What does expat mean?
A person who lives outside his/her home country and works as a skilled worker, professional, or an artist is considered to be an expatriate or expat. The term expat may also extend to a retiree who has chosen to live outside his/her home country.
People have been living in foreign countries as workers, diplomats, missionaries, or merchants since ages. With the invention of steamships and airplanes, travel became easier. As a result, the number of expats in the world also became larger. People were either choosing to live in a foreign country for a few years or their employers were sending them to offshore branches of their businesses.
Some people confuse expatriate with “expatriot” or someone who does not like his/her home country. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, being expats will make such people living abroad realize how much they miss some of the good things about their home country.
Why become an expat?
There are plenty of things to like about being an expat. Firstly, one gets to live in a foreign country and experience the local culture of that country. An expat goes much deeper into the local lifestyle than what a tourist would ever go. An expat also builds a network of foreign contacts that can be very valuable for business or personal pursuits.
Depending on the country where the expat is going to live, the savings from salary can be quite significant. If someone on a US payroll is asked to live in Southeast Asia for a few years, then the lower cost of living in that country would mean a lot more dollars available for investment/retirement savings. This benefit is particularly visible in cases where a company sends its employee for work in a lower-income country while still having the employee earn his/her regular salary.
Expats can also greatly develop themselves on a personal level by being an expat. A study conducted back in 2007 found that one of the biggest drivers for an employee wanting to become an expat was the breadth of responsibility in an international assignment. The employee has to work through various challenges and risks when working abroad. Expat assignments also tend to have a fair degree of autonomy. All of these factors can really hone the skills of an individual and help them grow professionally and personally.
Some challenges of being an expat
Being an expat is not always rosy. Moving to a new country can be a culture shock to many. Moving to a new country, even for a short period of time, can mean a total loss of an existing social network. A person who cannot immediately integrate into a new environment may feel lonely for a while. If the foreign country has more government restrictions than the home country, then the expat may miss the freedom that he/she enjoyed at home.
If the country where the expat is moving has a higher standard of living than the home country, then the increased cost of living can cost a business a lot more money in terms of employee expenses. Even the expat’s savings might get eroded due to higher personal expenses.
If one of the spouses has to move abroad as an expat, then it may disrupt the career of the other spouse. The foreign country might have strict rules regarding dependents of expats being able to work on a dependent visa. Or perhaps the foreign country does not have job opportunities in an industry in which the spouse of the expat was working in her home country.
Children can also have a hard time identifying themselves and relating themselves because of living life as an expat. Because they have lived in another country for extended periods of time, they find it difficult to answer the question “where are you from?”
Children who have lived abroad as expats may also find it difficult to find peers or friends who they can relate to. Even culturally, they can be in a grey zone. They already have their home culture inculcated in them but then they also absorb the foreign culture of the country where they live as an expat. So, because of a jumble of multiple cultures, they might be misunderstood by people who have always been surrounded by only one culture.
There is also something known as Expat Child Syndrome which children between the ages of 10 and 15 may experience.
Expat vs immigrant
An expat is also different from an immigrant. An expat is a person who lives outside his/her native country for a certain duration. An immigrant, on the other hand, is a person who seeks to live and work in a new country permanently. The immigrant has an intention of settling into a new country and staying there indefinitely. An expat does not go to a foreign country with the mindset or goal of permanently living there.
So, Sergey Brin of Google is considered as an immigrant while an American diplomat in Nigeria or a Moroccan executive stationed in the company’s Paris office would be considered to be an expat. While all of these people are living outside their birth countries for an indefinite period, it is sometimes observed that the term expat is reserved for white people (Western Caucasian) who go and work abroad.
This debate about labeling people from specific races as expats has been a political one. The words expat and immigrant can imply certain nuances about a person’s wealth. Expat is considered to be a wealthy person while an immigrant is supposed to be considered as someone who left poverty in a third world country to do low-skilled low-paid work in a developed country. However, in reality, the definition of an expat does not change with race or skin color.
Do expats remain aloof from local communities?
Expats may have a reputation for not integrating with the local community. Sometimes that may be intentional, while at other times it may be totally unintentional. For example, there are situations where people have moved to a foreign land and lived there for a few years and they would still not greet the locals in the local language.
The kids of diplomats at international schools tend to be regarded as expats as well. They are prone to moving to a new country every three or four years. They might appear as if they do not integrate with the local community, but you can’t really blame them either. By the time they build deep bonds with the local people, it is time to pack up and leave.