Ten Reasons Why You Should NOT Become an Expat

I’m the last person to discourage anyone from choosing the expatriate life, but…

Kranzlereck, Berlin

The new Kranzlereck viewed from the terrace of the Café Kranzler in Berlin. Could YOU be sitting here one day soon? PHOTO: Andrea Goldmann

There are some people who simply should not leave their familiar home territory. Expatriates meet these people all the time. They are the ones who constantly gripe about their adopted country and its people. They seem to be constantly unhappy, and they make you wonder why they ever left home in the first place.

Of course, not everyone becomes an expatriate by choice. Some people end up in Germany or another country because of a military, government, or company assignment. But most people have a choice, even if it’s someone being sent on an overseas job assignment, or a student who wants to study abroad.

Although the reasons below are aimed primarily at English-speakers, the same principles apply to anyone transferring from one culture to another. Here are my Ten Reasons Why You Should NOT Become an Expat:

  1. You don’t like change. You’re set in your ways and you rarely travel. The expat life is all about change and discovering new and different ways of doing things. If that doesn’t appeal to you, you should stay home. The same applies if you are very close to friends and family, and are prone to homesickness. Although the internet has made it easier to stay in touch, if you’re going to miss home most of the time, you’d better stay there.
  2. You’ve never learned a foreign language, or you have difficulty learning a foreign language. You agree with this statement: “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for everyone.” (Most scholars believe Jesus spoke a dialect of Aramaic and probably also Hebrew. English did not yet exist.) English truly may be the world’s lingua franca today, but you’ll be at a big disadvantage if you don’t understand or speak the local lingo. Language is a vital element of any culture. If you don’t know the language, you’ll never really understand the culture or be able to share in it. You’ll be stranded in English isolation.
  3. You have no clue about the cost of living in your new country. If you haven’t looked into the current costs of food, utilities, housing, operating a car, etc., your salary/income may be inadequate. Is your expat destination cheaper or more expensive than home? Will you receive a realistic housing allowance, or can you afford that on your own? What kind of health care is available and what does it cost? Not asking such questions in advance is a big mistake.
  4. You have overly romantic, unrealistic views of the new country and its culture. If you’ve never been to the country before, or have only experienced it as a tourist, you may be in for a shock. Expats are not tourists! If possible, rent a place to live for at least a month or longer, so you can experience day-to-day life in the new culture before making a permanent move. If you can’t do that, at least do some thorough research before making any decision. You’ll discover that the common myths and stereotypes related to the new land are just that: myths and stereotypes!
  5. You have a spouse or partner who is uncomfortable with moving abroad. Couples can experience extreme stress on their marriage or partnership – before, during and after an expat assignment. The “trailing spouse,” usually but not always the wife, who is home alone while the partner is working may experience far more isolation and culture shock than the working partner. If one of the partners isn’t adapting well, even minor problems in the relationship can get magnified into huge problems. See Expat Checklist 2 for more about “Trailing Spouse Syndrome.”
  6. You don’t like soccer (aka football). This is especially true for Europe, but it’s extremely difficult to find a country anywhere (outside of the USA) where “football” (fútbol in Spanish, Fußball in German, etc.) is not the number one sport – complete with rabid fans! This isn’t a deal breaker, but you are going to feel very left out during soccer season in most places around the world if you aren’t into that sport.
  7. You’re trying to leave your problems behind. They could actually become much worse in a foreign culture. Don’t think that a new location will solve the problems you may bring along with you. Quite the contrary. Ask yourself, “What are my real reasons for moving abroad?” If the reason is escape, that’s usually not a formula for success. If you’re having issues in a culture you know, just imagine dealing with them in a culture you don’t know.
  8. You’re not adventurous when it comes to cuisine. Sure, you can find McDonald’s everywhere except in North Korea, but isn’t that setting the bar rather low? (In fact there are about 100 countries without a single McDonald’s.) One of the main reasons for choosing the expat life is to discover new things. Food and drink should be among those new things. Besides the local fare, larger cities in Germany offer a rich variety of international cuisine: Asian, Greek, Italian, Indian, and Turkish, to name a few. Most Americans miss real Mexican restaurants in Germany, but there are many other wonderful choices. Some other expat destinations offer even more exotic food options.
  9. You have children or plan to. Raising global, multilingual kids is an admirable goal, but it’s easier said than done. The unhappy tales of parents trying to raise third culture kids (TCKs) are numerous. (TCKs find themselves in a third cultural blend between that of their parents’s homeland and the new culture. But Barack Obama is a rather successful example of a third culture kid.) In general, the older the child is when beginning an expat assignment, the more likely it is that there could be problems. You’ll need to make some important decisions about school options (local or international) and other parenting issues. Of course having children does not necessarily mean you shouldn’t move overseas, or that they can’t benefit from the experience, but you need to know the challenges involved and be ready for them.
  10. You have no plan for when your assignment abroad ends. Sometimes a foreign assignment is a good career move, but that is not always the case. Many an expat employee has returned home only to discover that her/his job is no longer there, and/or that the company doesn’t really appreciate the valuable knowledge gained by working abroad. Work or no work, when you return home, you’ll be a different person with views that the folks back home may not understand. Although this “reverse culture shock” can be a good thing, it may be difficult to deal with. See Expat Repatriation for more.

Expatriates get to enjoy the wonderful advantages of living in a foreign culture, including the opportunity to travel in the region and to experience a new language and way of life. I certainly recommend venturing forth. Just make sure you really know what you’re venturing into.

Also see these German Way pages for expats:

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