Being an Expat shouldn’t be this hard

December 2010 The Expat Telegraph published an article I had written called Thoroughly Modern Expats.

For a number of years following I was a regular monthly columist for them.

Reading through the original articles that I submitted recently, I was taken by a) how relevant many of them still are today, and b) I had no online record of them of my own.

So I have added the original submissions to this blog, so if you want to read more of them just search for telegrapharticles, and while you are at it you may want to search for expatarticles as well to see other columns I wrote in the past for various newspapers in Spain.

Being an expat shouldn’t be this hard!

Broadly speaking expats fall into three categories: those looking to establish a new career abroad, those furthering their career abroad, or those retired and looking to enjoy the fruits of their careers abroad. Romantically they all share the same hopes and aspirations, realistically for many they have few other choices. The media in particular love to talk about the Expats Dream, as if living abroad has been some long held desire, talked about over the years and researched and planned in meticulous detail. The reality? Last chance saloon is a phrase that springs to mind.

Regardless of reason expats should all have a few things in common. Gone are the days of pioneers boldly going where no expat has been before. Today’s expat in all probability is going to be treading a well worn path to their adopted country, a country that in all likelihood they will have visited before several times, and one in which they may well have friends and indeed family.

A reassuring safety net made all the more secure by the knowledge that there will be an expat community they can integrate with, that learning the language while high on the ‘will do’ list is low on the ‘must do’ list, that the English Shop and the English Bar will not be far away, and in this day and age ‘popping home’ only a flight away.

So well planned, thoroughly prepared, on a well trodden path, the life of an expat really should be an easy one, so why, or maybe how, has it become so hard?

The press is full these days of stories of expats being made homeless, forced to sleep on the streets, of pensioners ‘trapped’ in a country they would leave ‘if only they could’, of expat businesses going bust on a daily basis. For those with careers many are fearful for their futures, distanced from the Head Office and the ability to play the necessary corporate politics they feel distanced, marginalised and removed from the real decision making.

The recession, the financial crisis, they are to blame.

Without doubt they have contributed significantly to many an expats woes, in many cases through little fault of their own. I have a friend that was doing very well for themselves in their expat lifestyle, husband and wife ticking along nicely with new careers and the desired work to life balance that so many find impossible to achieve in the UK. Then all of a sudden their security net was whipped away. In their case it was the loss of a tenant in the UK and the much needed rent to cover the mortgage on the property in the UK that was their ‘nest egg’. Without this they were forced back to the UK to make good on the damage to the property and secure an income to pay their mortgage. I say ‘they’, but unfortunatley husband has stayed working away, sleeping on friends sofas as his work is more in demand than in the UK while wife is back in the UK: not how they envisaged spending their semi-retirement years!

But is it the recession? Another friend opted for the expat lifestyle several years ago with their wife, to enjoy their retirement. They invested in a business for their daughter so she could come and live close to them and share their adopted country. Of course she fell in love, moved back to the UK and my friend is left running the business and because of the current climate working twice as hard as he ever did in his prime for about 20% of his former income. And all he wanted to do was give his daughter the opportunity to have a more relaxed lifestyle and be close to here mum. As if that wasn’t enough daughter now produced grandchildren so his wife is spending month on end back in the UK with the daughter and grandchildren, leaving him stranded abroad running a business he doesn’t want but can’t get rid of!

Personally I struggle to blame the current financial situation. Yes it has contributed but to allocate it sole responsibility I feel misses the point. Before the crisis hit many an expat figured out the hard way that living an expat lifestyle wasn’t for them. I have seen many return home having ‘blown’ the cash from a property sale on a 12 month long party with hardly a care in the world, and I have seen many expat golfer reluctantly pack up their clubs and head home under orders from a wife that just couldn’t handle being a golf widow in a foreign country without the established support network they were used to at home, and an unbelievable amount return back home because grandchildren have appeared on the scene. This later one always bemuses me because I would have though that the chances were always that grandchildren would appear at some stage and surely that was factored into the decision making process?

Which brings me to the point of the column!

Life as an expat shouldn’t be hard. The financial events effecting expats are no different than those effecting the rest of the world. The challenges of making a living, sustaining relationships are all the same.

I have never figured why expats feel that their move abroad is permanent? The probability is that you will return home: the career move that brought you over will take you away as you progress up the slippery pole, the new family will require greater support and infrastructure than an expat community can provide, illness in old age to yourself or an ageing parent will force you home, grandchildren, homesickness they all mean that the probability is that being an expat in one country is a short lived thing.

So why do expats insist on establishing so many roots, of replicating what they had at home? Why buy a property and tie up you cash when you can rent and remain flexible. Why worry about clubs and belonging to social circles which inevitably will be as volatile as a career in football management? Why put all your eggs in one basket, have no Plan B, assume that life won’t change for the worse.

I have sympathy of course for those that are struggling but I am afraid I have little sympathy as I have seen too many expats make life as an expat far harder than it need be.

Please feel free to search on Google for the published versions of these columns.

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