To give you a bit more insight in what it is to be an expat; the sacrifices one needs to make and; the benefits of this experience, I have answered some of the most frequently asked questions.
Q: Are you an expat now?
A: Technically speaking I am not one at this very moment. I am a “traveller” in between country moves, waiting for final arrangements for my next expat destination: India.
Q: Where and how have you lived as an expat?
A: I’ve lived in 6 countries so far with different purposes. My first expat experiences were as a school student in London (UK) and Quito (Ecuador). I went back to London for my university years, spending every summer holidays and mid-term breaks in Lima (Peru) where my family lived at the time and have continued visiting every year up until now. I also lived in Dusseldorf (Germany) for a little more than one year after graduation and spent a term in Edinburgh, Scotland. My first working abroad experience was in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) where I lived for five years and a half. And now I’m in the process of shifting to Pune (India). Of course I have also lived in my hometown in Madrid (Spain) when I was a child and then as an adult for about 3 intermittent years in the last 17 years.
Q: Do you have a favourite expat experience?
A: Yes! I have 2: one as a kid and one as an adult. I rate my time in Quito as the best schooling year of my life! I met fabulous people with whom I am still in touch and discovered a lot of South America, unknown to me at the time. And then it is London-time where I met my “second family” and the city stole my heart away. I call London my second home.
Q: How has being an expat enriched your life?
A: It has not only enriched my life but it has shaped it. Mostly thanks to all those experiences, I am who I am today. I have been exposed to a multicultural, always-changing environment since early years, so I’ve made some expat-inherent skills my key strengths: quick adaptability to new surroundings; flexibility to constant changes; understanding and sympathy for differences in cultural backgrounds; and a very chilled open-minded way of looking at things. I’ve always been very independent, never liked people doing things for me or telling me how to do them, and I guess living abroad alone for such long time forces you to sort out daily obstacles and bigger problems on your own more efficiently. You become very resourceful, somewhat protective of yourself and a reference point for help to others. Being an expat offers so many opportunities of personal and professional growth you otherwise don’t have access to.
Q: Is there a downside to being an expat?
A: Most definitely there is! Different personalities have different answers to this question but I guess there is one common thing to all of us: being far away from the family and friends not only in your day-to-day but for the majority of life’s events and milestones. There is only a certain amount of holidays and finances you can afford to fly in and out so as to enjoy and contribute to family gatherings, birthdays, weddings, celebrations, births, hospital visits etc. You need to learn to fight the “home-sickness” the best you can. Sometimes you have to make compromises to your leisure plans, activities and people you share your daily life with in your current expat country. For instance, vacations are not about which destination you want to explore or making plans with your friends but about flying back home to see your family and be part of their lives physically.
And then of course the good-byes you need to say to all the people you meet, especially difficult when you have made best of friends. Then, you not only have your hometown to visit but lots of different places where you have left a piece of you.
Q: What 3 pieces of advice would you give to a first-time expat for the first few months in the new country?
A: Firstly, if you have not accepted or realized the fact that you are no longer going to have that same life and family/friends support you had when home, then that’s your top priority: coming to terms with your responsibility and self-confidence to build a new life you enjoy and a local contact network of people you can trust for both good and bad times is essential (of course you will continue having the emotional support from your loved ones, but at a distance). Secondly, learn the language spoken in the country!!! You are not expected to become fluent right away but yes to at least make the effort to learn and communicate basic needs in your daily life. Perhaps at your university or work you will communicate in English or a language you are already familiar with but outside those environments life happens in a different language and trust me everything is easier and you will enjoy it more when you can communicate with the people. Thirdly, do build that local contact network I mentioned: trust-worthy doctors, neighbours, local friends and their families, work colleagues, other expats… a bit of everything to cater for personal, social and work needs you might have. What I have experienced right from my first expat days is the tendency of expats to mainly hang out with other expats and not put enough effort to know locals. I find that practice a big undermining of the benefits of being ‘one more’ in that city as supposed to as ‘the foreigner’ of the block.
Q: What has been one of the main challenges of your expat journey so far?
A: I’ve had many challenges I wouldn’t have probably faced if I had stayed home but probably the most nerve-racking one of all is the repatriation experience. Coming back to live in your hometown after so many years away can be overwhelming, and probably more than getting posted to another country abroad. I’ve associated Madrid to family and holidays for almost half my lifetime where I would come to visit for maximum a month and then return back to my ‘home’. I’ve spent more time studying, working and living abroad than in Spain and being repatriated means making a new life (as you would do in any other situation abroad) in an environment I am expected to be familiar with. Of course one has the support of family but their perception of how easy it will be your adaptation differs from yours greatly! You are expected to have good friends, to know where to go, to know the working environment of the country, the politics, the sense of humour and above all feel at home because, well, you are back home… but the truth is that during your years abroad you undergo changes and get attached to “new homes” in ways you only realize when you leave the country; all making it very difficult to be the same “you” as when you left home and, hence, adapt to your previous hometown life. Then, you realize that being repatriated is a sort of expatriation process but with people less attentive to integrate you in that new society because it is not supposed to be new for you.
Q: Do you have any plans to settle down somewhere or return home for good?
A: Settling down is a funny concept for me. It is generally associated with long-term commitment to a person, place and lifestyle. I am committed to all three in various ways but the word “long-term” is relative to each individual. I do not see myself living in one city the rest of my life. I am way too young for that now! I can see myself making a base somewhere convenient and enjoyable for me and then moving around as needed. Returning home at some point is definitely in my mind but I don’t know when.
Q: Do you have any regrets of having chosen this expat lifestyle?
A: I have many thoughts of how my life could have been in Spain but no regrets at all. I consider myself lucky for having experienced the world from different perspectives and, in fact, I am so hooked to this lifestyle that any other way will be awkward for me.
If you have more questions on what being an expat is like or would like some tips for a smooth transition in your next expat move, please feel free to write to me!! Happy and safe travels!