There are a lot of misconceptions about what expat life is like - probably because there is no one-size-fits-all expat lifestyle.
To some people, the word ‘expat’ brings to mind a wealthy, glamorous expat lifestyle. And it's true that some expats earn the kind of money they could never make at home and live a luxurious lifestyle. But many of us live much more modest lives, not tremendously different from how we’d live in our home countries.
This site will be a source of information so that non-expats can understand those of us who have chosen to live abroad a little better. And since I happen to fall into the category of expat who is living a very modest expat lifestyle, that's the style that I'll share with you.
My Warranted or Unwarranted Generalizations About Expat Lifestyle
Generalizations about people are dangerous, but I hope you'll indulge me a little as I convey some generalizations that come from my personal expat experience. I’m an American who has been living in Indonesia since late 1982. During the time that I've been living here, I’ve seen lots of Americans come and go. A significant number, like me, have stayed for years.
What is it that makes those of us who stayed different from the ones who left. I’ve wondered about that a lot during my 36+ years here. At first, I just chalked it up to the normal likes and dislikes that each person has. I figured that some people gave it a try and found that Indonesia just wasn't for them or even that living overseas wasn't for them.
After a while though, I started to see some patterns. I saw the Europeans who came to live in Indonesia didn't usually react the same way that Americans did in similar situations.
Here's an example from my early days in Jakarta - before air conditioning in buses. Europeans who were working as English teachers like me took hot, crowded buses to travel to their destination on the other side of this huge city. But by and large, Americans wouldn't do that. Instead, I found that Americans who didn't have their own cars were more likely to take taxis everywhere. The taxis weren’t air conditioned in those days either, but at least you weren’t crammed in like sardines.
Just to let you know, I took the bus everywhere. I'll bet I knew the bus system as well as most Indonesians.
Yes, I took the hot, crowded buses every day to work. And I felt smug because I paid the equivalent of 10 cents to get to work, while my American colleagues paid $3 or more in their taxis. I patted myself on the back for saving so much money.
But I still tried to understand the differences between the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans who were working at similar jobs. Didn't the Americans come here to experience something different and get involved in the local culture?
I didn’t understand the logic. So I continued to analyze in order to understand the difference. Remember, I'm not including either the American or European expats who came for jobs with big salaries. They generally had their own air-conditioned cars with drivers provided by their employers.
Over the years of looking at my colleagues and others in the modest expat lifestyle category, I developed a few theories.
Many European countries have a tradition of working overseas or at least traveling overseas for long periods of time. This kind of tradition has never been as accepted in the U.S. as in Europe. I don't mean that it hasn't existed - I just mean that it's more unusual.
When I went home to the U.S. for visits over the years, Americans often asked me why in the world I’d ever want to live outside the U.S. for any period of time. I don’t think a German or an English woman would be asked that same kind of question as often as I was if she left her home country to work in a developing country.
American Expat Lifestyle
I don’t have insights that are any better or any worse from those of other expats, but I'm one of those people who is always trying to figure out why people act the way they do. If you’re still interested in what my experiences have led me to believe, please read on.
It seems to me that most American expats fall into one of three main categories.
One group is focused on work.
Members of this group might be experts in oil or technology, aid workers, missionaries, State Department employees, and so on. Indonesia might be their first overseas job, or it might be the current one in a line of overseas jobs.
What they all have in common is that their reason for living in Indonesia is work. And their work paid for their relocation to Indonesia, as well as living expenses in the country. These folks often lived far more luxurious lives than they would have in the U.S.
The second group is looking for adventure.
People in this group came to Indonesia to find a more adventurous lifestyle than what they had in their home countries. They might have been on a world trip and found that they really liked Indonesia and stayed. Or they might have felt like they never fit in at home and ended up in Indonesia on a whim.
They might even be serial expats - people who spend a few years in one country before moving to the next. These are often people who aren't satisfied by experiencing a destination in the way that a tourist or traveler would. Instead, they want to experience various foreign destinations by immersing themselves in one culture and then another and another.
I haven't forgotten romance.
Just as in life anywhere, romance can make people do strange things. Falling in love can turn a complete homebody into an expat. I know people who probably wouldn't be in Indonesia right now if they hadn't fallen in love with their Indonesian spouses.
One person I know was here on vacation when Cupid's arrow struck. He returned home but came back to Indonesia a few months later to convince the lady that he was the only man for her. They've now been married over 20 years and have lived in Indonesia all that time.
Another person I know was a serial expat. He had worked in a few countries prior to getting a job in Indonesia. He probably would have eventually gone to another country in his mission to work his way around the world, but he met the love of his life, got married, and stayed here.
These three groups overlap.
Of course, there is significant overlap among these groups. Those who came for jobs with large salaries are probably people who wanted a little more adventure than what their 9-to-5 job in the U.S. gave them. So the job wasn’t the only reason they came here, but they might not have decided to work overseas of the job didn't pay well.
Are Generalizations About Expat Lifestyle Really That Simple?
My explanation may be a simplistic way of looking at expat lifestyle which is actually very complex. There are probably lots of factors that I haven't taken into consideration. But when I wonder about something, I never feel satisfied until I hit upon an explanation that makes sense - at least to me.
And I feel satisfied that I understand at least partly why some of us have chosen the expat lifestyle.