On Being an Expatriate: Finding a "Home Away from Home"
Daniel J. Durand
Travel is a topic that rarely disappoints in conversation. The idea of travelling and seeing the world is both romantic and exhilarating to those who wish to better know the world around them. Most people, if not wishing to travel themselves, may at least be able to understand the excitement caused by the notion of seeing the Eiffel Tower, or taking a trip on the Trans-Siberian railroad. For those who hunger for adventure, world travel is a buffet, and while a vacation abroad may offer a taste, becoming an expatriate may be a more satisfying alternative.
Expatriates, or people who live outside of their home country, can lead a very exciting lifestyle. Living and working amongst the populace of a foreign country, they have the opportunity to do what can’t be done during a brief vacation. Expatriates “go native”, learning the ins and outs of their host countries, seeing things in more depth than regular tourists would. They experience the day-to-day, developing an understanding of local politics, culture, behavior, and so on that under normal circumstances only a native could have.
The reasons for becoming an expatriate vary. Sometimes people get tired of living in their home country, maybe for political reasons. Maybe, as mentioned earlier, they just want to travel. People may also find themselves living abroad as part of their job, to attend school, or because of a spouse. Whatever the case, expatriates are an excellent medium for cultural exchange for both the expatriate and the host country.
The question is, how does one go about becoming an expatriate? Depending on what country a person is from originally, and where they are going, it may be difficult. For westerners, it’s fairly easy to travel and live abroad thanks to a higher standard of living and general lack of political turmoil. Other countries like North Korea or Iran would have extreme punishments for attempting to enter or leave. Generally, a person would have to go through the proper channels, perhaps through an embassy, before getting the appropriate travel documents and arranging transportation. The entire process could take anywhere from a few days to several years.
Where to go is an important decision, and a number of factors should be considered. Do the people in a particular country speak another language, and if so, would it be necessary to learn it? How expensive is it to live there, and what about employment? Every country is different. The expatriate-to-be should do their homework before making any serious decisions, and try to find a good fit for their individual needs.
For example, according to the article “World’s Best Places to Be an Expat”, Singapore is the world’s number one country to live as an expatriate. The nation has strict laws, but makes up for it with what the article called a “luxurious” standard of living. Nearly half of expatriates living in Hong Kong make around $200,000 every year. India offers low costs for most services, making it easier to save money, but is very crowded and without adequate infrastructure in some areas. The article cited a study of people living abroad conducted by HSBC Bank (Ram). Really, choosing a country to live in comes down to preference, circumstance, and a person’s own tolerance for different conditions.
Finding work while abroad is another concern. Unless an expatriate is already wealthy, or at least doesn’t have to worry about an income, like retirees and people with trust funds, they’re going to need a job. People from English-speaking countries have a significant advantage. English has become a prominent world language, and practically every non-English country is scrambling to get native speakers to teach their citizens. While not exactly the most lucrative job available, teaching at least offers some form of income for the beginning expatriate, and can be a good way to get a foothold overseas until something better comes along.
Pay ranges from country to country, and can be anywhere from nothing to $50,000 a year depending on certification, whether a person is teaching at a language school, or if they’re volunteering rather than earning a salary. Usually, a teacher would be required to sign a contract for one full year of teaching, the best jobs going to those with experience. Essentially, anyone who speaks English fluently can get a job anywhere, but certain regions prefer certain dialects. Asia and South America tend to prefer American English, while Europe and Africa prefer British, and countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union will take anyone they can get their hands on (“SoYouWanna Teach English Abroad?”).
To sum this all up so far, in order to become an expatriate, a person has to first research where they want to go, how they’re going to get there, and what they need to get through customs. Once in the country, they need to establish themselves by finding work, a place to live, and getting to know the people. Really the only difference between moving to another country and moving to another city within your own country is filling out paperwork. After that, it just takes adjustment.
With all of the information available via the internet these days, anyone who would be interested in a foreign experience could start planning for it right away. Unfortunately for some, their grand adventure never gets past the planning stages and dies on the drawing board. There are plenty of reasons for this to happen, some valid, some not. Since it’s already been established how to go about living abroad, what are some of the reasons that people who want to choose not to?
In her article, “Stop Talking About Becoming an Expat—Just Get on and Do It”, Susan Beverly, a writer for Escape From America, lists several reasons people who consider living abroad ultimately stay at home. Among them are concerns over medical care, cost of living, quality of education, and conflicts of patriotism. Medical care, Beverly claims, is an irrelevant excuse, as quality doctors and medicine can be found all over the world, and often times at a lower cost than in the United States. She also states that expatriates tend to earn more than non-expatriates, and that education abroad, particularly for children, can be a benefit rather than a concern. Perhaps the biggest issue, patriotism, Beverly portrays as being reversed logic; rather than betraying one’s own country by leaving, one serves their country by acting as a representative, exchanging ideas and contributing to the global community (Beverly).
Much of Beverly’s article is derived from experience, her being an expatriate herself. However, there are many more expatriates in the world, numbering at approximately 190 million (Ram). What do some of the others have to say?
Kevin Cooney is a comedian and writer living in Tokyo. Originally from the Syracuse, New York area, Cooney moved to Japan in 2001 after living in New York City, Los Angeles, and London. In addition to his other work, he also makes videos about his life in Japan, which he then posts on the internet via YouTube under the name “Tokyocooney”. In one video, Cooney went home to the United States, saying “As I’ve lived in Japan longer and longer, it’s less like I’ve taken a trip there, and more like I’m coming back to visit here.” (Cooney).
Another American expatriate to Japan, Tom Fallon, is the lead singer and guitarist of his band “The Ghost of Matsubara”. Fallon, also from Syracuse, came to Japan in 2005, at first teaching English through one of Japan’s government programs. Like Cooney, Fallon posts videos related to his experiences abroad, as well as his band, on YouTube. When answering questions from fans about his life before going away to Japan and why he went, he said, “I came to Japan kind of on a whim.”, and that he “wanted something more.” He has since found what he was looking for (Fallon).
Every country in the world is different. With all of the options available to a person willing to move overseas, it’s hardly justifiable to shrug off the idea because of a generalization. In a continuously shrinking world, it’s something everyone could consider, if not for the thrill and adventure, than at least to better understand other people. While living in a foreign country is definitely not for everybody, for the reasons mentioned earlier or reasons specific to an individual, people like Cooney, Beverly, and Fallon prove that for some it may be just the right fit.
Beverly, Susan. “Stop Talking About Becoming an Expat—Just Get on and Do It”. Escape From America.19 Nov. 2010. <http://www.escapefromamerica.com/2010/06/stop-talking-about-becoming-an-expat-just-get-on-and-do-it/>.
Cooney, Kevin. “Life in Tokyo: Vlog #45 Final Days in the Middle of Nowhere”. YouTube. Nov. 17 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/user/tokyocooney?blend=1&ob=4#p/u/69/Timu9mgkuic>.
Fallon, Tom. “Why Am I in Japan? FAQ Time…”. YouTube. Nov. 17 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/user/ghostofmatsubara?blend=2&ob=1#p/u/12/xe6wozn_tys>.
Ram, Vidya. “World’s Best Places To Be An Expat”. Forbes. Nov. 17 2010. <http://www.forbes.com/2008/07/25/best-expat-postings-forbeslife-cx_vr_0725realestate.html>.
“SoYouWanna Teach English Abroad?”. SoYouWanna.com. Nov. 17 2010. <http://soyouwanna.com/soyouwanna-teach-english-abroad-1099.html>.