An Expat State Of Mind

expat state of mind

The expat life often feels like living in some sort of forever-state of transition.  When you meet other expats (at work, at a bar, even in the supermarket if you live in a place where expats are few and far between) the same two questions always arise;

How long have you been here?

This usually comes first.  It seems very important to establish who has been around the longest, who is the expat expert in this conversation.  Certain breeds of expat will relish in discovering that they have encountered a newbie fresh off the TEFL train and will take great pleasure in showing off their credentials.  Six months trumps six weeks, those who have been around for a year or two trump the six monthers, and then the real hardcore lifers take the table with claims of ten or twenty years of expat living.

How long are you staying?

Once who has been around the longest has been established it is time to figure out who is the most dedicated.  (People in the TEFL teaching world will also face questions about when they will get a real job.  Because working 40+ hours a week isn’t a real job, obviously).  It’s like our expat status is defined by two points in time – our arrival and our expected departure, like our whole existence is some passing moment in the space-time continuum.

So many things in this temporary life are make shift – I have a sup par smoothie maker because I’m only making do until I go back home; I’m driving around an old banger of a car I would never dream of using back home because it’s only got to last me while I’m here.  I don’t even have a set departure date in my expat plan and yet I’m unable to commit to anything proper or with any permanence.

The majority of friendships also lack permanence and are formed by default; we work together, we are the only foreigners in the area, we met on a long weekend… these kind of transitory acquaintanceships are perfectly fine when travelling around a country, but when your timeline in one place is looking more long term it can feel very insecure and unstable not having a truly tight knit group of friends around you.  Your friends from home, as you quickly start to refer to them (or real friends, but only to yourself), come from years of cultivation, of shared experiences and histories and memories and a million things to talk about over a coffee or even better, not needing to say anything at all.  Nothing is forced, there is no desperation to secure this friendship or confirm its realness because it is real and always will be.  (Side note: Skype is a life saver that should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for keeping people together despite oceans and continents and time differences between them).

It can be ironically lonely being surrounded by people, many of whom you can’t converse with beyond talking about food or the weather, or useless vocabulary you have picked up along the way like being able to give directions to a non existent post office or listing colours, or counting to 1000.

The expat community is very cliquey; we have the teachers, the muay thai guys, the Russians, the SEXpats, the divers, the yachties, the retirees, the forever backpackers… and that’s just in Phuket.  You find yourself having to slot in and make do with the people in your default group or otherwise lead a somewhat solitary life.  Many people make the move to a foreign country as an individual but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to spend their entire expat existence completely independent of others.

None of this is to say that real friendships can’t be made, or that wonderfully satisfying lives can’t be carved out for people – of course that is all possible but it takes a lot of dedication and for some of us there would always be something missing.

Maybe I’m just a big homebody at heart but there will always be a home shaped hole in my life no matter how much the sun shines on my expat life.  Don’t get me wrong; I love living my expat life, but I find comfort in knowing it’s not forever, even if I have to make do at times until I back to the real thing.

19 thoughts on “An Expat State Of Mind

  1. Honestly, I believe if I you don’t intend to stay forever, or at least a few years, you are not an expat, but a long term tourist, no judgement intended or implied. Secondly, I stay away from the expat areas, like Phuket, because I came here to GET AWAY from people like me, 555! Your post seems to indicate that it might be time for you to go home, or at least change locations?

    1. No offense taken! I have spent a long time avoiding calling myself an expat because of the very reason you state – but after 2 years of being in Thailand and no set departure date I guess I fall into the category by now!

      Having relocated to Phuket relatively recently (for work reasons – it’s not my ideal location being a typical ‘expat location’ but luckily I’m in an area where there are not many expats living nearby) the thoughts in this topic are cropping up more often than usual – I’m sure when I settle down I will be fine…

  2. I couldn´t have said it better myself! Socialising in Phuket area is not that easy for a person who doesn´t go to bars that often.

