Expat is a shortening of expatriate, which, in turn, comes from the Latin ex (meaning, “out of”) and patria (meaning, "one’s native land"). So, expat or expatriate means, basically, living outside one’s own country.
There’s no single way to be an expat, and certainly no single, common experience, because people and countries are all different. Even so, we have surprisingly similar advice for anyone considering becoming an expat, or who just wonders what it’s like.
Louise, a Brit, is a cousin by marriage (we both married into the same extended family). She says, “I think the best advice I can give people is ‘don't be afraid to ask’. As a Brit, we don't tend to speak up often enough when we don't understand something, for fear of looking foolish, but I have found that the Kiwi attitude is that ‘you don't ask, you don't get’. Since I got over my British Reserve, I've found life a lot simpler and less confusing, because I just ask!”
This is one of the best ways to adapt to a new home country. It’s impossible to know from the start everything needed to fit in, and one of the best ways of learning is simply asking. It definitely can be hard doing so, but it’s fast and effective.
Pete, from Northern Ireland, has practical advice for expats. “Think about your future,” he advises. “No matter how young/being Kiwisaver (NZ’s national retirement savings programme) exempt, start building your own every payday.” This is especially important for permanent migrants, of course, but it’s usually safest to assume it’s permanent when you move to a new country.
The effort given to settling in definitely helps. Pete says, “After 6–9 months of integrating and meeting people and being open to new people, it does start to gain the feeling of home.” I agree, and openness to new things is kind of a perquisite for emigrating!
Nik, an American journalist now living in Auckland with his son and New Zealand wife, has particular advice for our fellow Americans who emigrate to this part of the world:
“A sense of flexibility and understanding of a non-American viewpoint is one thing I've taken on board… You hear a lot of casual insults and contempt for various things about American politics, culture, lifestyles, whatever, thrown about and that was very new to me, and I'm far from a flag-waving patriot. But it was hard not to take that personally somehow — ‘not all Americans are gun toting obese rednecks, you know…’ that sort of thing. Like people were somehow insulting me?When the US Government under George Bush was getting ready to invade Iraq, and there were protests against that worldwide, I found it was somewhat easier for me to allow strangers to think I was Canadian. Personally, I’ve found jibes at the US to have been done mostly in the context of jokes and humour, which in both Australia and New Zealand can be pretty pointed—I’ve known many Americans who thought such joking was overly harsh. People from other countries probably face similar situations.
It is probably a novel feeling for a lot of Americans to learn that their country is not universally loved overseas and you have to get a thicker skin about people thinking because you're an American they can vent to you about all the things they hate about America. Particularly if their only real experience with the U.S. is from movies and TV. …That's one thing I had trouble accepting and understanding in my first year or so down here.”
April (who you can follow on Twitter), from the USA and now living in New Zealand, said that paperwork is a big thing for expats, “the paperwork/jumping through hoops required to remain in another country legally,” something faced by all migrants. She explains:
Since I arrived in NZ eight years ago, I've completed seven lengthy applications for the series of permits/visas I've needed to remain in the country. Each application included its own extensive supporting documentation, photographs, and fee; some even required x-rays and police reports. (Now that I'm a NZ citizen, the only form I need to worry about filling out is for NZ passport renewal. Huzzah!)As if the paperwork for staying in one’s new country legally weren’t enough, April points out there’s paperwork for one’s home country, too:
Figuring out when/how to vote in one's country of origin, whether or not one has to file/pay taxes in one's country of origin, and things like maintaining property/other assets, even bank accounts or a valid driver's licence in one's country of origin are other examples of bothersome things I have to deal with from afar.Taxes can be a big thing for US citizens living overseas, since we’re required to file every year even if we owe nothing to the US government. Voting overseas has become somewhat easier over the years, however.
Sarah from Chicago offers a sobering reality of being an expat long-term:
My advice regarding being an expat is that you never really can come home again, but that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. While you will change and grow through being away, when you come back you won't ever truly fit like you did before, not as easily as you did before. You'll always feel ever so slightly apart, not intertwined in the relationships like you were before.The longer one is away from their homeland, the more apparent this becomes. A sense of loss, mourning, even, isn’t uncommon among long-term expats. But, as Sarah points out, for expats returning to their home country there’s an upside:
It'll mean you'll get to see your home through new eyes, conscious eyes—eyes not quite of a foreigner, but also no longer as a full native, either, anymore. You'll get to see new things about your homeland that you wouldn't otherwise, and critically evaluate so much of it. Of course, you'll also now also never truly feel rooted here, you'll now always have the drive to be elsewhere, to look to the Horizon. Itchy feet will be there as your constant companion.The “itchy feet” is probably less of a thing for permanent migrants, those who never return to their homeland to live. It certainly hasn’t been true for me—yet?
April sums up what a lot of us expats thought before making the big move: “I used to think expats must live a carefree, sort of 'sexy' lifestyle but the reality has been very different [because of bureaucracy]. ‘Hey! New Zealand! Where is my carefree, sexy lifestyle, eh??’ (Also, I just laugh whenever non-NZers talk about the NZ ‘Lifestyle’!)"
Would-be expats also have to be aware of the potential that something could happen to a loved one back in their homeland, and they may not be able to do anything about it. Roger Green’s cousin, Lisa, wrote a heartbreaking post about exactly that happening. It sums up the risk beautifully.
With all that said, and warnings and advice given, there’s one more thing to be said: Being an expat can be the best imaginable experience for those suited to it. It changed my life for the better in every way possible, and this place is now home. Amanda van Mulligen blogged about how the new country becomes home, and it’s the life and memories that make it that way.
I learned about Amanda’s post through a Tweet from The Expat Magazine, and I learned about Lisa’s through Roger Green. I didn’t know any of them, or the people I quoted in this post, before I moved to New Zealand. Had I not had this experience living in another country, I probably never would have, either.
This is my 210th blog post talking about being an expat, one way or another. Some mention it in passing, and for some (like this one) it’s the main topic. Being an expat is an enriching experience in so many ways, though it’s clearly not for everyone. For those with a spirit of adventure, an open mind and an open heart, it can be truly awesome.
I'll try and answer any questions in the comments, or you can email me. The image above is a montage of two photos from NASA.
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