Expats – 5 Questions Before You Pack Your Bags


Are you considering moving overseas when you retire?  Have you asked yourself some of the key questions that can make or break your expat experience?   Moving to another culture, far away from family and friends, can pose some interesting challenges that many people never consider before making the decision to move.

When I moved to Peru, back in 2000, I had done some international travel.  I wasn’t a world wanderer by any means, but I did have a few developing countries under my belt.  Did I ask myself all the right questions before I left?  No. Did I make mistakes.  Yes. Did I wish that I spoke the language better?  You bet.  Was the experience something I regret?  Absolutely not.  Even with those questions and answers, I still wish I had asked myself these key questions.

Adapting and enjoying the expat life really is dependent on your personality, whether you are flexible, adaptable and can laugh at yourself.  These are key characteristics that will help you more easily adjust to and enjoy this great, new adventure that you have embarked upon.  Looking back on some of my experiences, living in both Peru and Guatemala, I identified 5 questions that would be useful for anyone considering the expat life.

Have you traveled outside of the United States – to a developing country?

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESMost expats move to developing countries where they will get more bang for their buck, allowing them to live a good life on less money. If you haven’t traveled to a developing country, you may find that living in one is a very different life. Values are different. The clock runs at a different speed. Food will be different. Guinea pig, anyone? English will not be the language of the land. You won’t find your favorite brands of clothing, foods and electronics and, if you do, they will most likely be quite pricey. On the other side of things, you will find beautiful people, a culture calling to you to be experienced, wonderful new friends and endless surprises.  You will be the one adapting to a country and culture, not the culture and country adapting to you.   If you haven’t traveled to the country you are thinking of retiring to, do so a few times before you make the big move.  Spend enough time to get a taste of daily life.  Rather than being a tourist and staying in a fancy hotel and eating at the best restaurants, instead stay in a typical hotel and eat the local menu in someone’s home.  Get to know the country and the people and think to yourself the whole time, “Can I live here?”

Are you patient?   Or at the very least, can you learn patience?

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESPart of life in another country, especially a developing country, is that life is lived at a different pace. What might take an hour in the United States may take a few hours or all day in another country.  If you live in a larger, more cosmopolitan city within a developing country, you may find the pace faster somewhat faster, but live outside the city, life moves much slower.  One challenge I had that I never quite became accustomed to was time.  “I am on my way over” could mean I am on my way over, but if something comes up or I run across someone on the way, then I am still on my way over.  I remember I made plans for New Year’s Eve with friends when I lived in Iquitos, Peru.  They said they would come by at midnight to head to the street party.  At 2 a.m. they arrived with big smiles, ready to head out to the celebration.  I said, “I thought you were going to be here at midnight.”  They looked confused that I had expected they actually be there at that time.  They said, “We stopped on the way,” as if this was the norm, and, of course, it was the norm.  I smiled and said, “Well, I’m ready.”  Off we went to enjoy the most amazing New Year’s Eve celebration I have ever experienced.  I could have been upset.  I could have caused a fuss.  Or I could have said to myself, “This is part of the culture, let it go.”  Patience.  Understanding that what you expect may not be what the culture will offer you.  Take a deep breathe and go with the flow.  If you can’t let go of your expectations of life, then you may have challenges living in another country, let alone a developing country.

Are you interested in meeting locals or are you just going to insulate yourself by spending all your time with other expats?

There is nothing at all wrong with finding other expats to connect with when you move to another country.  They can add a bit of normalcy to your life and keep you connected to home.  That being said, my best experiences living outside of the country were with local families and friends. Through my relationships with them, I learned about the culture, family, traditional holidays, funerals, protests and celebrations. If you plan on searching out only other expats to the exclusion of locals, then you may be find disappointment in your expat experience and you certainly will be limiting the full experience of being in another country and another culture.

Can you be respectful of this new culture you have chosen?

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESWhen you arrive in a country that you have to chosen to move to, you have arrived in someone else’s home.  You are living in their culture, in their land, in their community.  I remember there were a number of expats in Iquitos who had lived in the jungle for a number of years. Sitting amongst them one evening, enjoying a cold beer, I remember the conversation turned to everything that was wrong with the life and people in the city.  It was harsh.  It was unkind.  And I was embarrassed for the waiter who had to serve these people who were bashing his city, his home, the city they had chosen to live. This was an “Ugly American” moment.  It was a sad example of expats who expected the culture to adapt and cater to them.

Are you ready for an adventure?

