact, friends and family might never visit us and we’ll lose many non-serious friendships at home. They tend to see us as the one that left and they won’t understand all the new stuff in our life. It sounds tough but also worse than it is and I like to think that when old stuff goes, new stuff comes. In my own experience, some friendships stay while others don’t and those that don’t probably wouldn’t have lasted anyway.

Even if we stay home, that tends to be a natural progression, especially if we move to a new city without our home country. The challenging part is that we have to make new friends from scratch even though we’ve never been taught how to do it — and what we know from home might not apply in the new culture we now live in.

The power of our social circle abroad cannot be understated. I’ve seen many great people leave their new home behind too early because “they didn’t like the vibe” in the city or “there were no cool people”. Unless we live in a village in Africa, it’s usually because we didn’t look hard enough or in the right place. I made that exact mistake once and learned my lesson the hard way.

Although I don’t hope so, this will probably fall for deaf ears. Don’t let yourself wake up one day 3 months from now with no friends. It takes a while so start building those connections now and you can use the compounding effect of time to snowball things to your advantage.

What does your dream expat life look like?

Our dream life abroad can look very different depending on our ambition but most of us never stop to think about what we really truly want. We tend to settle for someone else’s ambition like making a hundred thousand dollars a year, a million or chilling in good weather with just enough to get by.

Our dreams evolve as we grow and one of the common reasons we never give ourselves a proper dream that is our own, is that we are told to be happy with what we have. We are told to be happy that we have a job and get to travel. Maybe but that gets really old after a while. Thinking bigger is surprisingly challenging.

For some of us, the dream expat life is being our own boss, setting our own hours, and slowly traveling and experiencing different countries. Seeing Machu Picchu one day, the beautiful architecture of Japan another and chilling on a tropical beach the next with little stress and working a few hours each week.

expat life and traveling, machu picchu

To another, it might be building something that changes the world forever and impacts millions of people, getting compensated handsomely, and seeing the world first class. I once met an expat working in Europe who loved traveling and would travel every weekend. At one point he went from Europe to Bora Bora for an extended weekend which sounded crazy to me because of the long travel time but as long as we do what we love, that’s what matters.

The confusing thing is that it feels as if we have to pick one dream and make that the holy grail. The reality is that we change over time, reach our goals and so it makes sense that our dream life evolves as well. At first, I wanted to cruise and enjoy the weather in Asia but as I accomplished and enjoyed that, I eventually shifted to wanting to have more of an impact.

Many expats say that one of the most stressful things is to have our life abroad tied to a visa. It’s true and if we are ambitious and hard-working, it can be solved by building a business and incorporating a company that solves the visa issue. Most people don’t want to bother because it is a lot of work but for those select few, it can be a great choice.

Takeaways

  • There are lots of new challenges that comes with expat life and many of them are worth the hassle
  • Our friends and network abroad will make or break our expat life 
  • Your dream expat life is yours and it might change over time

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