Is there a recipe for expat success? Three long-time expats discuss the key ingredients
By Sylvan Hardy
Being an expat is a lot more difficult than advertised. Cultural and language differences, as well as missing friends and family back home and general homesickness pose insurmountable problems for many.
“I don’t criticize the publications and websites that promote living overseas,” says Allen McConnell, an architect who left the U.S. in 1992 and who lives in Cuenca. “These services present alternative lifestyles most people might not think of otherwise. On the other hand, they almost never talk about the emotional difficulties expats’ face in the new country — the hard times, the lonely times, the difficulty of dealing with a new culture.”
In addition to being alert to the stern challenges of expat life, what should those considering a move overseas — and into a life — consider before they make the leap?
In addition to McConnell, who has lived in five countries in 30 years, I asked part-time Cuenca expat Martin Simmons, who has lived in three countries since 1995, and CuencaHighLife editor David Morrill, a 16-year Cuenca resident, to share their thoughts on the factors that affect expat satisfaction.
Don’t believe everything you read and hear
According to McConnell, expats who “stay the course” are usually the ones who investigate their overseas options with a sense of healthy skepticism.
Although it may seem to be a “no-brainer,” he says he is continually surprised by the number of new expats who accept the word of others hook-line-and-sinker before making a the move overseas. “It blows my mind the number of times I hear expats say, ‘They didn’t tell me it would be this way,'” McConnell says. “They,” he says, usually refers to popular move-overseas websites but, increasingly, to expats who hang out on social media and e-mail forums and offer advice to expat wannabes on the issue du jur.
International Living, Live and Invest Overseas, and other services pitched at English-speakers considering moving abroad, are for-profit enterprises, McConnell points out. “I think they provide a lot of good information and, frankly, they are the reason most people decide to become expats in the first place,” he says. “On the other hand, they’re also selling conferences, books and ‘insider’ services. Anyone who signs up for their e-letters and subscribes to their magazines and special reports, should understand this and realize that they aren’t intended to be objective clearinghouses of information.”
Equally perplexing to Simmons, a retired criminology professor, are the prospective expats who trust someone on social media they’ve never met. “In fact, I would suggest that the last person whose opinion you should trust about being an expat is someone who sits on his duff all day in front of computer monitor. A lot of them are not out there experiencing expat life — or any life at all, frankly.”
He adds: “Understand the local Facebook pages and GringoTree for what they are. They are good for getting references for restaurants and dentists, buying a used refrigerator and sometimes for making friends. But, for anything like legal or technical advice and information, they shouldn’t be trusted since you never know what information is accurate and what’s not.They certainly aren’t places for serious discussions about the important issues of the day.”
Simmons says that smart expats should follow Ernest Hemingway’s cardinal rule: “Always keep your automatic bull shit detector turned on.”
McConnell adds that although Internet and book research provide a good starting point for would-be expats, it is crucial to spend time in the place you are considering relocating before you move. “I’m not talking about a few days. You’ll need a month or two, minimum. That way, you will be able to separate the grain from the chaff in terms of what you read and hear.”
Bottom line on the research, says Simmons: “Come with as open a mind as possible and fight preconceived ideas that you might pick up before you come.”
Understand that the “expat honeymoon” will end
Most expats go through a phase of infatuation with their new home, says Simmons. He calls it the “expat honeymoon.”
“Most newcomers are enthralled with the scenery, the culture, the food, the pageantry, you name it. Everything is new and exciting and different. Almost by definition, expats are open to new adventures and most aren’t disappointed. At first, anyway.”
“It’s like a romance. If you’re realistic and understand that the bloom eventually fades from the rose, if you roll with the punches, so to speak, you’ll be fine. As the initial excitement wears off, you’ll discover the annoyances and frustrations of your new home, but you will also discover new things to keep you occupied — various activities and volunteer opportunities, both in and out of the expat community.”
Morrill, a former newspaper editor and university administrator adds: “At some point, life rears its ugly head and you realize that the basics of getting by don’t change much no matter where you live,” he says. “There are still bills to pay, you still get headaches when you drink too much and dental reconstruction hurts just as much in Ecuador as it did in the U.S.”
‘Have I lost my mind?’ Yes you have, and get over it
Shortly after the honeymoon begins to fade, says McConnell, the day will come when you begin to question your sanity.
