In my last post I talked about the frustrations of living in China. Simple errands—opening a new bank account, changing phone plans, returning items to the store—become complex projects. Even mundane tasks—buying groceries, driving a car, communicating simple sentences—can become grand accomplishments.
And yet even if I sometimes have bad days and miss home, there are many things I love about being an expat, and I wouldn’t want to give them up by moving back to the States. Here are eight things that I love most about expat life.
1. Opportunities for My Kids to Understand More About the World
While living overseas, my children attend international schools that teach global mindedness. English is the language of instruction at the international schools my children attend, but by living overseas, they can learn world languages in context. An international school education also helps students develop a unique understanding and firsthand knowledge of world problems, as well as develop connections to individuals who personally identify with geographical regions separate from their own.
I taught for ten years at an international school. I remember one year teaching seventh grade language arts and watching a Jew from Israel, a muslim from Bangladesh, and a midwestern American working together to solve a problem on a project. This is a normal, everyday occurrence in the diversity you find at an international school, but I remember watching them and wondering if they knew how profound it was. As an international school teacher, I imagined my students as future leaders with an understanding of the diversity and needs of others that their counterparts in their home countries might not have.
I could give a glowing report about how expat living is beneficial for my children, but it’s important to remember that everything is give and take. As with most things in life, we weigh benefits with risks and make the most educated decisions we can. My biggest concern for my children is that they would be able to develop an understanding of their home culture and have a sense of belonging in their home country (a desire that most expat families have no matter the country of origin).
As expats, we often talk about the unique needs and personalities of Third-Culture Kids (TCKs)—children who spend most of their developmental years in a culture other than their parents’. If you have never heard of TCKs before, I encourage you to watch this video. It’s on the long side (almost nine minutes), but it is very well-done and clearly explains the unique challenges that TCKs experience throughout life.
2. A Diverse Exchange of Opinions and New Leads for Inquiry
As an expat in China, I can participate in a uniquely diverse exchange of ideas, and I can hear the opinion of several different nationalities first hand rather than through the filter of international media.
I have had some fascinating conversations since moving to China. About a month ago I was sitting down at a lunch with several of my husband’s colleagues, and he and I were the only US citizens at the table. The others were from New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Canada. When the conversation moved to their perceptions of the US presidential race, it was intriguing to hear their impressions and misunderstandings about the US and the presidential campaign.
Another day, I was with a German who described her visit to Mao’s mausoleum in Beijing and the strict rules they had—of being made to delete the pictures she had taken of the lines filing past Mao’s preserved body. Having read history books of the killings and fear caused by Mao and his policies, I turned to a native Chinese speaker who was also listening and asked her what the general sentiment is among average Chinese people toward Mao nowadays. She stammered a bit, responded that it depended on one’s level of education, and then told us we shouldn’t speak of such things. I respected her discomfort and changed the conversation to something else.
We can have an attitude of inquiry no matter where we live. I think I’d find just as many questions to ask and curiosities to research even if I were surrounded by cornfields living in midwest America. It’s just that living overseas leads me to different questions that I never would have thought of otherwise, and I’m able to learn things that would have been beyond my reach staying in America.
Of course I can (and do) learn from reading books, but living outside my home culture opens my eyes in ways that I wouldn’t see from reading books. I ask questions based on my unique experiences that are left out from (or seem to contradict) the books I read.
Living overseas also teaches us to have a better filter when watching news media. No matter what broadcasting network we watch, sensationalism attracts viewers and sometimes reporting is blown a bit out of proportion. After ten years in Korea, I lost count of how many times US broadcasting made it seem like nuclear war was about to break out, yet life continued as normal on the streets of Seoul. Without watching the news, we wouldn’t have even known trouble was brewing again.
3. Opportunities to Travel
We recently went on a family vacation to Thailand, and I know that if we were a family living in midwest America, we never would have even thought to go there. It would have been well beyond our means.
Friends in my home country hear about our travels and think we’re going to exotic places grand distances away, but living in China and taking a vacation to Thailand is like living in Michigan and taking a trip to Florida. We live in Asia. When we get some time off work, we go to places that are fairly close. That means going to other places in Asia—like Thailand or Vietnam or Cambodia—and once we get there, lodging and activities are a small fraction of the cost of what lodging and activities would be in Florida or any other vacation destination in the States.
Living in China, where a flight to Thailand is about a quarter of the cost it would be if we lived in the States, where all the other expat families around us regularly take vacations around Asia and share tips and tricks and the best places to go, Thailand suddenly becomes an option—an option that we feel like we have to take advantage of while we can. We have no idea how long we’ll be in China and when we move we might be on the other side of the world. There is a we-better-see-this-while-we-can urgency because we know that with our next move, the opportunity to go to these close-by places will be gone.
