In August, I celebrated two anniversaries, one more important than the other. My birthday came first. 10 days later came an even more meaningful date: my expat anniversary. I’d originally planned to be away from home for 6 months. The 7 years since have been the most transformative of my adult life, in ways good and bad (there is seldom a middle ground, as I will explain). At the risk of appearing self-absorbed, here are 7 observations:
- I have changed. A lot. It’s an interesting one, this. I began perceiving myself and the world around me differently as the years passed. Exotic backpacker destinations, dripping with mystique, became work and weekend destinations (while still wonderful). Wide-eyed astonishment became a mere curling of the lips. Jakarta? Cool, where’s next? In some cases, marvel turned to indifference, and even cynicism (what’s behind the facade)? My personality, perhaps unavoidably, has also evolved throughout the years. And yet, deep inside, persistent as always, there remains a boy with childlike curiosity.
- But this also meant that perceptions back home remained largely unchanged. No matter what you’ve seen or done, or where you’ve been, many people in your home country simply can’t relate to any of it. China will always be egg fried rice and Jackie Chan, and that’s it, and they do business our way, the right way. “Singapore is Malaysia’s capital, isn’t it?” “You spoke at a conference in [exotic city]? That’s nice. What do you think of Brexit?” Employers can’t relate to it either, so it won’t necessarily improve career prospects. They’re not going to salivate over your experience managing a marketing team in Taipei (though you might want to mention that you can speak Chinese, and explain which Chinese).
- While Asia’s capitals are looking more and more alike from my perspective – shiny skyscrapers with rooftop bars, gleaming megamalls, identikit airports, acronymed underground systems – the region’s cultures remain uniquely fascinating. Asia’s juggernauts Hong Kong and Shanghai are very different (and yes, I was surprised by this) in ways that include working hours, pace of life and attitude, shaped by all sorts of factors. And although they are often mentioned in the same sentence, world cities like London, Hong Kong and Singapore are bubbles unto themselves. I asked a former colleague in Singapore whether she had visited Kuala Lumpur, literally just up the road, and she answered with, “No. Why would I go there?”.
- Their uniqueness does make relocation a challenge. Having to adapt and do things differently from before gets harder every time. Adaptation requires not just changing work behaviours (in itself hard), but also making friends. Integrating with locals and even the expat community can be challenging. Expats, in my experience, are very different from the people you usually encounter back home. They’re typically driven, ambitious, go-getters (I’ve seen a fair few unhinged Patrick Bateman types). They do things to excess. Integrating with the local community means surmounting cultural barriers. Is there a middle way? Perhaps, if you have family; it can be a lonely path otherwise.
- Expat life is generally a bipolar one – phenomenal, tough, sober, wickedly drunk, hard work, laid-back work. There is no middle ground. “Normal” living is suspended. Life overseas has its glorious moments, but it also has its uncomfortable elements, and a dark side is never far away. However, crummy you might feel back home, the same sentiment will be magnified a hundred times away from home. Loneliness, a rough day at work, frustration can all feel heightened. There are many foreigners who drink as if the world is about to end tomorrow, from Sanlitun to Soho (I’d say many are borderline alcoholics). Would they booze so much back home? I doubt it.
- Perhaps foreigners party a lot because they know their time is up – it’s just a question of when. When I was in Shanghai, I heard it was a transient city. Now in Hong Kong, I hear it’s a transient city. Most foreigners I knew in KL have moved on. There is almost always an end point, especially these days, now that short-term contracts are the norm and expat packages are on their way out. Nothing lasts forever in expat land. Maybe marriage is the answer; I wouldn’t know. Make the most of your time before the plug is pulled.
- But life goes on. The expat is dead, long live the expat! I have been fortunate enough to keep going – it really has been down to luck, opportunism and fortitude more than anything. I won’t pretend otherwise. I didn’t plan for a life overseas originally, and I have no idea what the future has in store. But like a lean startup, I will continue to make adjustments here and there, and keep the show on the road.