Who are the real expats ?

Who are the real expats ?

More and more people are moving abroad for work, but failure rate for overseas assignments averages to 45 percent. Obviously, there are many aspects hidden behind the glamorous image people have of expats.

Let’s take a step back, by definition being an expat is just being “a person who lives outside their native country” according to the oxford dictionary.

Yes, nothing more than that.

So why is there such a strong connotation to this word ? The words “Immigrant” and “expat” actually have almost the same definition. We only use the word “immigrant” when somebody moves out of a poor country and “expat” if they come from a rich one.
As always there is no generality to be made here. There are as many expat profiles as there are people living abroad.

I’m not going to mention how great it can be to live an expat life, because we all know that already. Instead I’d like to discuss a few things we rarely hear about but we can’t deny in fact.

Expat life isn’t as glamorous as people think it is, not even close. When the glitter of the first couple of months wears off and harsh routine of constant cultural shocks, homesickness and doubts kick in, you have lost touch with reality, there is no more room for excitement.

If you’re thinking of moving abroad it’s important to know that hurdles, troubles and down times are waiting on the other side of the road: it is not going to be plain smooth sailing.

All expats have to go through it, and ultimately it is a great experience.

If you can adapt you will eventually have a successful integration, but no matter how prepared you are, sometimes unexpected challenges come your way and most of the time we are not ready for them.

Nothing prepares us for the challenge of conducting every personal and business activity under a new set of rules. These rules affect everything from buying groceries to buying a house or even getting married.

We are no global elite

There is this trendy talk about the rise of a new global elite, using capital, power and cross-border network to take over the world. This elite is beyond accountability and democratic governance. Sociologist call it the Transnational Capitalist Class. They may come from different parts of the world but think alike and share a common view of what the world should look like and what economic policies should be implemented.

We see them coming out at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland hanging out in fancy ski resorts and hotels. Political leaders, business leaders, intellectuals, journalists, and celebrities turned entrepreneurs gather and network.

I will talk about this more deeply in another post soon, but for now let’s make this clear once and for all. Ambassadors and CEOs only count for less than 1% of all expats. Other expats are normal people just like you and me, who took a chance to a job posting abroad with thirst for adventure and to run away from regular routine. We are young analysts, retired, entrepreneurs, engineers, and lawyers, young or old, new or experienced. Mostly from the middle class, we do not all travel with private jet or own a boat.

We wake up, get out of bed and go make a living just like everybody else does. The only difference is that we decided to make our lives more complicated by putting ourselves and our families out of the comfort zone (and of course enjoy a few things out there as well…).

Each overseas posting involves a lot of emotional and logistical work.

Either moving to a developing country or leading economy, the differences from home can be frustrating when encountered daily. Imagine not being able to turn on the utilities in your new home because you can’t figure out where the gas and water buttons are.  Or, moving into an apartment and have to pay a one month worth of rent as a “gift money” to the landlord because it is a common practice in the country.

The practical side gets even harder to handle when facing the realities of having to move a 6 months old baby, 2 older children, and your wife forced to leave her job.

Some people even ship their dogs!

Always one foot out the door

With a tough economy, we are not protected from seeing our job sent away. “We give you the choice (to resign) if you do not want to relocate to Hong Kong”. How nice !

This is how I lost half of my friends who were relocated (majority of them were sent even though they were asking for local replacement ) to the new Asian financial hub.

Migration of jobs where labor is cheaper; shift of economic centers; “knowledge transfer” to new branches; company restructuring trainings…it is not by choice that you end up in a city where there is nothing but construction sites.

Depending on your company and economical factors you can be sent somewhere else before you even have chosen your new “welcome” carpet for your front door.

Employees chosen for international assignments usually have a great set of technical, and personal skills.

Because of their high profile, employers have unstated expectations that these employees will go through the transition without any trouble but anybody dumped somewhere with only a few hours of language lessons and a meager allowance would panic.

