Going Against the Grain: Expat Challenges and Rewards
Today, many young people leave their home country to become ‘expat’, taking advantage of the myriad opportunities there are for working abroad. Whether you’re heading off to work in a multi-national company, teaching English in a language school or working from your laptop on your own business, the expat lifestyle has many rewards – and indeed many challenges too! So is going against the grain and forging out a life for yourself overseas worth it? Hell yes!
What are some of the most popular jobs for expats?
- English Teacher – Whilst the English language remains a valuable commodity, teaching it gives expats a fantastic means of making money whilst they travel. From more highly paid countries such as South Korea, Japan or countries in the Middle East, to countries where the cost of living is comparatively low compared to wages, such as Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, teaching is a reliable way to get by for many expats. Usually, you need a University Degree and a TESOL or CELTA certificate in order get a well-paid job as an English teacher.
- Digital Nomad – With the global improvement in WIFI in recent years, there has been an increase in self-employed digital nomads working only from their laptops whilst they travel or live abroad. Freelance writers, bloggers, designers, social media strategists, web developers, app creators, business consultants – there are many careers today which can be done remotely.
- Travel Company Start Ups – Expats who fall in love with a country often set up hotels, hostels or adventure companies abroad helping fellow travelers to explore the area that they have become familiar with. There are many opportunities for English-speaking travelers to work in the tourism industry, in restaurants, become dive instructors, adventure tour leaders, bar managers etc.
- Multi-National Companies – People who are transferred within their multi-national company often get a great salary, apartment, and even a driver with their jobs. These types of jobs are often acquired in the home country before the expat arrives.
Where are the most popular regions for expats?
- South East Asia – With a very cheap cost of living, South East Asia, particularly Thailand, is one of the most popular destinations for expats from the UK, Europe, the USA and Canada to settle. In Thailand, you can earn around $1,000 USD / month as an English Teacher, rent an apartment for less than $200 USD / month and eat a meal for less than $1 USD. Therefore, the quality of life you can have is very good! Most teaching jobs grant one-year working visas.
- Europe – For expats from a country that is a member of the European Union, it is possible to move freely around Europe and live and work without a visa. Spain, with it’s sunny climate and beautiful beaches is one of the most popular places for expats (particularly retired ones) and it is home to one million expats from the UK. There are many opportunities for English teachers and many jobs in the tourism industry. For those wanting to live abroad on a short term basis, there are many excellent study abroad programs in Europe.
- South America – Again, opportunities here for teaching English across the Spanish speaking continent are plentiful, although the cost of living comparison to the wages, is not quite as good as in South East Asia, as rent / food / cost of living are more expensive.
What are some of the most rewarding aspects of being an expat?
- The sense of community – When you take the plunge and move abroad, you will become a part of the ‘expat community’ – where everybody tries to help everybody else in their new and different lives. There are Facebook groups to meet fellow expats, language exchanges, buy and sell websites, apartment sharing, dog sitting and more… Whether you’re young, old, rich, poor, from Africa, the Philippines, the UK or Canada, if you’re all living outside your home country – you are considered an ‘expat’ and you’ll have an instant community to share your experiences with.
- Everything is a lesson and an adventure – Depending on which country you have decided to become an expat, everyday tasks can become an adventure! Going to the post office, opening a bank account, renting an apartment, hiring a car – all of life’s tasks will teach you something about the country and culture that you are immersing yourself in.
- Broaden your horizons and gain life skills – We’ve all heard the old cliché about travel opening your mind and broadening your horizons, but it really is true, even more for living abroad, rather than just backpacking. Learning to thrive in a foreign country will make you more flexible and adaptable as a person, not to mention more employable in the future. You’ll feel more confident and able to handle challenges as they arise and doing things once you’re back home, within a familiar culture (and a language you understand!) will feel like a breeze!
- Cost of living compared to wages – I mentioned this before, but for those of us brought up in expensive countries such as the UK and the USA, the cost of living in regions such as South East Asia is dramatically cheaper. If you’re able to earn a wage from an online business, or if you secure a decent job teaching, then you’ll be in a good position to enjoy all of the experiences that the country you’re living in offers, AND explore nearby countries too.