Everyday will be an adventure. This is a guarantee. You will learn something new about yourself, about the people of the land, and about this new wonderful culture.  Are you ready for it?

My life in Peru was one big adventure.  Day after day, I was always amazed at what I learned or the surprises that availed themselves that day. One late afternoon, I got lost in the jungle as it was growing dark, in a downpour, wondering where exactly that big cat was that just let out a growl.  I got stuck in the mud on the shore of the Amazon, knee deep in the mid-day sun, as 3 young Amazon guides did their best to pull me out. Sitting on a crooked and rusty metal chair into the wee morning hours, I shared a beer with locals bypassing a community glass, as we talked about life in a language that I was still learning.  I danced in the rain on New Year’s Eve, until the sun came up the next morning, surrounded by thousands of locals.  The most beautiful Christmas I have ever had was in the home of a local family that I had become close with, sharing their holiday meal, just a simple meal. There were no wrapped gifts to exchange, only the gift of friendship and love.

Adventure. Adventure means different things to different people. The new, the different, the challenging and the unknown are all waiting for you if you become an expat, but most of all guaranteed adventure.

Are you ready for an adventure?  Post your thoughts below in comments.

 

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10 comments

  • My husband and I love to watch House Hunters International and often dream of retiring in another country. This definitely gives me some food for thought. I think we should travel extensively in the next couple of years before making a decision.

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    • sunshineretirement Thank you for your comment. Enjoy your travels as you decide where you will live during retirement. It’s so exciting thinking about it. Who knows what the future will bring! 🙂

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  • Isolating yourself with only associating with other expats. I issue a word of caution with this. Not all expats are in these developing countries out of honest desire to live there. There are a lot “hiding out.” The one thing you really need to do is keep your mouth shut, observe for a while, before getting involved. That while, well, that may be a long while. Also, ask yourself, “would I be this person’s friend if we were back home?” If not, why on earth would you want to be in a different country.

    Just my take and spin on this through experience.

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    • Loca Gringa I couldn’t agree with you more. When I first moved to Peru there were “expats” who found me in the city during the first week in order to introduce themselves. Their intentions were less than honorable and, overtime, I learned which ones were of questionable character. It sounds as though you have had similar experience. In fact, one expat was on the run from an adjacent country for selling property that wasn’t his to sell. Absolutely, observe, observe and observe. While many expats are wonderful people with good intentions, it’s better to be a little cautious initially than sorry later on. And the the question you suggest one asks oneself is perfect. Thank you so much for your comment!

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      • Yes, I still have a great deal of bad taste left in my mouth. The trouble is, we expect people in developing countries to do whatever they have to do to survive or to “get out.” That doesn’t make their tactics acceptable. But we hold expats to a higher standard, especially if they are from our home countries. And sadly, we need to hold them at arm’s length, and sometimes for a very long time.

        You only know what people want you to know, and they can keep the truth hidden indefinitely.

        Also, one more thing …

        When in a foreign country as a visitor or as an expat, remember to act accordingly. No matter what you are a reflection of your own home country so ACT as an ambassador for that country. All too often I see people acting in ways they never would in their own country. Oh hell no! A big no thanks! These developing countries have very strict laws and the last thing you want is to be associating with questionable people. The last thing a good person wants is the guilt by association landing them in a foreign jail!

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        • Thank you for your comment Loca Gringa. Moving to another country is not without challenge, be it determining the motives of people around you, whether they are local or expats. I guess on some level it is the same in the country that one comes from, some people have motives that are other than honorable. The key, I think, is to take things slowly, be watchful of words and behaviors, use good judgment and be prepared for a misstep or two, much the same as one would do at home. Regardless of the cautions and challenges, life as a expat can be the experience of a lifetime and wonderful friendships and extended family can be the result. I have experienced both sides and I still dream of the expat life as retirement draws near.

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          • The only difference with locals is, at home, you aren’t a visa to the brass ring. And anywhere outside a developing country is a brass ring.

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            • Sad as it is, this too may be a “blog worthy” experience (as someone named Loca Gringa wrote in her blog.) noting that those not so perfect expat experiences can become great material for the next post. But certainly it is better to be aware beforehand. Thanks for your comments!

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            • Thanks Loca Gringa for increasing awareness of some people’s intentions. That being said, the people I have encountered in Peru and Guatemala where I lived have been, with only a few exceptions, wonderful, helpful, supportive people who became good friends and extended family. I guess I have been lucky in that regard. Those few “others” offered me a learning opportunity and life lesson. 🙂

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              • Life lesson! Great way to look at it!

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