It wasn’t until half way through the Wandering Kiwi family’s recent stint as expats in Australia that I realised in fact I have been living as an expat on and off since 2000 when I first left New Zealand.
An expatriate is simply a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country and culture other than that of their upbringing. Our time in Australia was a stereotypical expat assignment with Mr Wandering Kiwi’s work and a fantastic opportunity to explore Australia at a time when it was one of the more expensive countries in the world to travel.
But I also became an expat when I first arrived in London, young and green and ready to see Europe. And again, when I returned to the United Kingdom in 2006 after long periods of backpacking travel and a couple of years spent living back in beautiful New Zealand.
I am an enthusiastic proponent of expat living as a mode of travel. Having a base from which to explore a country or a continent is very enabling. And living in a country is really the only way to get close to the culture of a place. It is particularly good when you are travelling with children. However, it is important not to idealise expat living – it is not just going to experience another country with all expenses ‘on the company’.
There are downsides, adjustments, compromises. There is a lot to consider, including what you will be leaving behind. Overall my experience has been positive but I have missed friends and support networks being away for so much longer than the usual weeks or months of holidays or travel.
So what have I learned after over a decade of expat living? Here are a few tips for people contemplating travel via expat living:
1. Do your research – Think carefully about where you would like to live, make a reconnaissance visit and talk to anyone who might have inside information about what it is like to live in that country and/or city.
2. Do more research – Take some time to research the important aspects of daily life in the country where you are going to live. Taxes, housing, transportation, healthcare, insurance, work visas for spouses, and education can all vary widely from country to country. Moving to Australia I had to get to grips with childcare provision and the government subsidies that made it more affordable. Organising your banking is often an important task. Some banks offer international banking services for expats. Organise a bank account for new country of residence before you leave home. I did that both when moving to the United Kingdom and Australia.
3. Be patient – Bureaucracy is universal and you need to set yourself to be a little longsuffering with the process of moving country. I have met people who didn’t set up a bank account before leaving home and had endless bother setting up bank accounts in their new country – there are often stringent ID requirements that insist on proof of address, which you may not have straight away. And you will need a bank account to organise all sorts of things straight away, such as when you need to transfer money abroad and being paid your salary! When we moved to Australia it was six months before we felt we had dealt with all the bureaucratic issues of being new expats.
4. Be open – One of the biggest joys of expat living is the opportunity to delve far more deeply in to a culture than is usually possible with regular travel. Be open to different languages and culture. Try not to impose your cultural values and perspective on others but use this as a learning experience that will help you reassess and revalue your own culture.
5. Make the most of every day – This is my travel mantra wherever I am – to get out and ‘travel’ every day. You never know what is around the corner so make the most of today. Whether I am travelling or at home there are always opportunities to seek out new sights, smells to experience. I tried to explore as much of Melbourne when we lived there. And after nearly nine years in total living in London I still feel motivated to get further under the skin of this great city.
6. Look out for your partner – if you are doing the expat thing with a partner be aware that they may experience life in the new country in a different way. Make sure you talk about frustrations and fears.
The internet has a wealth of information on expat living, some general and some country specific.
Remember, as with any real travel, the expat experience is likely to leave you a different person from when you left home. Returning home could be almost as disorientating as moving overseas in the first place!
And when does an expat cease to be an expat? As I mentioned above I have lived in the United Kingdom on and off for nearly nine years now. I am still a New Zealander at heart but this has started to become the place where I feel most at home in the world.
By Natasha von Geldern