Families get isolated

There is nothing like home, but thanks to Skype I no longer get homesick that much. For those being transferred, they have a job to go to, colleagues and bosses ready for afterwork drinks and a personal meaning to the move. What about the rest of the family that get transferred in the process?

How do you find something interesting in Russia when you gave up your job as a lawyer (domestic license hardly exportable), don’t speak the language and live in the countryside because your husband is an engineer working on site? Not to mention the country’s legal restrictions and discrimination.

You don’t. Instead you try to keep yourself busy and make the transition smooth for the rest of the family.

But expats receive tons of money ! 

Allowances company gives often have little value compared to what spouses give up in their home country and the time and energy they put in keeping the family together and building a new home.a

In fact 42 percent of dual-income families reported a decrease in their living standard after relocating.

I always found it unfair and inappropriate of how little support is provided to families.

Partners of expatriates often get little or no recognition or appreciation for their situation.

Many trailing spouses end up isolated and lonely, they have to make enormous amount of effort to build and maintain a social life, which is never the same as what they used to have before relocating.

Stay at home mothers and wives are criticized and denigrated by common opinion, when they are only trying their best to adapt.

It hits your self-esteem when you have a PhD in Economics and you don’t even get to the interview stage because your husband’s company did not provide language courses or employment support.

Ready to be kicked out ?

We think we can go anywhere in the world and stay for as long as we want because we are French or American middle class, but the reality is that at any moment, many of us can be kicked out of the country that we have turned into home.

We do not stand on strong ground and on the contrary often have very superficial roots. National sovereignty usually leads to very protective policies against immigrants, and thus against the fancy version of immigrants, expatriates. The tiniest political change impacting immigration regulations can result in thousands of people on the edge to be sent back to their country, loosing their business or properties.

I personally know  people living on tourist visa, people who were denied their permanent residence or even people leaving the country they settled in every 3 months to be able to renew their residency status.

In developing countries as well, it seems that rich westerners come into town as they please and seemingly stay for as long as they want. But even there, country’s immigration laws are meant to prevent this from happening.

We can not stay wherever we want for as long as we want, we have a date stamped into our passport that says when we have to leave.

No matter what romances, friendships and above all attachments and contributions you have to your host country, when that day comes, you are out.

Rumors and negative labels

Some of my friends talk about their expat status with guilt. They pretend to be sorry or try to justify themselves. Why is that ?

You were offered a great opportunity. You took it. You may or may not be in exile for personnal reasons but it does not concern anybody but you and your family.

Let me tell you something, people are jealous.

Jealous because they would not dare to even consider doing what you did. They are jealous because they did not look for and find the opportunity you ceased. They are jealous because they think you are living the dream and they are struggling with their same old daily routines.

We know however that we are not jet-set and are probably struggling just the same as they are daily, paying for the beauty of being abroad.

You use Gchat, Facebook, Skype, phone calls and postcards and unilaterally struggle to keep your friends back home. Truth is your friends resent you because you left. It is not easy.

I am missing important stone miles of my friends, such as giving birth, moving to a new job or wedding dress shopping.  Most importantly, I have no best friend to call for no reason and just chat endlessly, no girls night out in the city, or hungover Sunday brunches unless putting a lot of work to make new friends (that is if you stay long enough to be able to build that kind of relationships and also if the new friends you’ve made also stay in the country long enough before they have to punch their ticket out).

Allowances and premiums from companies are helpful for the first couple of months but they often waste a great amount of money on well-intentioned efforts to aid expatriates on things they do not need.

Each individual situation is different but expat packages are not.

One of my friends live with his family in the sickest apartment at the 40th floor of a building with a stunning view in central Tokyo and 250 m/square to clean. The rent paid by the company is around 2 million yen per month (25,000 dollars). Of course everybody thinks they are living the dream. Thing is, he wishes he had language classes provided to all members of his family, flights to go back home for Christmas and social activities for his “trailing spouse” and kids instead. He hates height and wanted to live in a traditional tatami house in a quiet neighborhood of Tokyo instead.

