The Eternal Expat Question
Recent submissions by readers and reoccurring comments by Khun Stickman about the “the expat life” syndrome that constantly besets a lot of younger expats living in third world countries prompts this fingers to keyboard submission.
Let me preface what I am about to say with a little personal history so things can be put in perspective. I am now 44 years old, with a couple of reasonably successful businesses here in Australia that allow me pretty much the freedom to do what I want, when I want, and with who I want. In other words I am in the very, very fortunate position of being in complete control of my destiny and my life. I still have to work hard and make decisions that have the potential for failure and financial cost and by no means would I consider myself to be in “easy street” financially but I am getting there and if all goes to plan 55 will be the “bye bye working life” time. I have been living here full time for the last 10 years, have a few solid assets and investments accumulated and manage to get away twice a year to some overseas location that I am happy with or wanting to explore and am reasonably happy with my lot. A reasonably ordinary life I would say. But my life wasn’t always like this……
From my mid twenties to my mid thirties I lived the expat lifestyle in quite a few countries around the shop, but mainly in South-East Asia. Apart from the last 2 years of the adventure spent in Hong Kong I wouldn’t say that my income was exorbitant or excessive and I most certainly didn’t save much (in fact the only monies that I still have invested from those days is various low denomination notes that lurk in the bottom of the socks draw awaiting use for taxi fares from the airports at the various countries upon another visit.) But lets face it, you are young, single and completely free so why the hell aren’t you going to drink of the cup of life that the country that you are living in at the time has to offer. NO AMOUNT OF MONEY would EVER be able to replace or replicate the experiences that life as a young, free and active expat brings.
People when they find out about that seemingly idyllic lifestyle always ask “why did you stop?” Well like nearly all young expats (and by young here I mean under 40) that I have ever spent time with over the years, you develop after a period of time a small tiny itch of a thought that begins to grow and multiply and occupy more and more time in your head. And once that thought starts there is no way you can get rid of it. You can change girlfriends or wives and it will go away for a while, change jobs and it will stay away for a bit longer and change countries and you will get some peace for a bit longer. But rest assured once that thought gets in your head you will NEVER be able to get rid of it. I have lost count of the number of older long term expats (not retirees from the west) I have met in social settings in foreign countries over the last 10 years and after talking with them for a while you can see that they still have that thought in their head after all these years. And their manner tells you that in one way or another they will still be asking that same question to the day they die. And what is that thought? Well if you are, or have been, a young expat you will know what I am talking about and if you aren’t you will have to read a little longer to find out.
Diplomatic Missions and Embassies from nearly all countries around the world have an almost consistent policy of “positional rotation” for expat staff members of their organisations. That is, they have a “fixed period” of time in one particular country after which they are moved to another. That period may vary between embassy to embassy but invariably all staff are rotated at every embassy. From an outsider's viewpoint this may appear to be a system based on promotional or demotional basis and to some degree it is although this only helps to facilitate the underlying reason for the movements. Similar principles are used by the military forces in foreign countries around the world with their labour force and it is for the same reasons. Why would they do this?
Ask yourself this question. Why do I like to travel the world / want to live in Thailand? (pick your passion). Is it the climate?, the food?, the people?, the go go bars?, the cheap lifestyle?, the girls? It took me a long, long time to work out what it is that living or travelling in a foreign country that makes it so appealing to me. And then one day sitting in an outdoor beer bar on a warm sunny day, overlooking the calm ocean off Peng Chau Island in Hong Kong and drinking cool beers with good friends it stuck me like an epiphany. Such a force of revelation to me was this; that within 30 days of having it, and after nearly 10 years of living the expat lifestyle and traveling the world, I had extricated myself from my work contract, sold or given away all my furniture, had a HUGE “going away” party and I was back in Australia ready to begin the next journey in my life.
And the epiphany? You can be ANYWHERE in the world and not have the CRAP in your life. It is your choice to bring it into your life and by taking a few positive measures you can not choose to have it in your world. For me it is achieved now by a few simple things. I don’t own a television, don’t listen to talk back radio and don’t read the local papers. That is not say that I am an ignorant person, am well read, but I source my information on the world on a very selective global basis rather than at the “car crash on the corner of Smith and William Street last night” or “crime levels on the increase in southern suburbs” level that local media presents as the daily fodder for the masses to consume so they can sell some advertising space. I am a highly active and outgoing member of the local community and take part in many social and community spirit building events but I am not interested in local politics, planning decisions, gossip, stars comings and goings, and all the other mundane CRAP that is passed off as “news” or “important information”. I have a very wide and varied group of friends and acquaintances from all walks of life and social settings and backgrounds. I am accepting of other people's views and opinions but will rapidly disentangle myself from anyone who tries to force them upon me. Did you know we in the Western World today take in more “news” from the media outlets and other sources in one day than a person living in a Scandinavian country in the 18th Century had to deal with in a lifetime? Think about that.
As I said before the epiphany that warm afternoon made me realize I used to live as an expat predominately so I could escape the CRAP. I always thought it was for the experiences and the cultural differences, the lifestyle or for the scenery or the adventure. But no; at the end of the day, it was, and is, so that I can escape the CRAP and just live life. When I am on holidays overseas I was, and still am, at my happiest when I am in a country where I can speak just enough of the language to have a slow basic social conversation with the locals but not read or understand the local newspapers. I used to take the time to learn and read the local language of the country I was living in but after 3 foreign languages I just said “enough”. I am not a local native person of this country and never will be, and I don’t want to get involved in the local politics, news or CRAP that usually goes with being a native local. I just want to engage with other human beings on a basic ‘we are both alive and let's be happy” level. I really don’t care about whether or not Mrs. Wong's’ daughter down the road in Pratunam has just had her second child out of wedlock any more than the salaryman I am traveling the bullet train with in Tokyo with does about whether or not Barry NoLife gets re-elected to the local Council in my town. I just want to be happy and enjoy my time in the sun, sharing its rays with as many like-minded people as happen along. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.
My life now is good. Certainly if I had met me now when I was in my mid to late twenties or early thirties I would have thought “hmmm I don’t think that is what I want to be doing when I am an older man, living in the most isolated capital city in the world doing the same thing every day.” And I can understand those thoughts. But along with the epiphany that warm sunny afternoon came the realisation that it was going to be so much harder to achieve my goals as a young man in a foreign country where I would have to actively engage in the CRAP in order to succeed and truly become one of the locals and then the whole good feeling and freedom of living in that place would be gone. Much better to make my mark and fortune and have the working option of my life take place in my home country and still avoid the CRAP and then when I am ready to retire; reactivate the expat lifestyle again, and live it with the CRAP avoidance that financial independence and security brings. In the meantime I get to have two 3-week breaks a year where I can go anywhere I want and do anything I want because I live and function in a society that supplies me an income and standard of living that is higher than 99% of the rest of the countries on the planet.
And that is how the plan is going so far. How it will end we will have to wait and see….
And the question every young expat asks themselves? “Is this better than home?”