What does it mean to be an expat?

What does it mean to be an expat?

One of the things that comes up the most when talking about FI is traveling. I have read countless stories of people who have either taken a year off to travel the world or live in one particular country or people who save up their vacation days so they can take a 3 weeks trip every year, picking a new destination each time. There is also a fairly important number of people who have decided to sell everything they owned, packed up the essentials and decided to explore the world. Some will rely on their savings and will eventually come back to their home country at some point but some, like myself decided to permanently settle away from their home country.

An expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of their citizenship.

More precisely an expat is a person who is sent by their employer to work abroad. Nowadays most people who have left their home countries use this word to describe themselves, I suppose it sounds fancier than “immigrant”.

Now, I truly believe that humans are not made to stay in the same place for their entire lives and yet most people end up spending their whole lives in their hometown or within few miles.

Despite that fact, it is easy to meet people who have the strong desire to travel and explore but most will never get the chance to.

Why you may ask?

Most people are afraid of traveling because of the language barrier (French people, for instance, will rarely travel to non-French speaking countries). In my opinion, this is a huge mistake. My parents, for example, adopted me in Sri-Lanka and did not speak the language and only had a very basic English and yet they spent a couple of months there with the locals and managed to truly bond with them by using other means of communications, like literally miming what they meant to say or using their body language and they loved every minute of it. Today with apps that can translate whatever you say in seconds, there is no excuse to not travel.

Financial reasons: How many times have you heard ” I would like to travel but I can not afford it”? I hear it all the times, people even assume I am rich because I travel this much. As Paul Pant said in one of her podcasts “It is not that you can not afford it, you just chose not to prioritize traveling“. Like Paula always say “you can afford anything but not everything.”                                                                                                      

Yes, I do take two weeks of pricey vacation twice a year but I also don’t go out at the local pub every week, only buy clothes when I need them and don’t smoke. I am not depriving myself by any stretch of the imagination but I have chosen to prioritize traveling over other things I know would not bring me the same happiness. On top of the things I just pointed out, I also bring my own lunch at work and always cook from scratch and try to meal plan. It does not always work out and I still eat at work at least once a week but I spend significantly less than most people on food and take out and you know what? It adds up: 6 euros per days to have lunch at work is 30€ per week or 1560€ per year!!!! Add to that take out for dinner and you can more than easily cover a two-week vacation, more if you travel cheaply.

People are often afraid to travel on their own.  Now that is a reason that I completely understand. As a woman traveling alone, I must say I was afraid to take that first flight, especially since I can not drive and have to walk or take public transportation everywhere I go.                                                                     

As you may remember I am an introvert so traveling in foreign countries on my own was the scariest thing I have ever done but I survived and as people say, it built my character.                                                           

 Traveling on my own helped me improve me my people’s skills, to open up to people so that I could ask for direction or even to simply make new friends. It also taught me some great ingenuity skills that I still use today.                                                                                

The only advice I could give to anyone who is afraid to travel is to just take the plunge. Start with a local trip, in a nearby state or region, then move to a nearby country, then a nearby continent, before you know it you will be a new, more self-reliant, more adventurous, happier person, plus you will have some serious bragging rights. Who does not want to be “that cool friend who is not afraid to travel the world on her own?”.   

 But I digress, this post is about Expats!                                                                     

 A Little background on myself, I was born in Sri-Lanka and adopted by my French parents when I was just a few weeks old and I lived in France until I was around 22-23 years old. I have since lived in Canada, Greece, England and now I’m in Ireland.  I do not know if the fact that my parents basically tore me away from my home country at such a young age but I never felt home in France. Obviously, I do not remember anything about my native country but I can tell you with certainty that as long as I could remember, I said to myself: France is not your home. I may sound ungrateful because this country gave me every single opportunity any human being should be given at birth but it has never been and will never be my home.                                                                         

I remember my first day of middle school and my first English class, our teacher had ” NO FRENCH PLEASE” written on his whiteboard and I thought to myself ” This is gonna be the best class ever!”.  Then in high school, my teacher (who was from Northern Ireland), told my parents ” I guarantee you that your daughter will not spend her life in France, she is clearly a citizen of the world” and boy was he right. As soon I was old enough I started to travel and then moved to Canada for a few months.

I know I make it sound easy and painless but relocating can be a very endearing process and I would kindly suggest to anyone that is currently considering taking the plunge to read the following points very carefully.