“Most of your friends and family back home are already convinced that you’ve lost your mind, running off to a savage land like Ecuador, Mexico or Singapore, where the people talk funny and eat their pets,” McConnell says. “There will come the day when you’ll probably agree. This is part of the rite of passage for expats and the ones who fight through it are the ones most likely stay.”
“As a rule of thumb, I would suggest questioning your sanity should be an ongoing process,” he says. “Expats have more reason to question theirs than people back in the home country.”
Don’t compare everything with things in the old country
Successful expats are the ones who are able to break away from the obsessive habit of comparing things in the new country with things in the old one. “Honestly, you will never get completely over making comparisons. We’re hard-wired to do it,” Simmons says, “Expats who are in it for the long-haul understand this and they learn to look forward instead of backward. They’re not the ones continually carping about the fact that they can’t find Jiffy peanut butter or why it takes so long for the hot water to start running.”
“You have to take pleasure in what you’re new country offers,” says Simmons. “If you don’t, you’ll be a short-timer.”
There’s nothing wrong with missing things from the old country and taking advantage of them when the opportunity arises, says Morrill. “I just came back from visiting the family in North Florida and had a fabulous time,” he says. “I look forward to indulging old bad habits like having lunch at Whataburger with an upsized order of fries and a Dr. Pepper. On the other hand, when I come back to Cuenca I look forward to going out with my best friend and eating pig and mote pillo with the indigenous folks at the market. It’s the best of both worlds, for both good habits and bad.”
Embrace your new country but don’t deny your roots
According to McConnell, too many new expats seem to be escaping their old country, not embracing the new one.
“I was in Fabiano’s a few weeks ago and overheard a conversation at the next table. A guy was telling the couple opposite him that he was sick and tired of the U.S. and said he would never go back,” he says. “I didn’t hear all the details but they were mostly about unhealthy living, conspicuous consumption and politics.”
According to McConnell, the guy turning his back on the U.S. probably won’t last long in Ecuador. “He’s mad and will probably always be and won’t be around a year from now. The folks who stay are the ones who come to Ecuador because they look forward to a new life, a new country, and a new adventure, not the ones who are escaping some place they claim to hate. They also respect their heritage and don’t reject it.”
McConnell adds: “There are some angry folks in expat-land and sometimes it’s hard to figure out why.”
Although he says he personally runs into few angry expats, Morrill says he reads their comments on social media, including in the comments section of his own website. “It’s a small, mostly anonymous, group of malcontents who are pissed off by just about everything, including what they left behind in the old life.” he says. “I look at them as being part of a circle jerk of life’s losers.”
Make a serious attempt to learn the new language
Simmons describes a recent conversation with two acquaintances. “One talked about his struggle to learn Spanish but said that giving up was not an option. This guy said he used his Spanish, such that it was, every chance he had, whether it was with the cab driver, the store clerk or the lady selling strawberries out of a wheel barrow at the corner of Sucre and Miguel. The other fellow said he had tried and failed with the language and was done with it. He said all his friends spoke English and if he had to interact with Spanish-speakers he had a ‘facilitator’ handle the issue at hand.”
For Simmons, there is no doubt which expats have the best chance of staying. “You probably won’t stay if learning the language isn’t important to you.” He added that there are exceptions. “They are the ones with limited Spanish who are out there interacting with the local community with whatever communications skills they have. They aren’t afraid of getting out of the gringo bubble and the locals appreciate it.”
Another key to expat longevity, is to accept your ignorance in communication skills, Simmons says. “A little humility goes a long way.”
Consider being a part-time expat
This group includes those who have, from the outset, planned to split their time between the home country and the new one, as well as those who were originally full-time expats, but who decided later, for a variety of reasons, to divide their time.
“I highly recommend that potential expats consider this, especially those who have strong emotional ties at home.” says Simmons. “My wife and I have a lived a dual life for years and it’s worked very well for us.”
There are no “unsuccessful” expats
“A point that is often lost in the conversation about being an expat is that going home doesn’t mean you’re a failure,” says McConnell. “I have several friends who, even though they aren’t expats anymore, say the experience changed their lives. Their time as expats gave them a new curiosity about other countries and cultures and helped develop a passion for international travel.”
Morrill agrees. “It’s really the case of nothing ventured, nothing gained. Those who show a little boldness and venture beyond their comfort zone, even if it’s for a limited time, are usually rewarded.”