Friday, 19 November 2010

Expat Life -Examples of What to Negotiate When Living Abroad

Expat issues have become a bit of a free for all lately. We're all expats now -people who own an indebted building site in Spain, people with a relative in Australia that they sometimes stay with get the drift. But being an expatriate is not just about fuelling a cottage industry of "relocation advisers", intercultural specialists" and "localization experts". Living in a foreign country, whether by choice or forced to by circumstance is first and foremost a huge upheaval - actual and psychological. It is a cultural adventure - you need to be both flexible and grounded. And not everybody will be able to handle it.

Speaking personally , almost my first memory is of living abroad (in Holland) but at the same time being conscious of the fact that this wasn't "home". I was small enough to adapt quickly, make friends and pick up the language. Which brings me to my first focus point.

- Without wanting to get into a philospohical discussion how language constitutes being and personality (which it undoubtedly does) being able to talk the language of one's adopted country is the most important element of settling in. Especially in the beginning when things have to be sorted, not being able to communicate is a nightmare. Command of the language takes away the feeling of being regarded as an outsider. To me that is the most important safeguard against cultural alienation

Local culture
- I am often amazed when I hear of British people moving to countries which will feel utterly alien to them. At the height of the property speculation boom lots of people moved to countries like Bulgaria or Hungary to make the most of low property prices. I would dearly love to have a progress update of what happened to those enterprising souls! Take Hungary, of which (being part Hungarian) I am half-way competent to talk about. A) The language is extremely difficult to master. B) Notions of Hungarian history, ethnic complexities, political alliances and violent national dislikes feed into daily life and virtual any aspect of its society. I would think it extremely unlikely that (apart from specialists) any British subject would have the background, cultural empathy and ability to adapt easily to such a cauldron of cultural complexity.

And Hungary is just one example; I would imagine countries like say Turkey, Portugal, or even southern Italy to be equally challenging to the newcomer (and these are all still in the Western hemisphere)

The weather
- trivial as it may sound, the weather in your new country can be a huge hurdle in the adaptation process. Heat, cold (associated darkness) or extreme hunidity are physically challenging and can literally make life difficult for the prospective expat. Again, speaking personally, I found living in Scotland challengingfor that reason. It actually turned out to be a deal-breaker as I was not prepared to change my life totally and settle into a permanent winter existence.

Fashion - That's not just an ephemeral phenomenon, it's a cultural signifier, and a very tricky one at that. Two examples: 1. I remember wearing a flowery summer dress in Rome, and feeling totally self-conscious - everybody else was wearing sharply-tailored clothes. 2. My husband spent some time working in an an advertising agency in New York, and found the dress code totally at odds with European practice (Americans not favouring the creative look.) Again, awareness here is key. British fashion, for example, is fairly out of kilter with European main stream dressing; lots of British people in France, say, are simply not aware of the fact that the way they dress is a major obstacle to being taken seriously there.

- Even the most a-political person will get sucked into some of their new country's issues. The way women are treated and expected to act (especially in southern or Islamic countries), tolerance towards foreigners (whether you thought of yourself as belonging to that group or not: Now you've become one!), levels of poverty and the country's attitude towards it ... these are all issues far-removed from party-politics, yet you will have to deal with them afresh in a new country.

Those are just a few of the challenges expats encounter on a day-to-day basis. I would love to hear what were/are your major issues as an expat and what you personally found challenging.


  1. Great post as ever, Margit. I would add that in my view there are two ways of being an ex-pat: 1) the integration way, learning the language, attuning to the culture etc and 2) the Brits abroad expat, who organise their life around other ex pats, seeks out their preferred home-food stuff, buys an english language newspaper as often as get my drift. I think the latter is perhaps a waste of time (bar the weather perhaps and maybe cost of living) but infinitely easier. The former is a big leap and everything changes. As you say, not for everybody. Again - a beaut. of a blog.

  2. Great stuff, Margit. And I'd add to what Edward says....there's the negotiating of your social scene. Always a tight-rope to walk between the way those two extreme groups choose to live. "Going native' vs. 'not going native'. I'm still working to find a way to take a bit of both, to forge my own path.

  3. You are so right, Margit. And I am seeing quite a few people returning home to Britain as their money or patience or idealism runs out. (And it's not just the Brits).

  4. OK, I had to laugh at that one: "lots of British people in France, say, are simply not aware of the fact that the way they dress is a major obstacle to being taken seriously there.". So true. The reverse is probably also true, mind you ;). Excellent post. Thanks.

  5. Funny how this post would only ever be written in English. With the exception of some pockets of concentrated migration in the world, pretty much nobody else but English-speakers would even consider living in a foreign country and "choosing" not the learn the native language. Or would painstakingly create a little mini-home country in their adopted country and pretend like they're still living at home. The world is still very Anglo-centric and frankly that works against most native English speakers; their self-perceived superiority of their own language coupled with their complete ignorance of others' is particularly embarrassing. But maybe that's changing?

    In the meantime, I'm just another native English-speaking expat, but seemingly one of a minority: someone who has actually integrated into my adopted countries and not expected the countries to indulge me instead.

  6. Most expats enjoy a higher salary than their peers at home or locally, a large house with private pool or trendy condo with full facilities, housing/car allowances and annual return tickets home. On top of that, taxes may be low or (partially) compensated.