You might have heard me throw the term around on my site (or elsewhere!), but what is an expat?
Basically, an expatriate (or expat for short) is someone who immigrates from the country in which they were raised either temporarily or indefinitely.
Now, there is a bit of debate surrounding the term ‘expat’ vs. ‘immigrant’ with many criticising the application of the label ‘expat’ to white, European immigrants but not others. While I would personally consider myself both an expat and an immigrant, I recognise my privilege in being categorised as the former.
I’ve been an expat for more than 10 years now. I first moved abroad for university when I was 16 from the U.S. and have lived in various places ever since. So, where have I lived?
Initially, I moved to Switzerland. I completed my undergraduate degree there and then worked there until I moved to the UK for my master’s. During my undergrad, I spent one summer living and studying in Germany, a summer working in Spain, and a semester in Costa Rica. I lived in Oxford for a year when I first moved to the UK, and then have been living in London ever since.
So, after living in 5 countries, I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of being an expat and living abroad.
Perhaps one of the top reasons to move abroad is to learn a foreign language. This doesn’t apply to my most recent expatriate situation, but, while I was living in Switzerland, I learned Italian and German. I improved my Spanish skills a TONNE while living in Costa Rica.
This one is super important, particularly in an increasingly polarised world. The more you learn about other cultures, the more you can appreciate their differences and find common ground. I think forging connections with people from cultures different from your own genuinely makes the world a better place.
Particularly when you first move to a new country, you recognise that you’re a visitor in someone else’s home. This helps remind you think about your actions and behaviour more when you’re interacting with others. I think being an expat makes people become less entitled and more self-aware versions of themselves.
When you’ve gone through the struggle of moving to a new country, maybe where you don’t speak the language well (and all the trials and tribulations that come with it), you become more empathetic to others in your situation.
Particularly if you’re moving somewhere where you don’t speak the language well, you’ve got to become incredibly resourceful (and fast!) to get even basic things done. Now, I’m not going to lie, it can be super exhausting, but it definitely makes you grow as a person overall.
I’ve talked about this before, but meeting people from all over the world is a massive benefit of migrating to a new country, particularly if you’re moving to a large, diverse metropolitan area. I’ve learned so much from my friends from other countries. Plus, I have a whole network of people to stay with when I travel 😉.
This one is important both personally and professionally. The fact of the matter is, the world is becoming increasingly globalised and you need to be able to effectively communicate with people from other cultures and not accidentally offend them or embarrass yourself.
This one seems fairly obvious, but it extends beyond seeing the place you’re moving to. For example, it’s MUCH easier and cheaper to travel around Europe than, for example, within the U.S. (well, in normal times). So, if you move to Switzerland, for example, you’re also getting the rest of the continent on your doorstep. I've been to more than 50 countries since I've moved abroad which I'm so incredibly grateful for.
Now, I don’t find that I have as much in common with people from the U.S. since I spent my ~formative~ years living abroad. However, I’ve met lots of people who have lived abroad for a long time as well. We automatically share similar experiences and struggles that bond us more quickly. Whenever someone moved from the U.S. to work in our London office, for example, I found I became closer with them a lot more quickly than I might have if I’d met them in our home country.
I know I talk about this a lot and may sound like a bit of a broken record, but having national healthcare is a big bonus if you’re moving from the U.S. I’m just super grateful for the NHS (particularly now!)!
The proverbial ‘they’ say to do one thing that scares you every day. If you’re an expat, particularly when you first move, you’ll be doing LOTS of things that are outside of your comfort zone every day. This is definitely a plus in terms of personal growth.
Now, I admit, when I first moved abroad, I had a lot of negative things to say about the U.S. (I was a rebellious teenager after all!). Of course, I still have my criticisms, but there are a lot of things I’ve come to appreciate about where I grew up.
I also find that, with some distance, you’re able to think more objectively (and less emotionally) about the pros and cons of your home culture. This is definitely more productive in terms of actually working to change the things that aren’t so good about it.
While it can be hard, a fresh start is sometimes necessary. I had a bit of a rough time mentally as a teenager and through university and moving to a new country was just the change I needed at the time.
The fact of the matter is, when you live abroad, you’ll have crazy experiences you simply couldn’t have at home. While no one wants to listen to you prattle on (read: brag) about your amazing life abroad, having experiences to share with others helps keep things interesting in old friendships.
One thing I’ve found from living abroad is that, when I’m home, my friends, family, and I appreciate the time we have together more. In fact, I maintain that I see my parents more and spend more quality time with them living abroad than I would if I lived somewhere else in the U.S.
Some of this may just be the stages I was in in my life at the time, it took me moving to another country to find my partner. Now, I’ve had multiple relationships since I moved to the UK, but finally feel like I’ve found my person here.
I’m sure a lot of you can relate—I can be a little bit shy when I first meet people. If you’ve got a different accent though, it’s an easy topic of conversation for people to pick up on. While I don’t necessarily enjoy some of the follow-up questions that come with admitting I’m from the U.S., it’s an easy thing to talk about in awkward situations like networking events.
This one is pretty self-explanatory—trying the local fare is one of the best parts of moving to a new country! I’ve even come to appreciate British classics, like a good Sunday roast (nut roast for me, of course 🙃).
Working or studying in another country can help your CV stand out if you ever move back to your home country. You may be able to advance more quickly in another country or learn different skills than you would at home.
Being an expat can be HARD. Not everyone will welcome you into your country and, a lot of things are just much more difficult when you’re living abroad. However, you become more resilient and less affected by little inconveniences or negative reactions to your existence.
The bottom line is, being an expat is a wild adventure and I wouldn’t trade my experience for the world!
Are you an expat or have you ever lived abroad? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below!