Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Top Ten Expat Myths

Egypt-5B-023 - Approaching Aswan
Nile River, Egypt
Photo by Dennis Jarvis
There's a huge amount of misinformation about expats and expat lifestyle. This list is a bit US-centric, but hopefully it will clear up a few things.
  1. Expats are rich

    If there is any expat myth that I despise, this is the one. Thanks to plenty of articles out there insinuating that we're just a bunch of greedy rich buggers renouncing our citizenship to protect our wealth, there's often a powerfully-expressed hatred about us. We're labeled traitors with more than a tinge of envy coming across in the accusations. In reality, we're teachers, waiters, programmers, husbands, wives, taxi drivers, bankers, construction workers. In short, we're as diverse as you'll find back home and, like you, we're often struggling to make ends meet.
  2. Expats hate America

    Really? I can't find many who do. In fact, in one study of Americans living in Europe (disclaimer: I was a participant in this study), researcher Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels found that only 4.5% of Americans living abroad cited dissatisfaction with the political system back in the US. Like many Americans, we have a diversity of political views, but unlike most Americans, we get to see first-hand what the rest of the world is like and it turns out that it's quite a bit different from how the US news likes to describe it. For example, the health care "debate" in the US was a joke and even conservative Americans I've met living in Europe acknowledge that things are far better here than what you'd read about in the US media.
  3. You have to have a college degree to move abroad

    Nope. Nope, nope, nope. For most STEM (science, technology, engineering, medicine) fields, yes, you need a college degree ... just as you would if you stayed in the US. However, there are plenty of expats who have traveled the world with only a high school education or a GED. Get a TEFL certificate and teach English. Check out couch surfing. Read about wwoof. Some people just buy a ticket and go (reckless if you don't know what you're getting into).
  4. English is fine

    While I expect this from tourists, I also see this in some expats. Because English has effectively become the world language, people think they can use it everywhere. Now imagine living in Burundi and trying to make an emergency call to a doctor on a Saturday night. Imagine living in Sri Lanka and getting all of your bills in a Sinhala or Tamil. Even if you can get by as a tourist by pointing and miming, living somewhere is a whole different ball game, even in countries where the majority of the population speak English as a second language.
  5. I'll learn the local language

    So you know English isn't enough and are determined to learn the local language. Hah! For some reason, plenty of expats don't bother. Maybe they think they'll be temporary residents. Maybe they just don't care.  Or maybe they just don't try hard enough of find they don't have much time. I have to confess that while I can get by in French, having a full-time job and being a father makes it hard to apply myself to learning French. However, for a country which does not have English as the first language, learning the local language is the best thing you can do to integrate.
  6. It's a dangerous world out there

    Actually, it's not. There's a saying that the news reports the planes that crash and not the planes that land safely. Thus, people who only get their information from watching the news get a very distorted idea of air safety. (Heck, this entire post could be about "how the news gets everything wrong about expats", but that's not always true) The reality is that even in some of the most dangerous places of the world, you're pretty safe (and yes, that largely means Mexico, too. Listen to the news too much and you'll think there are maybe three people left alive in Mexico city, stumbling around and trying to hide).
  7. People in country X are rude/friendly/some other stereotype

    People in the Netherlands have a stereotype of being cold and unfriendly. I can promise you from first-hand experience that this is not true. People in Paris have a reputation for being snobs and refusing to speak English even if they can. In reality, many of them speak broken English and are embarrassed about it. People in the UK have a reputation of drinking 24/7. Well, that one might be true.

    Stop listening to the stereotypes and start paying attention to reality. It turns out that people are, well, people! Yes, there are cultural differences that one can note, but within any given culture there's a huge diversity of people and trying to lump all of them together under one banner is not only silly, it's offensive.
  8. It's like a 24/7 holiday!

    The French have a saying, m├ętro, boulot, dodo. It means "subway, work, sleep". That's how they describe their day to day life. And unless you're one of the vanishingly small number of "rich" expats, that will be your life, too, just as it is back in the US. You'll look forward to having time off to be with friends or to travel a bit, but your life won't magically turn into a fairy tale.
  9. Life is better/worse in country X (I'd never want to live anywhere else!)

