Isn’t it curious how the word “expat” still conjures up images of cocktails on rooftops, glamour and money whilst saying “immigrant” reeks of need, misery and uncertainty? Why do I feel like an “immigrant” in London even if I have a good job and house, but saw myself as an “expat” in Singapore?
This post was especially inspired by my personal experience in Singapore and Morocco. I lived in Rabat for 6 months in 2004, working during a college gap year. In 2013, I accepted a contract job there and in less than 4 weeks, I left London, my friends and blog, my family in Italy, and my beloved Shoreditch apartment (not to mention his other occupant, HW) for the Lion City. I stayed in Asia for 9 months. Back in London, just three hours by plane from the place I was born, I went back to being an immigrant – and so is HW in spite of his having been in the UK for half his life now.
The “expat lifestyle” is often exalted. Yet, every “expat” is in some way an “immigrant” of the country where he or she moves. I choose in this case to have a look at the less glitzy side of spending time abroad, although in enviable circumstances. Don’t get me wrong I loved every minute I spent abroad (from my usual “abroad that is England”), but my feelings are bittersweet, and here’s why.
You spend your leave days going back home (or trying to catch up with the “old friends”). Unless you don’t have friends or are not in speaking terms with your family, you know that at least some part of your hard-earned, much anticipated holidays will be spent reconnecting with “the life before abroad”. This involves variable amounts of time, stress and money – all offset by the joy of being home and seeing loved ones again, of course, except that the strain seems to become bigger and bigger at every Xmas and that you find yourself being jealous (ok, hating) those lucky people who can just get off to some proper adventure holiday. You try to tell yourself that your life is an adventure in itself, but you know it’s a meek excuse. on the other hand, you tried to spend Xmas as just any other day and you promised “never again”. SO you suck it up…and start chasing for cheap tickets home again.
Been there done that
You become jaded to the charms of the place that first attracted you – well, you like it enough to sign that employment contract, right? Yes, Marina Bay is awesome at night but the Merlion is pretty naff, and the laser show? You have seen better at your local disco ten years ago. Dubai? Overrated. It’s not like you’re drinking from a rooftop terrace everyday (ok you are- but it’s not exciting anymore). The New York subway is horrid and dirty and not in the sort of romantic way you see in a Spike Lee movie. Florence is inhabited by tourists and expats (like you). Bangkok was so much cheaper before the Singaporeans arrived en masse. And so on and so forth. Conversely, your small-town friends seem to never have enough of the place- they are not just not bored to death but positively excited by every nook and cranny and new Korean restaurant and bikram studio. You see thir posts on Facebook and of course scoff and think that’s soooo provincial, but a 20% of you actually would like to be just half excited about anything again.
You are at least a tiny bit spoilt. Because let’s face it, when we say expat we don’t really talk about the noble souls that go live in a mud hut in the savanna with no running water and help building wells for the locals in Africa, do we? 😉 It is true that the myth of the “expat package” is in many cases a myth – especially in these times of global recession, where even the biggest companies have reduced the benefits for employees and mostly rely on favourable exchange rates. Still, it is a reality that with a Western salary, even in the “most expensive city in the world” (Signapore) you can get a cab whenever you like; families can afford domestic help; childcare is way less expensive than in London; not to mention massages, beauty treatments and gym memberships; and a number of other not-so-little things that make you very happy and grateful at first, then become obvious. And make it oh so much harder to go back to pinching pennies about your next haircut in Londontown.
Easy come, easy go
Expats in a new city tend to stick to each other (massive generalisation, I know, but bear with me) as they all share one thing – they’re from outside, and in most cases they’re not there to stay. Friendships and sometimes relationships develop quickly, and often bonds become very close very fast – I myself think in my mind of people I’ve spend lots of time with in my time abroad as “friends” in the same way as someonwe I’ve known for 20 years. But in Singapore, Shanghai, Bruxelles and even London, everybody is coming and going – just notice how farewell parties for Jane of for John end up being the bulk of your social life…it is part of the game, yet it is hard especially for people that like the comfort of a close knit, stable group of friends rather than acquaintances.
A jet-lagged heart
Which brings me to my last point: you need a heck of a strong heart and soul to withstand the stress. I am fairly hardy and adaptable and I never minded too much the everyday bumps and challenges of being abroad – the bank acount opening, the phone contracts, the house hunting – but sometimes I felt almost ripped apart inside. When you’re building up a new life for yourself in a faraway place, but you know you are so far from your family, old friends, maybe a loved one, your heart fells like it is jet lagged : you can carry on just fine and look ok, but there is a discomfort that takes time and effort to manage. And unlike jet lag, it doesn’t just go away with a nap or a run. Being an expat with ties back home is an exercise in emotional rope – walking, between elation and emptiness, loneliness and freedom.
So yes, maybe being an expat does not suck, but it’s not all about the glitz and glamour either. Have you been int his situation? We’d love to hear your stories.