The choice of country :  If you live in Europe, I suggest you pick a country within a two-hour flight radius of your home country. Do not make the mistake of moving to Japan or China, unless you speak the language. If you are a true expat and your company is sending to a country that is far far away and in a country which language you do not speak, now that is another story. Most companies will have translators and will do everything they can to facilitate the transition, plus chances are you can always hang out with the company’s expat community and make new friends but otherwise, stick to a nearby country.

Money: I remember this guy I used to work within at the first company I ever worked at in London who told me ” I thought I was gonna come here, make 2000£ a month but I was wrong.” He had a great degree but he overestimated his ability to find a job in his field so my advice is, always have at least 6 months of expenses in the local currency and enough for a ticket should you choose to cut your experience short.                               

 Use the time it takes you to save that money to research the local salaries, to rebuild your cv to match the local requirements. I would also be applying to jobs directly from home.  A lot of companies will pay for your flights and will even give you a generous relocation package. If you are the adventurous type, you can also just pack up and live, as long as you can support yourself until you find the perfect job.

The cultural change. True fact, some tourists(mostly Asians) are literally sick when they arrive in Paris. (Here’s an article explaining this phenomenon the Paris Syndrome)  This is no laughing matter, tourists are literally sick because the cultural shock is just too overwhelming.                                                                

I have never suffered from this syndrome or from any kind of cultural shock, I have been overwhelmed, I have cried, I have had the goosebumps, but never to a point where I felt the need to go back home. One of the main reason is that I have always traveled either within Europe or in English speaking countries where the food and customs were similar to my own. Every year, I say to myself ” this year you will go home to Sri-Lanka” but I never do because I know that I may feel that cultural shock, not only because it is my native country and going back would be extremely emotional but because I know nothing of the culture or traditions of this country and I have no idea how I would be feeling being in such a strange country. It may feel like home or I may be physically ill. I know I will take that plunge one day, but I do not feel ready yet. Going back to your roots is never easy but when you are an introvert that spends hours analyzing everything new, this will definitely be the trip of a lifetime.

You are going to be away from your family.  I know it seems obvious but living in another country means you will be away from your loved ones and you will not be able to just take a couple days off to go see them if they need you. In September 2009, I was living in Athens and my mom got sick. For the first three weeks, she kept me in the dark and minimized her illness so I would not worry. We did not have the closest relationship, as a matter of fact, I spent most of my adult life resenting her on so many levels, but she was my mother, the person who gave me every chance in life so I would have flown to France the next day, had she told me the truth.                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

It was only after three weeks that one of her friends told me ” Céline, you need to come home. ” I knew things were bad for her but I never thought she would die. My mom was a badass and survived cervical cancer, so I thought she was basically bulletproof, boy was I wrong. I was not able to leave Athens right away because my boss did not let me. Then just before I left, she asked: ” Is she dead yet?”. Those were her exact words. I quit that company the same day and booked my flight. By the time I got home, my mom was in bad shape. I am not sure she even recognized me(she had brain tumors). Had I been in France, in Bordeaux where I studied, I would have taken a train and would have been able to visit her every weekend without even missing work. As damaged as my relationship with her was I wish I could have more time with her.

You may not make it to Christmas every year.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

The last time I was in France was Christmas 2014. Not that I miss France but I do miss my family, at least my cousin(I mentioned her before, we grew up together).                                                                                       

This year, I will not be able to spend Christmas in France because in my field we are opened every day, including Christmas Eve and we literally are not allowed to book a vacation during the Christmas period. If you are lucky enough that your days off happen on the 24th and the 25th you may be able to go home but the chances are slim.                                                                           

 Last year I only had plans for dinner on the 25th, not the 24th so I volunteered to work on the 25th. It was a good day, we got a free lunch, presents, candy and we were paid serious OT. I would have preferred to be at home with my cousin and her children but as far as Christmas away from home go, this one was pretty sweet.

You may not have access to the same level of medical care you are used to.                                                                                                                                         

As someone who was raised in France, I was shocked to learn that not all medical care is covered when you live in the UK or Ireland. A friend of mine even flew back to France to get treatment for his bad knee, not only because he did not want to pay for it and because he did not trust the Doctors here. I for one do not have any kind of insurance in France because I never contributed, so going back for treatment would be useless, plus I do have excellent private insurance here that has covered 99% of my medical needs over the past 6 months.                                                                                               

My advice is to research the medical system of the country you are about to relocate to and if your employer does not offer insurance as a perk, either save up for medical emergencies or subscribe to a good medical insurance, trust me as someone who has never been sick in her life and suddenly to spend weeks in the hospital, you may need it.

