Why you’re not a failure if you try the expat life and it doesn’t work out

Mar 8, 2023

By Larry Welch

I was an expat for six years — first in Spain and later in Cuenca — but I am no longer an expat. Having said that, I have to add that I have absolutely no regrets about my seven years living overseas. My wife and I had a blast and our lives are infinitely richer for the experience.

My purpose for writing is to make the point to new expats and expat “wannabes” that if you try the expat life and, for whatever reason, decide to return to your home country, you are not a failure. At the same time, don’t let fear that the move will not work out stop your plans.

Beyond the wonderful experiences my wife and I had living in other countries, our years as expats turned us into inveterate travelers. Before we moved to Barcelona we had only made one trip out of the U.S. in 25 years, and that was a short trip across the California border to Mexico. After we made the move to Spain, we visited most of the countries in Europe, spending weeks, sometimes months, month in new locations. When we lived in Cuenca, we made dozens of trips to Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and Uruguay. Being expats planted the travel bug that still infects us.

Following the articles about expat life posted online — and there are plenty of them — almost none deal with people who try out expat life but then return to their country of origin. I see plenty of information about what you should consider before making the move, the downsides always happily described as “challenges.” I see lots of top-10 lists about where you should live, the low cost of living overseas and the thrill of adventure. Since the vast majority of expats eventually return home — the average “life span” of an expat adventure is two-and-a-half years, by the way — it’s surprising how little is written about the returnees and valuable experiences they take home with them.

An outdoor cafe frequented by expats and tourists in Barcelona, Spain

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with going home!

I won’t go into detail, but my wife and I returned to the U.S. three years ago for family reasons. It was necessary and we have no regrets about the decision just as we have no regrets about being expats in the first place.

Even though we spend most of our time in the U.S. these days, our experience as expats fundamentally changed our lives. Before moving overseas in 2012, we had little experience with other countries and cultures. We had traveled very little, as I said earlier.

In the five years since we officially moved back to the U.S., we have spent at least three months a year on the road. We have visited every continent except Antarctica. We have rented houses and apartments for weeks at a time in France, Sweden, New Zealand, Poland and Argentina. We have hung out on exotic beaches and hiked mountain trails in mountain ranges we had never heard of before we made travel plans.

As I write this, I am sitting on a balcony looking over the Cuenca historic district. Yes, we still love Cuenca and this is our second extended visit here since we officially decamped as expats. We are spending time with friends, checking out all the new restaurants, and doing some of out-of-town sight-seeing that we never got around to when we lived here. Of all the cities we have lived in and visited, my wife and I agree that Cuenca is, far and away, our favorite

All these adventures would not have been possible had we not been expats. That experience taught us about traveling comfortably in other cultures and dealing with other languages. It gave us a worldly confidence that we would not otherwise have.

In conclusion, my advice to those seriously considering living overseas is not to agonize about the decision. If the spirit moves you, follow it. Do your homework, learn as much as you can before the move, but don’t get bogged down in all the do’s and don’ts of expatriation that you read. Some of the advice is good, some of it is worthless, and there’s a lot in between, but paying too much attention to it is a waste of time.

Most of all, don’t worry about the what will happen down the road — about whether you’ll “make it” as an expat. You won’t regret the experience.

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