By Rashmi J. Dalai
Long before glitz and glamour came to accompany corporate packages and overseas retirements, Ernest Hemingway likened expats to addicts: “You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake foreign standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed with sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang out in cafes.”
The accusations have stuck, with a few updates through the ages. According to some social critics, today’s expats are adventure-junkies who live like royalty outside their home countries. They’re hooked on domestic helpers and padded salaries. A heady cocktail of money, status and adrenaline is their drug.
But is this really the nature of the expat “addiction”? Are expats a shallow group roaming the globe with fat wallets in search of the next challenge high? Or does the lifestyle offer people something more attractive: a quality of life that satisfies the desire to feel like a self-determined individual?
It is impossible to make a sweeping statement about the millions of expats around the world. Some go abroad to escape poor economies, while others want international experience on their resumes. Some are backpacker-like explorers of culture, and there are the opportunists after the corporate package and domestic staff. Others are retirees who refuse to wile away their golden years in an easy chair. Motivations, lifestyles and tenures mix and match so much it almost renders the word “expat” meaningless.
However, across all walks of expat life, many foreigners are united in their hesitation to “go back,” a description that often means more than just going home and implies returning to a previous state.
It isn’t about the money, says Natalia Timmerman Blotskaya, a Belarussian expat of more than 20 years who has lived in the Middle East, Europe and Asia on both local and corporate packages. She says the moment people become expats, they enter a whole new state of mind.
“It’s like becoming a Switzerland, neutral – politically and emotionally – and experiencing a culture without having to be involved with the internal affairs.”
This is where the buzz of the lifestyle begins. Set apart from familiar external influences, some expats stop worrying about pressures to mold and keep the people around them happy. The challenge of living in a new place lets them see themselves as individuals rather than citizens of a specific country or members of a culture. This gives them a whole new internal perspective.
“In time away from your ‘home’ environment, you can step away from all those things that have influenced your whole life and reflect on ‘who am I?’” says Nicola Boughton-Smith, a Briton who has spent 7½ years abroad, with time split between North America and Asia. “You can deconstruct the things that have made you who you are.”
For many, this process is liberating. Free from responsibility to family, culture, social pressures and history, they feel more in control of their own identity. This can lead to the arrogance and selfishness that sparks most expat stereotypes. But it can also lead to more tolerance and empathy.
“I’ve changed so much as an expat,” says Linda Eunson, a Canadian who has spent 21 years in Singapore. “I’m more tolerant, have adopted different ways of doing things and am much more open…I feel like a citizen of the world, a jet-setter and that feels pretty cool.”
The effect snowballs. The more open and comfortable an expat becomes, the more he’s able to network and make friends.
“The ability to just randomly meet people is addictive,” says Todd Middagh, a Canadian who has lived in Asia for 13 years. “There is no fear, no problem talking to people.” Soon, one’s group of friends can stretch around the globe.
Being part of this international community also can give expats access to new opportunities and ideas, and can help them feel more confident, both professionally and personally. Living temporarily planted can also soften fears of failure. Foreigners are sometimes granted unspoken permission to try things that might be discouraged in their home countries. The combination can lead expats to take more risks.
“No matter how sour or discontent your previous experience was, the expat life always offers another chance to make it all different,” says Ms. Blotskaya. “You can make amends with the mistakes you’ve done or miscalculations and start anew.”
The more challenges many expats overcome, the more they enjoy the adrenaline of feeling themselves grow. After awhile, this becomes the new normal and makes life “back home” seem boring in comparison.
Which is why so many expats – regardless of financial or social standing – resist giving up the lifestyle. Abroad, they feel free, independent, adventurous, curious, valued for their skills and self-aware. “As an expat, I have the ability to live in a foreign country and just be left alone to do,” says Mr. Middagh.
In other words, a distilled sense of oneself in relationship to the world is the real expat “drug.” But this isn’t toxic, most expats argue. It’s a fantastic way of experiencing life.
Rashmi J. Dalai is a Singapore-based freelance writer who just completed a seven year stint in Shanghai.