“Few people willingly move abroad to accept a lower standard of living – there are exceptions of course such as those who volunteer to help in nations affected by wars or dire economic circumstances. The majority of us move abroad expecting to find or achieve a better or equal standard of living to what we previously enjoyed – but everything from the cost of living to the availability and quality of infrastructure can impact this.” (Shelter Offshore)
What most of the studies don’t show is that we have a mental idea of what our new life will be life that doesn’t just revolve around granite kitchen countertops and a pool. I for one had a mental image of expat life in Kenya as a cross between Out of Africa and Gone with the Wind, with martinis, perfectly pressed linen clothing and a serene demeanor featuring heavily. I would finally have the time to write a book, master yoga and cook gourmet meals. Hours spent on the phone trying to get my electricity / phone / internet reconnected (an oft repeated task that had no relationship to whether I had paid the bill in person, by mail or at a bank) and days spent sobbing with loneliness did not ever appear in my fantasy life. So when we talk about standard of living, the corporate assumption is that all we are expecting is physical comforts like modern housing, air-conditioning and household help, and while we need to be aware of the cost and availability of the ‘home comforts’ that we consider essential, they are not the route to expat happiness. What we also should know is that more time can be spent managing staff than the work itself would take, that the cost of air-conditioning is not just in electricity, but also in time spent locating a repairman and then waiting at home when he doesn’t appear for the fifth time, and your elegant clothing makes you stick out like a sore thumb in the local markets..
Try to articulate your anticipated life before you go, and then compare it to the average lifestyle of the local and expat population to see whether you are really being realistic. Most physical comforts can be achieved with a little planning and effort, but you may find that once you are there, they no longer have the same appeal. Thinking of your standard of living in a holistic way allows you to sort the needs from the wants, and will give you a far better chance of contentment long term.
9. Bureaucracy / Corruption
“No matter where in the world you live you will always face bureaucracy – and by its very nature bureaucracy is usually mind numbingly ridiculous – but as an expat it’s so much worse because it is foreign bureaucracy so it is even more unintelligible, nonsensical, impossible to understand and yet imperative.” (Shelter Offshore)
I like to think of bureaucracy as a hoop that has to be jumped through. The difficulty is in defining where exactly the hoop is, and how high we have to jump to get through it. And while I think of corruption as someone with the power to move the hoop to make getting through easier or harder, I also happen to know that there are plenty of ‘jobsworth’ civil servants and who may not be corrupt, but are just as unhelpful.
Getting frustrated with it is universal and understandable, but doesn’t change the fact that it exits, and you still need to get though it. If you have a corporate relocation package, your company may have already hired a professional to guide you though and expedite the process. As an individual, your local and expat network will prove invaluable, because everyone will have already have jumped through those hoops and can give you advice. And as a final note – try not to get angry. I have yet to hear of a situation where it helped, but by contrast, I have many, many personal experiences where staying calm, smiling and asking very, very nicely for help has smoothed the way for everything from getting school places to US visa appointments.
10. Raising Children
I’m pretty sure that concerns about raising children are not exclusive to expats – quite the opposite, in fact. For where we are wondering if exposing our children to multiple vaccines, repeated school moves and language barriers will warp them for life, our less transient counterparts are worrying about their child’s gluten allergy, lack of global awareness, and Spanish grades. It comes with the parenting territory, and unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how we are doing until they hit teenage years and are only too willing to list our shortcomings.. There are a number of strategies for relocating expat children and Third Culture Kids but my Four Basic Rules are:
1. Keep them informed, but not overwhelmed. Tell them early, include them in discussions about family life, and give them a say in matters that affect them.
2. Move at the end of a vacation, not at the start. It gives them time to say goodbye, and less time spent without friends to play with.
3. Fill the void. Assume that for the first month or so, you will need to keep them occupied with family activities, and keep them in contact with friends from their old location via text, email or Skype.
4. Expect issues. Everyone is under stress during a transition, so try to be patient, allow for a some acting out, and get help if you need to.