    Those expat categories by the way are excellently put, very describing 🙂

  3. To me an expat is someone on a big salary living in a luxury condo having nothing much to do with the locals. If you are an ESL teacher I guess it depends on who you mix with will define if you are an expat or not. I’d say if you mix with a lot of local people I’d put you into another category (which I’m not sure what name that is)……maybe an …..’international person’….I personally prefer that. I have been in Malaysia for 18 years and I wouldn’t call myself an expat, I am an ‘international’…..

    Also in terms of your friends you make away, honestly I found that it really took at least a year to find people you could relate to, and even then if you are in a small town, you may be able to relate to them but they may not be the ones you would spend time with normally. But if they are an ‘expat’ as you say, treasure them, you will never have anyone so ‘on tap’ for you when you get home. I found that after being away for a while all my friends at home had so many other family commitments, financial commitments, club commitments etc that simply going out for a coffee took a 2 week appointment arrangement…..I love being in the international circle because everyone wants to socialise and travel and chat, everyone has time…plus you get to master the art of socialising with anyone and enjoying the differences, and that is a great skill to have.

    Just a few thoughts….

  4. I have felt this way many times in my life (even when we moved back to the states 5 years ago after living in taipei for 2 years). I have always felt on the move and have always lived with the “temporary” belongings regardless of where I lived. I guess I haven’t found a place I want to be forever yet. 🙂
    It can be difficult to meet and make friends here in Phuket, but we have friends in most of those categories, it can be done. 🙂 Try not to be discouraged, I go through times where I feel the same as you, but then I usually swing the other way.

    1. Oh it’s definitely a pendulum swing feeling and I will be heading to the UK for a Christmas visit which will be a bit of a reality check for me. Hopefully I will come back with a new appreciation for my life in Thailand 🙂

  5. I know exactly how you feel! It’s so easy to feel guilty when you’re not 100% mind, body and soul dedicated to the place you’re living, as though you weren’t invited to the wild expat party or just not cut out for this lifestyle. I’m glad I’m not the only one! I’m thinking of heading home to N Wales this year after 2 years in China, but the idea of being permanently stuck in the UK is just as scary as being a nomad!

  6. Kylie, you make some good points, but I definitely agree with Aiyshah that it’s way easier to make connections when you’re living an expat lifestyle, versus an “established” lifestyle. readjusting to home has take way longer than adjusting to life as a foreigner. I would think that it would be very disheartening though for a young woman in the prime of her life to be located in such a sex tourism hotspot! If you can’t find social activities that you enjoy there, it may be wise to look to an alternative location for the future.

      1. Glad to hear that Kylie. I have to say that I always look suspiciously at men who say they’ve travelled to the beaches of Thailand! I hope that you’re able to get out and enjoy a lot of those other benefits.

  7. I can definitely relate to this. The feeling of being in a transitional period makes it hard to decide what to invest in- is it worth buying a food processor? Collecting some board games?
    Loneliness, absolutely. It takes time to establish solid friendships, and it’s too easy to pine for the ones we miss back home and the kinds of experiences we could be having with them (missing Comicon, argh!).That said, I feel like the mere fact that two people have both come over to teach, and chosen a similar location and setup, means that they have similar elements in their life goals and personalities that hopefully can inspire friendships!
    I’m definitely still learning, though- two months into a year in Korea. Enjoy lovely Thailand and your continuing adventure! 🙂

    1. I do miss my board games, if only I could get any out here maybe I would… I’ve finally succumbed to starting a book collection simply because it just didn’t feel like home without some books on the shelf – who knows what I will do with them all, I guess they will be a nice freebie for someone when it’s my turn to go back home!

      I totally get what you are saying; by default the fact that you are both in the same situation (foreign, same line of work, living in a foreign land) should mean that you have lots in common with that person, but I still get thinking… would we be friends back at home in the ‘real world’??? I have made a few close friends but it took a long time and you have to get very resilient to the fact that a lot of the people you get to now quickly move on.

      Enjoy Korea – only two months in, there is so much to come! Thanks for your comment 🙂

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