And our travel opportunities aren’t just those that we need to get on a plane for. Several years ago, Hubby lived in Tanzania. On Fridays, he’d get off of work and drive with his friends to a game park that was just a couple hours away. They’d go on safari and then camp in the park, listening to the sounds of hippos and hyenas as they fell asleep in their tents.
About a month ago, I ran the Great Wall Marathon. I tried registering for this marathon when I was not living in China and found that I’d have to pay for an expensive package—tour, hotel, flight, etc.—and couldn’t pay only the race fee. The package was beyond my price range, but living in China gave me the opportunity to register for the run only. I could participate in a really amazing race I couldn’t have done without living in China.
Living overseas gives me and my family opportunities to see and do things that would otherwise be dreams, but never possibilities.
4. A Constant State of Transition
I’m supposed to be talking about the benefits of living overseas. While I admit that to some individuals this might seem more like a hardship (I sometimes feel that way myself), I have come to recognize the constant state of change as something I value about expat life.
I love that every year is unique. In fact, I’ve become so appreciative of change and the way it forces and pushes me to grow that I get bored if I don’t make an effort to shake things up a bit every now and then.
Having experienced so much transition and the challenges that accompany change, it is much easier to say “this too shall pass” when things begin to feel like they are beyond my management. And yet, when life takes a negative turn that seems less and less appealing and there is no foreseeable change of course, it’s much more difficult to feel trapped by my circumstances. When moving my family across the globe has become something that I have done (and enjoyed), it becomes easier to take the plunge and engage in measured risks that shake up the pieces to see if another move will make circumstances fall in my favor.
At the same time, when things are good, I’ve learned to savor every moment because things change fast and blessings sometimes disappear before we are ready for them to.
The hardest part about this constant change is in regard to relationships. Every single year we and all the people around us will decide if they are going to stay or go. This link is an excellent article that very accurately describes the constantly shifting relationship landscape that expats experience.
Navigating relationships is challenging whether we have an expat lifestyle or not, but expat relationships are unique in that we are consistently preparing to leave the country or helping others settle in. Our core relationships can change every year. We are constantly saying goodbye to friends or actively trying to build and nurture new relationships. For me—someone exceptionally private, painfully introverted, and who has always struggled to build meaningful relationships—this has been both exhilarating and heartbreaking. Since coming overseas, there have been a few years that I’ve made amazing friends I traveled with and could talk to about anything, and there have been a few other years when I struggled to find a friend with whom I could build a meaningful connection, when I spent the year feeling incredibly lonely, like I had no friends at all.
And yet, in the end, it’s all worth it. I meet so many different people as an expat—even if it’s for a short time—and I love hearing and sharing ideas with individuals who I would have never known otherwise.
And the best part of it all is that if we navigate it well, it will lead to my next point—a network of connections all over the world.
5. A Network of Connections All Over the World
The longer I spend overseas, the greater the web of relationships I have all over the globe. When I travel now, I find my Korea friends in the most random places.
Not to long ago, we spent some time visiting family in Washington state and met up with a couple who was very dear to us when we lived in Korea.
When my husband took a business trip to Singapore, he went out and had a beer with a couple who lived in Korea six years previously.
When we had a flight that landed in Detroit, we met up with some repatriating expats who had recently moved to Ann Arbor.
Earlier this year, a former colleague was traveling to Beijing for business and we met up with him for an evening and took him to one of our favorite restaurants. We got to reminisce about old times and catch up with life’s twists and turns we’ve all had since leaving Korea.
We took a vacation in Thailand and by chance found a family staying at our same resort who we knew in Korea seven years previously.
When we hop on a plane and fly to a professional development conference somewhere in Asia, we are almost guaranteed to meet up with friends who we worked with in the past.
This year I said goodbye to several friends who chose to leave China. Saying goodbye is never easy, but the longer I’m overseas, the more confident I become that I really will be seeing them again. And with the strongest, most meaningful relationships, we can meet up sometimes years later and fall into the same natural conversation that only a friendship grown in the shared expat experience can create.
6. Camaraderie in Community
All expats know firsthand what it’s like to figure out how to settle in across the globe and learn how to accomplish basic tasks in a new country. And we understand that everyone around us is in the same boat—far away from the friends and family in our previous home.
The building and nurturing of meaningful connections take time anywhere we go, but in my experience, expats don’t beat around the bush. When we have arrived in a new place, there have always been individuals willing to help us figure out how to thrive in our new country—to the point that I am overwhelmed by kindness and graciousness and humbled that the independent and self-sufficient individual I like to be suddenly needs the help (an occasional pep-talk) offered by people who, just yesterday, were strangers.
And in the end, friendships might be hastily made and only last for a year, but there is a specialness about them—the kind of friendship that only a shared struggle can create.