    I always want to scream when I hear people I went to school with in Texas say "I'd never want to live anywhere but the good ol' US of A!" All I can think to say is "how would you know?" These are often awesome, intelligent, kind-hearted people who nonetheless have no idea what the rest of the world is like or what it is to live in it. Though I will grant them one thing: if you start with the assumption that you'd hate the rest of the world, it's more likely to be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    That being said, there are those who are convinced that the grass is greener everywhere but where they are standing. In reality, whether a country is "better" often comes down to two things for most people: their personal value system and whether they've made the effort to build a life there (surprisingly, many expats have not). When that first bout of homesickness kicks in, you may quickly re-evaluate whether or not the grass is greener where you've moved to.
  10. My kids will love it

    This one is dangerous and many expat parents don't treat this problem with the seriousness it deserves. Does your child speak the language of where you're going? Are they old enough that their friends and social structure are more important to them than your need for adventure? It's one thing to take your five year old with you to Chile. It's another thing entirely to take your fifteen year old away from his friends. Particularly by the time your children are entering puberty, think very carefully about this decision and involve them in it!
Being an expat is a wonderful thing and I (obviously) encourage everyone to consider it. There were few things in life more wonderful than sitting on the bank of a Dutch canal, eating bitterballen, drinking Grolsch and debating politics with my Dutch friends. Of course, meeting a lovely woman in London, getting engaged to her in Lisbon and getting married in Tower Bridge would qualify as one of those things.


  1. #4 - as an interesting aside, this article (in Swedish) talks about a woman who's lived in Stockholm for 7 years without learning Swedish, and now that she's trying to, she's complaining that she gets treated worse in general than when she spoke English. Doesn't negate your point of having to deal with government forms and emergencies in the local language (what if your paramedic doesn't speak English?), but I thought it was interesting.

    A friend who's an expat in Stockholm says this may be a local thing; the people there seem obsessed with America to her, so people speaking american english are kinda put on a pedestal, socially. This relates to #5 - she's put some serious effort in for two solid years of living there to learn Swedish, and she's still frustrated by her lack of fluency at times.

    #8 - it's not a 24/7 holiday, but friends of mine who moved to Switzerland get at least 3x the vacation and holidays that I do here in the US (they're in a Catholic canton, so tons of three-day weekends for saint's days), AND they're a train ride or very short flight from a dozen other countries, which makes all that extra time off seem even MORE appealing. :)

  2. Well, #1 isn't completely untrue. Don't forget that many countries make it much easier for someone with a high paying job to enter than for people who classify for the low end jobs. The tax break you were getting in the Netherlands wasn't because you were falling in the category of people that have to struggle to make ends meet - it's a tax break only available if you're in the top category of earned wages (it really is a tax break for the rich, it was probably introduced by George W. Bush).

    I spend a few years in the US as an expat. I would not have been able to get a US visa if I had to make a living earning minimal wages in a retail job.

    I do not believe the typical expat is as diverse as the native population. Expats either have high paying jobs, or jobs on the low end of the scale (picking tomatoes, cleaning toilets and other jobs that natives not want to do). And the country of origin is usually a good indicator of whether they will have a job on the high, or the low end of the scale. Middle class jobs are usually *not* taken by expats. It takes second and often third generation immigrants to penetrate that class.

    1. Abigail, just glancing at the data from the study I mentioned above, around half of the people listed as expats were abroad due to marriage, already having citizenship, studied abroad or other categories which clearly do not require having buckets of money. The other categories, such as being offered a job abroad, don't necessarily guarantee a great salary, but probably don't mean the poor house.

      That's backed up by this Euractiv article (click on the "issues" link) which has this to say about immigrants to the EU: Figures presented by former Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Frattini show that while 85% of unskilled labour migration goes to the EU and 5% to the US, only 5% of skilled labour lands in the EU.

