Expats are people who live outside their native country – whether they are teaching English in Thailand, working as translators in France, or retired in Costa Rica. Expats make up 3.1% of global population, which totals to 230 million people – the equivalent to Indonesia. If all the expats around the world were to form an imaginary country, it would be the 5th most populous in the world.
I recently wrote a post about living as an expat in Taiwan for a year and how it improved my lifestyle. Many of the benefits I noted were not only true of expat life in Taiwan but also of Asia as a whole, and a few of them are universal. I discussed improvements that were relevant to both my immediate lifestyle and my lifestyle after leaving Taiwan (i.e. I discovered a love of hiking, therefore I explored some awesome places in Taiwan, after leaving I still hike and have trekked to places I might not have otherwise, like Kościelec).
Though my lifestyle – during and after living in Taiwan – has improved as a result of my relocation, I want to make it clear that being an expat isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. While being an expat can improve one’s quality of life overall, reaping those benefits doesn’t come without other sacrifices. There seems to be a common misconception that expats have got it easy, and that they are just having an eternal ‘gap yah.’ In reality, life as an expat can be very challenging.
What are the challenges commonly faced by expats?
1. Language Barriers
With the exception of all the polyglots out there, language barriers can be a real challenge. Simple tasks can take an incredibly long time to get done. A conversational exchange like, “How do I turn the washing machine on?” becomes a nightmare when you realise you don’t know the word for how, washing, machine, or on. In fact, mine and Luke’s inability to read Chinese meant we had been washing our clothes without washing powder for two months because we thought there was already some in the machine. Actually, we never saw anyone with their own washing powder the whole time, so I’m still not sure we were using the laundrette properly!
Language barriers are a particular problem for expats in Chinese and Vietnamese speaking countries, as those languages are notoriously hard to learn. Many people, me included, feel nervous when speaking a foreign language for fear of sounding silly and having a local stare at you like you’re a crazy person. Of course I sounded silly when I asked for táng (sugar) instead of tāng (soup), but that’s all part of learning a new language.
2. Socio-Cultural Differences
Why are scooters allowed to drive on the pavement in Taiwan!? And why is no one concerned that there is a toddler precariously balanced on that fast moving scooter!? These are two socio-cultural differences between Taiwan and England that I will never understand, but that’s okay. I remember seeing an East Meets West infographic illustrating some of the main cultural differences experienced by expats. The expat problems I repeatedly heard frustration or confusion over were queuing (or lack of), talking about the weather (or not), and respect (or lack of) for the boss (even if he was a nitwit).
3. Missing Family & Friends
I love my mum, it’s obvious, homesickness is always a problem for expats. Moving to Taiwan was my first time living abroad and the first time I didn’t live within a reasonable distance of my family and friends. What also doesn’t help is a 7-hour time difference. My mum certainly didn’t want me ringing her on Skype when I finished work, because 2am is not an appropriate time for a chat.
4. You Can’t Always Choose your Native Speaking Friends
Here’s one you don’t see too often but is definitely a problem. Naturally expats want to integrate and make friends in their local community, but language barriers can be difficult and tiring, so many expats also look to have a group of native speaking friends too. Unfortunately, unlike in your home country where anyone in your surrounding area is a potential friend, your friend options are massively reduced in these circumstances. As a result, you usually become friends with other expats because they are the few who happen to also be living in your local area (unless you live in a big city, but even then…) I can’t say I ever met anyone I didn’t like, but I met a lot of people who I just had nothing in common with. In the end, I was very fortunate to have made some excellent friends who I learned a lot from, but it definitely didn’t happen immediately.
The top cited problem experienced by expats is feeling isolated. This is usually the result of a combination of the above factors, which can really get you down on a bad day. Even though I relocated to Taiwan with my partner, I still had days where I felt isolated from the community as a whole. This was usually because of being away from my family, my rubbish Chinese (not for want of trying), and inability to comprehend why people drive scooters on the pavement. On a grey rainy day it was enough to make me want to just stand under the shower for hours.
What!? Now being an expat doesn’t sound good at all!
When you’ve been living in a new country for a while, you start to get used to your surroundings to the extent that you don’t appreciate them in the same way you first did. It’s natural that everyone has down days, but it’s really important to focus on the positives of your new home, and not to dwell on the negatives. Choosing to live as an expat means making compromises. For some, the benefits of living abroad far outweigh the negatives and they become long-term expats. Others, like myself, are somewhere in between and prefer short-term stints as an expat. The rest aren’t even reading this blog post.
Want a tip? Thailand has been rated as the top destination for expats looking for both a good quality life and an improved financial status.