7. Jobs that Are Generally More Financially Advantageous
There is so much variability in the financial packages you find in overseas jobs, I hesitate to mention this. The benefits package expats receive vary by country, by company, by position. So many factors really. If you compare a missionary’s finances with an executive in a US company, for example, the two positions obviously allow for two very different lifestyles.
And yet, it’s probably worth mentioning that living overseas is generally financially advantageous.
Speaking from my own experience with teaching jobs, international schools vary considerably in regards to salary, but when you consider the tax benefits and cost of living differences, it is usually worthwhile. Since the working environment is more professionally satisfying, most teachers don’t want to return to teaching at US public schools after working at international schools.
Understanding what your household’s finances will look like, however, is sometimes tricky because there are so many factors to consider—for example the host country’s cost of living, the value of its currency, and their tax laws for foreigners. Since US expats don’t pay into Social Security, we also need to be more proactive and plan more carefully for our retirement. And just like with so many other things when it comes to expat life, things can change rapidly and without a lot of warning. My family is paid in the currency of our host country (in this case China). When you are paid in one currency and have bills to pay in your home country, exchange rate really matters. And it can change without warning. About a month ago, I was talking to a family who said they had been very happy in their previous host country but chose to leave because the exchange rate changed so dramatically that they could no longer keep up with their outstanding bills in their home country.
When living overseas, (like so many other things) your household finances can be a fickle beast. Things can be dramatically advantageous for you one day. But it’s best to plan ahead for the day when the beast might not be so friendly.
8. An Abundance of Service Opportunities
I know that there are service opportunities no matter where we go, including in the United States. When I was in college in the US, I volunteered at and then worked for a women’s aid shelter. The institution gave shelter to abused women and helped them get on their feet and out of abusive relationships. The women there felt trapped and helpless and the shelter sought to empower them, assist them in finding jobs, and helped them obtain safety and independence for themselves and their children. I have friends in the US who are foster parents. They love on and care for infants and children in a way that will impact them for the rest of their lives (even if the children are too young to later remember their caregivers’ names).
These are just two examples of how big-hearted individuals can choose to minister directly to people who are in need of love and service. I know that there are many other ways to serve in the States.
I don’t want anyone to come back and tell me that I’m ignoring the service and need in the US. That’s not the case. I know that anyone who wants to serve can find needs to fill no matter where they are in the world.
It just seems that in living overseas, there seems to be more varied and abundant opportunities for projects that I can be involved with directly. I have participated in service projects that have opened my eyes to a level of depravity and poverty that I had never imagined before—people living in ramshackle homes made of scraps or living in derelict buildings that look like they’ve been bombed.
In China there are opportunities to volunteer at orphanages or homes for single moms. As a teacher, I’ve been able to take students on a service trip where they participated in manual labor to construct a new building for an orphanage (a pretty significant trip considering the students I taught were from a generally wealthy population whose children had never—and perhaps will never again—experience what manual labor in tropical heat feels like).
Being an Expat Makes You Different
Being an expat in 2016 isn’t like being an expat twenty years ago. Almost two decades ago, when I went overseas for the first time, I wrote snail mail back and forth with my family. Calling home was a rare occurrence. I had to buy expensive phone cards that gave me very little talking time. Now, I call my parents every week for free (I use Skype) and talk to them more frequently than my siblings who live in the same state as them.
And as difficult as China is for me from time to time, I know that I am not really getting the China experience. Globalization has watered down the expat experience here. I listen to the stories from the expats who have been in China for more than ten years and get a taste for how rapidly the country is changing and how much easier it is to feel comfortable as a Westerner living in China.
But even with globalization and the increasing ease of expat life compared to two decades ago, being an expat is not like taking a vacation for a week or two and then returning home. China (or Korea or whatever host country you live in) becomes home, but the US never stops being home. And we become trapped within and between two worlds. And there is a little piece of us that never stops feeling trapped even after we repatriate.
When visiting the US, whether or not I talk about my experiences overseas depends on the company I keep. Sometimes I feel like my China and Korea experiences make me a freak, and I choose not to mention anything about China, even keep it a secret if I can. And there are other times that I’m thankful for the novel stories I can tell others and the unique entertainment they offer.
Once we have that expat experience, it changes us. When I hear about someone else who has lived as an expat there is an instant connection—a shared core trait that only someone “in the club” would be able to understand. Another expat would be able understand a piece of me that even my family is unable to.
And even with this organic change within me that the expat experience caused, I love the lifestyle I’ve chosen, and I know that repatriating and transitioning to life back in my home country will probably be much more challenging than moving to another country overseas.
What about you? If you have chosen the expat lifestyle and live outside of your home country, what do you find most challenging and most rewarding? If you have repatriated, what advice can you offer to expats who will do the same?