You may not actually like it. We all have a country we live or fantasize about because we have seen many movies or documentaries about them or just because the culture appeals to us but reality rarely lives up to expectations. If you have a country in mind, try to not romanticise it.  Truth is that you will be faced with the same or even more challenges than in your home country. Do not ever relocate to get away from your home country.

Do not fly away from something fly towards something, knowing that if it does not work out you will be perfectly content to move back home, even temporarily.                                                                                                                        

I must confess that I did not follow my own device on this one. I was physically sick having  to live in France and still feel sick when I am there, so I took the first opportunity and it took me few tries to find the country I know I was meant to finish my life in. For a long while, I thought this country was England. I love this country and its people so much and have learned invaluable personal and professional skills there and I even considered asking for the citizenship but then was offered an amazing job I had turned down twice already and I decided to not say no a third time.                                           

If I am honest with myself, I could not stand London anymore. My asthma was getting worse and it was just…. just too much for me, too much pollution, to much noise, to much stress, so when I was offered to move to this small town in Ireland I just jumped at the opportunity and I have not looked back since.                                                                                                                                                               

Quick anecdote, in 2009, I was working for the same company I am working at today but not directly, I was working at one of their vendor sites and there I met a supervisor who was here in Ireland and tried to convince me to move here but I declined. Then I moved to London and said company offered me the same job twice and I declined, at the time I was young and needed to experience the busy London life.  Fast forward to 2016, the second day of training, I look up my friend in the company’s directory and he still works there! I immediately messaged him and we finally met face to face.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

See, I truly believe that it was destiny. I was meant to work at this company and to live in this country, not in 2009 when my friend tried to convince me but in 2016 after I had lost my mom, lived 8 years in London, improved my English, traveled a little, made huge mistakes, learned from them. I think I needed to experience all this to finally be ready to settle down here and I truly believe that I had moved to Ireland in 2009, I would not be here today. I was too young, too unstable and unsure of who I was to be mature enough to settle down. Now I am, and I am ready to build a career here, to build that life I have longed for my entire life. I know it will be a long and tedious road to FI, but I know that I am finally ready and that I live in a country that fits my ambitions and dreams perfectly.

You may actually like it(and feel terrible about it).                                             

 Now, as much as I loathe(yes the word is strong but accurate) my home country, not everyone feels the same and some expats may feel like traitors for enjoying themselves so much.                                                                                 

This may sound rude but :

1. You do not owe anything to your home country, whether it gave you every advantage and allowed you to study and develop yourself in the best condition possible or whether you are just a patriot.

2. You do not owe anything to your families. Quite frankly, people who try to guilt trip their loved ones from leaving should be ashamed of themselves. Just because we decided to explore the world does not mean we do not love you. As a matter of fact, we love you so much that we want to be the best person possible for you to enjoy spending time with and you have to respect that. We are not selfish, we are just trying to do what is best for us, to build a life that feels right and fulfilling and if it does not fit your definition of being a good sister, aunt, niece or friend then so be it. Again, I am harsh but it is the reality as I see it. Like I said, not all expats hate their home countries but they certainly all feel limited, trapped and crave exploring the world to see if the grass is greener elsewhere. So if you have a loved one who is considering relocating, please be supportive, you will get a free vacation out of it and a much happier and fulfilled loved one, I guarantee you that.

Final thoughts :

In my humble opinion, relocating is the experience of a lifetime and you may not get the chance twice so why not take the plunge and embark on this adventure? Make sure you are fully prepared, both financially and psychologically and don’ t forget to fly towards something, not away from something or someone. What is the worst that can happen? With any luck you may just find yourself, just like I did.


Author: expatonfire

I'm a 33 year old french woman and I currently live in Ireland. A few months back I had a near death experience that pushed me to reconsider the way I was living my life and to seriously think about my future, no more excuse and postponing things!

3 thoughts on “What does it mean to be an expat?”

  1. Hey Miss ExpatOnFire. I just read your really long post and I loved every single word. I’m an expat too. I’ve left my country almost 6 years ago and had so many adventures that’s even hard to remember how many.
    Just wanted to send you a this quick message! Keep it up and never look back 😉


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s