      This reminds me of when I first move to the UK and one of my relatives (a diehard Republican) said to me: "they must be getting you cheap as an immigrant". He bought into the line that obviously immigrants are working cheap to take other people's jobs, just as many others assume incorrectly that expats must automatically be rich. Instead, when you look at the actual data, you find out that the truth is far more mundane.

      As for the tax break you mention me receiving in the Netherlands, while I'm not going to discuss my salary (which was hardly in the "top category of wage earners"), I should point out that when I moved to Amsterdam, the minimum salary level for the 30% ruling was around €30-35K per year ... hardly the lap of luxury for living in Amsterdam, a reasonably expensive city for expats, while supporting a wife and child. As one of my favorite poets put it, it "isn't dancing to the tabor and the fife" on that salary.

    2. Looking at some figures from the CBS (Dutch bureau that produces all kinds of social and economic figures), a house old income in the Netherlands in 2011 of 42k/year puts you in the top 25%, 50k/year puts you in the top 16%, and 60k/year puts you in the top 9%.

      You may have had different expectations, but not only were you earnings higher than most people living in the Netherlands, you were also getting a tax break they weren't qualified for, either because of them being Dutch, or because of having wages not high enough.

      Sir, you were getting a tax break for the rich. And you were up in arms when a single suggestion was made that, if it would have been implemented, would cause you to no longer qualify for the tax break.

      As for how expensive Amsterdam is, it's ranked 50 on the list you link to, well below the city you moved from, and well below the city you moved to. But the list doesn't give much of a clue what position 50 actually means, other than that 49 cities are more expensive for expats, and 164 are cheaper.

    3. Abigail, we've had this conversation before and it's clear we're not going to agree. For the rate I was getting paid, combined with high Dutch taxes and the high cost of living in Amsterdam, there was simply no way I could have moved there without the tax incentive offered to expats. I would have lost a lot of money and that not fair to me and certainly not fair to my wife or my (then) soon-to-be-born daughter. From what I've experienced, most other Western European nations offer higher salaries and lower taxes, while Eastern Europeans offer a low enough cost of living to offset the lower income.

      The Netherlands has long had a well-documented shortage of IT workers. This sort of structural unemployment is a well-known problem that many countries try to solve. You're not simply going to "train the locals" to handle it (many countries try and fail), so either you offer incentives to foreigners to accept your very high tax rates and low salaries or you let your businesses suffer. It's Economics 101.

  3. I'm with Abigail re #1. In my observation, the vast majority of expats are richer than they would be at home. Not RICH-rich, but rich-ER. Even the Filipino, Latino and Jamaican housemaids here in my Caribbean island - shamefully exploited as they are - are better off here than they would be at home. If they weren't, they wouldn't be here; it's that simple. I'm guessing that the same applies to the Indians etc doing menial jobs in the Gulf States - most of them, at least.

    As to Curtis's #5, I have always worked in English-speaking countries, which makes me both smart and cowardly! But my son has worked in Central America in Spanish and Norway in Norwegian; that's smart and brave. (A blog-post of mine in July tells of the agonies of learning Norwegian, for anybody interested in trying!)

    Curtis's point #7 is spot on. Generalisations are the curse of all visitors to foreign places. People are indeed people. For some reason France and the French are the main victims of slander, yet no people or nation could deserve it less. Marrying a French woman and producing a French child is pretty much my idea of heaven - although I hope my wife and son never read this.

    1. Gordon: no worries, I'll never tell your family. This will be our little secret :)

    2. If only it were true that we would be richer here than back home. It simply isn't the case at all. I took a pay cut to come work over here. Not only that, our living expenses skyrocketed. We've yet to recover financially. Our savings took quite a hit in the transition. If we ever move back to the US, I know for a fact that I'll make more, have more perks, and pay less taxes.

      So far, I feel it has been worth it. Our quality of life hasn't decreased that much. We traded some of that for the experience which has an intrinsic value all on its own.

  4. Check out this article on Chile:

    "The US and UK are losing brilliant people to this country…"