Once upon a time, when there were no glamorous corporate packages, the famous American novelist Ernest Hemingway had famously compared the lifestyle of expatriates to that of junkies, describing them as individuals who “had lost contact with the soil” and were spoiled by European lifestyles. He further elaborated that as expatriates, they had become obsessed with vices such as drinking and sex, and wasted their time hanging around cafes and sitting idle.
The original expat: Ernest Hemingway, attending a bullfight in Madrid, Spain
A few updates apart, these are accusations that have continued to be associated with expats, who are helmed by critics as addicts of adventure who live far away from their homes in very different cultures. Using a concoction of status, money and adrenaline as their drug, they live in a way which in some ways is at par royalty – complete with cushy salaries and domestic helpers.
This begs the question, however, that is this “addiction” all there is for an expat? Is the reason of their moving round the world and living in distant countries and cultures simply a means of maintaining fat wallets and getting high on adventures? Can an expat’s lifestyle allow him or her to lead a kind of life that can make him or her a more self-determined person?
Truth be told, as far as expats are concerned, it is just not possible to arrive at a definite statement, simply because there are a wide variety of very different reasons why someone would want to be an expat, and an even wider variety of cultures and lifestyles they lead. While some people are trying to get free from the poor condition of their home country’s economy, other are looking to add the “international experience” tag on their resume. Yet others are simply looking to explore different cultures. And then, of course, there are the ones who dream of the cushy pay package and domestic helpers.
There is one factor, though, that unites most – if not all expats, which is their reluctance to return to own country. This is because doing so is no longer about going back home – it is about going back to a lifestyle they perhaps no longer have a taste for.
According to some expats, the lifestyle is indeed addictive
“It’s so much more than money”, says Jan Paviel Dashkevich, an expat from Belarus, who has for the past 17 years lived in various places in Europe, Asia and Middle East on local as well as corporate packages. He says that it would be stupid to say money isn’t a factor, but it is not the only one. “Once you are an expat, you’ll view the world in a totally different light. It’s like being the human equivalent of Switzerland – where you experience a new culture in a wholesome way without getting into any of the politics of it all.”
And this is perhaps here that the lifestyle factors in. As expats are often alone in unfamiliar circumstances, they are virtually free from other people’s’ expectations and pressures. Therefore, being in a totally new place allows expats to experience and express their individuality to the fullest, as opposed to being a part of the culture you grew up in, and gives them a very unique worldview, or at the very least, res-shapes their existing one.
In this regard, Elizabeth Jones, a Briton, who in her 9 years abroad has spent time between Asia and North America says “As you are away from home, you have all the space and time in the world to reflect upon yourself – when you have the power to take apart and examine the things that have made you, nothing can change you more.”
This is something which is liberating for most. While one may argue that being free from the responsibilities and pressures of society, family and culture can make you feel more aware and in control of yourself, it leads to the classic expat stereotype traits of selfishness and arrogance. Expats themselves, though, disagree. “Being an expat has changed who I am” says Eric Tomlinson, an American who has spent nearly 25 years in Singapore. “Not only am I more tolerant and open, I am now more empathetic than any other time in my life… I truly feel like I am a global citizen, and I feel there could be no feeling which is better than that.”
More openness lead to making a larger network of friends, which can expand to all round the world “The real addiction is of meeting total strangers randomly”, says Angela Murray, a Canadian who has spent the last 11 years in South America. “With no fear or hesitation, or expectations, you can never imagine the number of friends you can have.”
The expat lifestyle has other benefits too – as expats are exposed to a new horizon, they gain access to new ideas and opportunities, which makes them personally and professionally confident as the fear of failing is next to none. Also, being in a different country automatically gives them the space and permission to try new things that may be looked down upon “back home”. Now, this is one combination that often encourages expats to take risks.
“No matter what kind of life you’ve led, or how frustrated and discontent you may have been, being an expat and living that life offers you to somehow wipe it all clean, since you have a new chance to start things fresh where no one even knows about your past, let alone judge you”, says Mr. Dashkevich.
In this way, as expats overcome the impending challenge, there is always a new one waiting just round the corner. Once you are involved in this, “home” becomes rather pale compared to the current lifestyle.
This is the main reason why expats are reluctant to give up their lifestyle – despite their financial and social position. After all, why would they give up a life where they are independent, adventurous, free, self-aware, and recognized for their talents and abilities.
So what is the real “drug” of the expat?
Perhaps, it is the heightened state of self-awareness and looking at oneself in comparison to the world that works. Expats argue however, that there is nothing “toxic” about this at all – it’s simply a new and wonderful way of looking at life at experiencing it to the fullest.