The formal definition of an expat, which is short for expatriate, is someone who is living outside their native country. But there is a lot more to defining an expat than simply identifying someone who lives abroad or someone who lives in a foreign country. There is an entire narrative that is associated with expats that contributes to both the definition as well as the experience. Both for the person living overseas, as well as for those who are affected by their foreign domicile, being an expat is more than just a term.
With more and more companies operating globally, the likelihood of being sent to live in a foreign country is on the rise, particularly if you work for a large multinational organization. In fact, many companies actually recruit specifically for expatriate positions, seeking certain personality traits and professional skills that historically have been successful in overseas positions.
What Makes A Good Expat?
While there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” expat, there are certain traits that make living abroad easier for some people than for others. Open mindedness and a sense of adventure certainly help in foreign situations. Cultural customs, language, and professional expectations can vary widely from country to country, even region to region within the same country.
Approaching a work situation in a foreign country with a curious mind will help alleviate any awkwardness that will inevitably arise over the tenure of employment. Living overseas can offer amazing opportunities and experiences if you are willing to operate outside your normal comfort zone.
The Temporary Nature of Expats
Using general terminology, when people think of expats they consider someone who is living and/or working abroad for a period of time. The unstated expectation is that this person will someday return “home”. In reality, many expatriates never return to their native countries, but the underlying sentiment is that they retain their national identities, in addition to their citizenship, rather than fully assimilating with the culture and country in which they are residing.
Referring to someone as an expat implies that they are still very much associated with their country of origin and are only residing and/or working in a foreign country on a temporary basis, even if that temporary basis stretches into years.
Expats Aren’t Immigrants
There is a transient nature to being an expat – or even being identified as an expat. By its very definition, an expatriate and an immigrant is a person living outside his or her native country. But the underlying interpretation of an expat is that they will one day return to their native home, while an immigrant intends to live permanently in a new country.
Moreover, the process of becoming an immigrant entails a certain permanency. Consider the difference between a work permit and a Green Card. A permit has a temporary status, and is generally issued without too much legal maneuvering. A Green Card, however, has to be applied for and approved over a period of time with indication that the holder is going to maintain a permanent status in the US. While decades may pass before an expat “moves home”, the nature of their residency and employment generally has a short term feel to it.
There Really Is An Expat Community
Outside the United States there are thousands of US citizens living and working in large and small corporations. Individuals and families who are transferred at the request of their employer will likely find themselves among a community of fellow expatriates, all with similar educational, professional, and personal backgrounds. This can make assimilation much easier in the first few months of transition and provide a sense of familiarity in a very unfamiliar environment.
However, if you are hoping to truly experience life in a foreign country, don’t limit your social interactions to those within the expat community. Learn the language, travel independently, seek the company of people who are native to the area and are outside the structure provided by familiar surroundings. Otherwise you might limit yourself to simply living in a different place, rather than fully experiencing life in another culture.
The Expat Community At Home
Once an expat, always an expat. Living abroad is a unique and defining experience that can build new friendships both abroad and at home. You will likely have a view of the world that is different – perhaps more intimate or comprehensive – than those who simply travel for pleasure. It’s not uncommon for people who have lived overseas to return to their countries of origin and seek out other people who have had similar expat experiences.
Remaining part of the expat community even when you are repatriated can bridge some of the challenges experienced by those who are used to living in a foreign culture, and can help establish a sense of identity and self once you are back on native soil.