Expat Magazine

Top 10 Myths About Expatriates

By Ovid

Egypt-5B-023 - Approaching Aswan

Nile River, Egypt
Photo by Dennis Jarvis

There's a huge amount of misinformation about expats and expat lifestyle. This list is a bit US-centric, but hopefully it will clear up a few things.
  1. Expats are rich
    If there is any expat myth that I despise, this is the one. Thanks to plenty of articles out there insinuating that we're just a bunch of greedy rich buggers renouncing our citizenship to protect our wealth, there's often a powerfully-expressed hatred about us. We're labeled traitors with more than a tinge of envy coming across in the accusations. In reality, we're teachers, waiters, programmers, husbands, wives, taxi drivers, bankers, construction workers. In short, we're as diverse as you'll find back home and, like you, we're often struggling to make ends meet.
  2. Expats hate America
    Really? I can't find many who do. In fact, in one study of Americans living in Europe (disclaimer: I was a participant in this study), researcher Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels found that only 4.5% of Americans living abroad cited dissatisfaction with the political system back in the US. Like many Americans, we have a diversity of political views, but unlike most Americans, we get to see first-hand what the rest of the world is like and it turns out that it's quite a bit different from how the US news likes to describe it. For example, the health care "debate" in the US was a joke and even conservative Americans I've met living in Europe acknowledge that things are far better here than what you'd read about in the US media.
  3. You have to have a college degree to move abroad
    Nope. Nope, nope, nope. For most STEM (science, technology, engineering, medicine) fields, yes, you need a college degree ... just as you would if you stayed in the US. However, there are plenty of expats who have traveled the world with only a high school education or a GED. Get a TEFL certificate and teach English. Check out couch surfing. Read about wwoof. Some people just buy a ticket and go (reckless if you don't know what you're getting into).
  4. English is fine
    While I expect this from tourists, I also see this in some expats. Because English has effectively become the world language, people think they can use it everywhere. Now imagine living in Burundi and trying to make an emergency call to a doctor on a Saturday night. Imagine living in Sri Lanka and getting all of your bills in a Sinhala or Tamil. Even if you can get by as a tourist by pointing and miming, living somewhere is a whole different ball game, even in countries where the majority of the population speak English as a second language.
  5. I'll learn the local language
    So you know English isn't enough and are determined to learn the local language. Hah! For some reason, plenty of expats don't bother. Maybe they think they'll be temporary residents. Maybe they just don't care.  Or maybe they just don't try hard enough of find they don't have much time. I have to confess that while I can get by in French, having a full-time job and being a father makes it hard to apply myself to learning French. However, for a country which does not have English as the first language, learning the local language is the best thing you can do to integrate.
  6. It's a dangerous world out there
    Actually, it's not. There's a saying that the news reports the planes that crash and not the planes that land safely. Thus, people who only get their information from watching the news get a very distorted idea of air safety. (Heck, this entire post could be about "how the news gets everything wrong about expats", but that's not always true) The reality is that even in some of the most dangerous places of the world, you're pretty safe (and yes, that largely means Mexico, too. Listen to the news too much and you'll think there are maybe three people left alive in Mexico city, stumbling around and trying to hide).
  7. People in country X are rude/friendly/some other stereotype
    People in the Netherlands have a stereotype of being cold and unfriendly. I can promise you from first-hand experience that this is not true. People in Paris have a reputation for being snobs and refusing to speak English even if they can. In reality, many of them speak broken English and are embarrassed about it. People in the UK have a reputation of drinking 24/7. Well, that one might be true.
    Stop listening to the stereotypes and start paying attention to reality. It turns out that people are, well, people! Yes, there are cultural differences that one can note, but within any given culture there's a huge diversity of people and trying to lump all of them together under one banner is not only silly, it's offensive.
  8. It's like a 24/7 holiday!
    The French have a saying, métro, boulot, dodo. It means "subway, work, sleep". That's how they describe their day to day life. And unless you're one of the vanishingly small number of "rich" expats, that will be your life, too, just as it is back in the US. You'll look forward to having time off to be with friends or to travel a bit, but your life won't magically turn into a fairy tale.
  9. Life is better/worse in country X (I'd never want to live anywhere else!)
    I always want to scream when I hear people I went to school with in Texas say "I'd never want to live anywhere but the good ol' US of A!" All I can think to say is "how would you know?" These are often awesome, intelligent, kind-hearted people who nonetheless have no idea what the rest of the world is like or what it is to live in it. Though I will grant them one thing: if you start with the assumption that you'd hate the rest of the world, it's more likely to be a self-fulfilling prophesy.
    That being said, there are those who are convinced that the grass is greener everywhere but where they are standing. In reality, whether a country is "better" often comes down to two things for most people: their personal value system and whether they've made the effort to build a life there (surprisingly, many expats have not). When that first bout of homesickness kicks in, you may quickly re-evaluate whether or not the grass is greener where you've moved to.
  10. My kids will love it
    This one is dangerous and many expat parents don't treat this problem with the seriousness it deserves. Does your child speak the language of where you're going? Are they old enough that their friends and social structure are more important to them than your need for adventure? It's one thing to take your five year old with you to Chile. It's another thing entirely to take your fifteen year old away from his friends. Particularly by the time your children are entering puberty, think very carefully about this decision and involve them in it!
Being an expat is a wonderful thing and I (obviously) encourage everyone to consider it. There were few things in life more wonderful than sitting on the bank of a Dutch canal, eating bitterballen, drinking Grolsch and debating politics with my Dutch friends. Of course, meeting a lovely woman in London, getting engaged to her in Lisbon and getting married in Tower Bridge would qualify as one of those things.

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