What do you think of when you hear the word expat? Middle-aged men in suits? Tanned women sipping gin? Kids with mixed-up accents jumping in swimming pools?
What is an expat? And what is international living really like?
According to Oxford Dictionaries, an expat (short for expatriate) is “a person who lives outside their native country”.
We normally take it to mean someone who has moved overseas for work or retirement. An Expat Partner (sometimes unpopularly called the “Trailing Spouse”) is the expat’s wife or husband. Their children are either expat kids or Third Culture Kids (TCKs).
But these simple definitions don’t even begin to cover the complexities of what it’s like to live and work abroad.
International living: Pros and cons
On the one hand, it’s a massive adventure. The chance to really immerse yourself in another culture and language. To broaden your experience and give your kids the chance to see the world.
On the other, it can be daunting to leave your family and friends and take a chance on a new country.
If you’ve been offered an expat contract (or your spouse has) you probably have a lot of questions.
- What’s life really like if you choose to live and work abroad?
- What’s it like to raise kids away from your friends and family?
- Is the upheaval of moving internationally worth the adventure and financial reward?
First things first. More often than not, expat contracts pay well, sometimes significantly better than an equivalent job at home.
Salaries are higher, bonuses are good and there are often tax privileges. There are often also other benefits such as school fees, transport allowances, rent contributions and air-fares home.
Veteran expats might complain that contracts aren’t what they used to be before the GFC, but it’s often still a pretty good deal.
The chance to add an international posting to your resume is another positive reason to accept an expat contract. In an increasingly global economy, first-hand experience of international markets is a definite advantage.
All these benefits come at a cost though. In general, expats work longer hours and they are rarely “off”. The pressure of working in an unfamiliar culture can be extremely stressful.
Where you might have had more of a work-life balance at home, suddenly your family’s life is totally dependent on your work. Because of the terms of their residency, your spouse may not be able to work, so the whole family’s life revolves around your job and company.
It can also be difficult for both partners if they know the other one is struggling, either to settle in the new country or to come to terms with leaving their family behind. This can be particularly difficult if they have elderly parents or other responsibilities at home.
International living: The expat partner
In the past expat partners were often called “trailing” or “accompanying spouses”. These terms implied that the partner had a passive role, following their spouse around the world. In actual fact, the strength and resilience required for life-changing relocations mean expat partners often have a pivotal role in their spouse’s success and that of their family.
The image of expat wives being idle and pampered is unfair. Life can be pretty tough for expat partners, particularly if they can’t work and they are used to having a fulfilling career at home. It can take time to come to terms with being a stay-at-home-spouse/parent and to reinvent a new identity for yourself.
In addition, living in a new country is very different to going on holiday. The pressure of having to live a normal life in an unfamiliar culture can be challenging without a support system, especially if you have a family.
On the other hand, expat spouses often have the advantage of having help at home and more time on their hands than if they’d stayed in their home countries. There is often also an active social life in expat communities which provides opportunities to form new support networks.
If they want to, expat spouses can use this time to make a real difference to their own life, by learning new skills, taking a qualification or setting up a business, for example. They can also make a difference to other people through charity or voluntary work.
Often the reality of coping with life in a foreign country, especially with children, can easily be a full-time job in itself.
Third Culture Kids (TCKs)
TCK is a term that was originally used in the 1950s. “Third Culture” refers to the shared experience of international living. Kids have more in common with other kids who have lived an international life wherever they were in the world than kids from their parents’ culture(s) or that of their adopted country.
There are challenges associated with this life.
- Some kids struggle with change, particularly if they keep on moving. They can sometimes find it difficult to invest in friendships if they or their friends keep leaving.
- Changing schools frequently can be tough, particularly at pivotal stages of their education.
- They may have difficulty with conflict resolution. Why bother sorting out a friendship issue if you can wait until one of you moves on and the problem goes away?
On the other hand, the opportunities TCKs often have can mean they have an incredible life. As well as the opportunity to travel and experience different cultures, they also meet people from all over the world. They get a deep understanding of what it means to be in a global culture.
TCKs tend to be resilient and self-reliant. These might be tough lessons for kids to learn, but they are skills that will serve them well for their futures.
Kids come and go a lot in international schools, so they are often extremely good at creating systems for new students to integrate quickly. The other kids are usually welcoming too. Unlike many home-country schools, new kids are the norm in international schools, which often makes settling in easier.
A last word about international living
So you have the chance to embark on expat life, should you take it?
No-one can tell you what is right for your family. Weigh up the pros and cons, visit the country if you can and read as much as you can about expat life there.
Remember, there are challenges in international living, but the chance to experience living in another culture is a fantastic opportunity. You might also find a strength in yourself and your family that you had no idea existed.