Believe it or not, but he wasn’t left with much choice to take this package and the useless/nonetheless sick apartment.  Our stereotype of an expat is single, parties everyday and sleep with models in a crazily sick 40th floor apartment, and a few might be, but the vast majority of expats are with spouses and family and do not wish to live in a 25,000 dollars apartment but would like to have more help on concrete aspects of integration like, childcare, language support…

That is if you have a package. Many expats are hired under local contracts with no help whatsoever. It is often the case when you were the one initiating the move.

Is it really helping your career advancement ?

When you are away from headquarter, you are away from promotion.

Even if companies push for geographic mobility and encourage their employees to move abroad the truth is that when you are not even in the same time slot as your manager, how can you expect them to really know how hard you are working to improve regional figures in Asia or India ?

In many companies with international exposure and network, senior management at the highest rank are promoting and sensitive to the global environment, but other employees are not giving much importance to it. Internal opportunities are put together because the big boss asked for it, but your local or regional manager does not care whether or not you have been struggling abroad. They want the result in their side of the world, in their portfolio and in their pocket. They want the reward and if you are far away you have no reward to bring them. They loose sight of you.

Conference calls with your boss in the United States or Europe take place late at night, before sun rise or on local holidays when you are the only guy in the office. Does anybody know that there is a 9h difference between London and Tokyo?

Some would not mention about the national bank holiday in the host country because they fear being taken wrongly and do not want to miss a crucial call that could potentially harm their career in the firm.

The joy of a salary based in your home currency

When you live in some place where even a burger costs 50% more than at home because of the currency value you cry every time you receive your paycheck. Many expats are payed in USD or Euro even when they live in Tokyo and the JPY value has gone through the glass ceiling.

This is a joke.

Why give 2 dollars to buy a soda in a country where after applying exchange rate, sodas cost in fact 8 dollars ?

Furthermore it is extremely time consuming to be watching the currencies market and banking rules to be able to handle what surprise may come next in terms of salary.

Imagine if your salary was to change everyday depending on factors you can not control ?

Many expatriates from small- to mid-sized companies also see their expense reimbursements being wrongly calculated or just not done for months because accounting staff back home does not want to bother with exchange rates.

Going back home: not that easy

We all think going home will be a piece of cake.

Reality is otherwise: you give up adventure, you give up status. You were invited by your embassy to celebrate national days, you were living in a lavish apartment on the company bill, and you were going to new places and trying new things every week-end; Now you are going to have to face your changed friends, re-adapt to the routine and explain to everyone that “life of luxury” was just what you got trading proximity with home and family and the feeling of being part of the society.

If you dare complaining about the hardship of being abroad your entourage will show no mercy. “come on, it can’t be that hard to live in the fanciest place in Asia!”

After being long away, your home country might feel foreign. You realize that things back home have changed, and so have you.

Numbers speak for themselves, 20% of expats back to their country leave their company in the first year.

Tell us more about your experience as an expat, what hardship did you face and what others need to know before jumping in this adventure ?

Leave a comment to share your own experience

8 thoughts on “Who are the real expats ?

  • 6th March 2012 at 10:46 am

    Wow this is a very good and insightful article. I would have to agree that people should be as assertive as possible when negotiating their ex-pat packages. My husband and I felt that asking for anything above an beyond would be ungrateful so we didn't ask. In retrospect it never hurts to try:

    -100% agreement about the language classes. Try to get a least a few introductory lesson paid for by your company so that you can basics in shopping, taxi riding, restaurant reservations etc. You will find that having to pay out of pocket is a tremendous expense as they are used to charging corporate accounts not individuals.

    -be picky as possible about your home. They might want to give you 4 bedrooms for two people and that might sound awesome, but make sure your everyday appliances and storage space are adequate for your level of use. IE washer/dryer, make sure you have an oven (esp in Asian countries), size of refrigerator, dishwasher, internet etc.