- Appreciation for your home – Living abroad, particularly in a third world country can widen your perspective of the world and make you appreciate what you have. You will appreciate your friends and family back home, and also appreciate the small pleasures, like a good cup of tea (for Brits)! It can be a humbling experience to see people get through life with a smile when they have a fraction of the opportunities that other people are born with. Make sure you open your eyes when you travel.
What are some of the challenges that expat life brings?
- Loneliness – If you don’t speak the same language as most of the people around you, it can get lonely from time to time. With English being the world’s most useful language to have (at the moment), you’ll find that you’ll get by meeting locals who speak English, making expat friends and speaking basic language in shops and restaurants etc. However, it’s the overhearing of other people’s conversations, being able to make jokes with the shopkeeper, listening to the radio and the connecting with people in their own language that is missed at first. This can make you feel like an outsider at times.
- Homesickness – These days it’s so easy to keep in touch. Skype, Facebook, WhatsApp and a dozen other social networking sites make travel abroad easier than it has ever been. You may chat with your Mum daily on Skype, maybe even meet your baby niece for the first time this way, and see pictures of friends’ weddings on Facebook. No matter how much you stay in touch online, you just can’t beat being face to face in real life with the ones you love
- Culture shock when you return home – You think you suffered culture shock when you first arrived in Asia / South America / Europe? Just wait until you return home after a year or two of living abroad! Life as an expat will change you so profoundly: your views, your lifestyle, your outlook on the world, that you may feel very differently to your friends when you head home for a return visit.
- Too much alcohol – Expat life is a lot of fun, and a lot of socializing will happen! That means that going out every night and drinking in bars is very common. Some expats, particularly in South East Asia, admit that too much of the socializing revolves around alcohol and it can be hard to refuse!
- Transience – Perhaps one of the most difficult things to deal with in expat life is the fact that it is so transient. Many people only live and work abroad for a few years and so the turn over of your friends will be high. You become tired of saying goodbye so often and wish everyone would just stay in one place forever!
What are some tips on becoming a successful expat?
- Learn the language FAST! – You will never understand how much learning another language can open up doors for you, until you do it! Many people claim that they feel like another person when they learn to speak another language fluently – it can be a life-changing experience – and living abroad gives you a great opportunity to commit to doing it!
- Step outside the expat bubble – Easy as it is, don’t just hang out in the expat bars with fellow English speakers. Make a real effort to make local friends and you’ll feel more integrated into the culture.
- Do your research on the local culture – What gestures / behaviors are considered rude in the new country where are you are living? Learn to blend in and be accepted by adhering to social norms.
- Limit social media – Spending too much time on Facebook looking at your friends’ lives back home will only make you miserable. Your friends would want you to embrace and enjoy this incredible time of life, and although you miss each other, it’s important to remember that they will be there when you return – with all of your amazing stories about your expat life!
- Visit before moving – When reading articles online and watching videos before securing a job there, X city looked like the best place in the world! You have been interviewed and secured a job online, have booked an apartment for six months on AirBnB, arrive in the city and in your first few weeks realize… it’s just not the place for you. Visit first and decide if this is the place that you want to be an expat for a few years. If you can’t do that – at least do a virtual walk on street view
- Do as the locals do – Embrace the everyday activities of the local people. If they go to a bar every week to watch the football, tag along. Become interested in the things that they are. Try unusual street food, take part in local festivals, follow local fashions, listen to popular music and keep a similar timetable. If you’re in Spain for example – have a siesta!
Nikki Scott is the founder of South East Asia, South America and Europe Backpacker Magazines. Originally from England, Nikki lived in Thailand for over six years and is now living in Barcelona, Spain. If you’re interested in more of her expat insights, check out her recent book ‘Business Backpacker’ which retells the story of how she went from ‘backpacker to entrepreneur’ after a first time trip to South East Asia.