    -find out if your company will pay for tax preparation. Things can get tricky when you leave your home country

    -as fun as flying business class is. Find out if your company will let you fly economy in exchange for another ticket home. If you will be staying for over a year you will certainly want/need to come home once or twice

    I say all of this because after my experience of being an ex-pat for 15 months I realize it was a great experience that I would recommend to anyone but I realize that esp with large corporation the expenses that they cover for you are a drop in the bucket in comparison to the financial loss you may take by no longer being dual income. At the very least you should try to make your time in another country as enjoyable and convenient as possible.

    Force people to come visit, if you do have extra income from your package you might as well help someone with a plane ticket. Then they can sleep in one of your 3 unused bedrooms and you will have company from home! It's a once in a lifetime experience to be able to host family and friends in another country as more than a visitor.

    As an ex-pay wife (with no children) I have had time to do many amazing things. But no amount of free time, traveling, shopping or lunching can make up for the feeling of fulfillment you get from hanging out with truly close friends. I encourage spouses to seek out genuine people wherever they end up. Not every outing needs to be a lunch, or an event. Go bake cookies at each others houses, drink wine and watch TV from home. You need that kind of grounding to keep you sane and less homesick.

    All in all assignments abroad are amazing, they teach you a lot about yourself, and your family (the ones that are with you and the ones that you left behind). Go for it, but make sure to do your research.

  • 6th March 2012 at 2:52 pm

    Hi KKJ,

    thank you very much for these additional tips we need to think about when being sent abroad. These are very concrete things that can make a big difference !

    and you are right, it is so important to negociate seriously packages. There is no such a thing as being ungrateful when it is question of your family well-being and the success of your expatriation

    Good luck with your next adventures, I hope to hear from you again

  • 6th March 2012 at 10:29 pm

    Hi Sara, your posts are always incredibly true and soundly argued, and you are so impressive that I had to say it once at least!
    Regarding that post, I would like to add that the distance to your home country doesn't matter, only counts the local culture, habits, etc. and your ability to overcome it or adapt yourself.
    In my case, there are less than 1500kms between my family and myself. The host country economy is quite the same as my home one and yet, I have that daily feeling of loneliness and missing relatives' crucial moments. That sounds weak and I am feeling it as such but
    other people seem to be in that situation. However, living abroad for a while with no attachment is at least a good experience to face your limits and understand your deep needs! I knew my comfort zone was dear to me (and that is also why I wanted to challenge myself) but I wasn't aware how much my family, friends and even home place were important to me. Skype and facebook are here hopefully but how did people do before??? As you said, if you don't take part of “the elite”, no matter the distance price even time stop you from coming back. The little more you earn from being an expat goes directly to return tickets or even to unimportant “luxury” things that make you feel alive.
    I have reached a situation to which discovering new places around or trying to make friends don't keep my interest anymore. I have no more illusion and I have lost my self-motivation to work. That makes things more difficult to set up a new life in my home country then!
    Is life easier when you move with your family? That's what I thought… part of your life is with you but previous posts gave me an insight on new troubles you could encounter then…
    My last words are for future expats: don't be afraid of my comments! There is no bad experience you just have to choose your country according to your deep feelings and roots. If you have no choice, take a decision (maybe critical) about your job. And well, there're lots of chances for you to be much more flexible than me in terms of crossing cultures, adaptation to local habits, etc.

  • 7th March 2012 at 12:01 pm


    Thanks for your comment ! And don't worry about scaring people talking about these negative aspects. It is hard ! People need to know what they embarking themselves into

    Hope that wherever you are, you are happy and serene about the decisions you made

  • 10th March 2012 at 12:49 pm

    i feel everything you said above. ha. ha. my friends think i have such a glam life. no one really empathizes the challenges. and it's not so easy to “go home” either…

  • 15th March 2012 at 1:12 am

    I guess for many of us the challenges do not weight that much compares to the advantages but I know some people in real trouble as well. Hopefully those reading this would know better what they have to expect ! Can you post the link to your Forbes article on successful expatriation ?

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