Expat Lifestyle

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 makes those of who stayed different from the ones who left. I’ve wondered about that a lot during my 30+ 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.

Indonesia sign

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. 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.

Jakarta skyline

In case you're wondering, I took the hot, crowded buses every day to work. And I felt smug because I paid 10 cents to get to work, while my American colleagues paid $3 or more in their taxis. Yes, I patted myself on the back for saving so much money, but I still tried to understand the expat lifestyle differences between the 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.

In looking at my colleagues and others in the modest expat lifestyle category, I came to a few conclusions.

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.

Indonesian city stamps

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.

The second group is looking for adventure.

These people came to Indonesia to find a more adventurous lifestyle than what they had in their home countries. They might have been in Indonesia as part of a world trip and found that they really liked it here. Or they might be people who never felt like they 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 each part of the world 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 close to 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 between 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, and they might not have gone overseas to work at a low-paying job.

My next post is Risk Disguised as Luck. Take a look to see if you think my move to Indonesia was pure luck or risk.

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.

Kids at wedding

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Patti Pernini - August 23, 2016 Reply

So enlightening. Can’t wait for next chapter!!!!!

    Kate Benzin - August 24, 2016 Reply

    Thanks, Patti. It’s really therapeutic to write about how all this came about, so I won’t hold back – I’ll include the bad as well as the good.

HELEN PAGE - August 24, 2016 Reply

This is excellent information and a new slant on the expat experience. Such good information. More, please.

    Kate Benzin - August 24, 2016 Reply

    Thanks, Helen. Yes, I’ll be publishing more this week. It’s my new therapy.

Les Blythe - August 24, 2016 Reply

A very interesting take on the raison d’etre of an expat – it really started me thinking.

As an expat myself (from the UK living in South Africa) your categorization section caused me to pause and consider where I fitted in the picture.

I came to SA almost 14 years ago on a week’s holiday and never went back to the UK!

I had a well paid job, working in IT for IBM, and what some would consider and enviable lifestyle.

Truth be known, I was totally bored and felt no challenge in what I was doing back home.

So, I guess I’d put myself in the “Adventurer” category, an adventure that I’ve never regretted and one that continues to this day…

Great blog Kate. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.


    Kate Benzin - August 24, 2016 Reply

    Yes, it sounds like you’re in the Adventure category – not that my categories were arrived at scientifically. But I know expats in Indonesia who ended up here the same way you ended up in SA, and I consider them Adventurers, too. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

Gary Harvey - August 24, 2016 Reply

I think you both (Kate and Les) are adventurers — you’ve both set out in the wilderness called the Internet, and you’re both making a good go of it.

Back with more to say after I read your article. Yep, I went to the comments first.


Gary Harvey - August 24, 2016 Reply

You know what?

I was thinking I’d skim through your article, Kate. But I finished up reading every word. Ya gotta be doing something right. Keep it up.

Waiting for chapter 2…


Peggy - August 24, 2016 Reply

What a wonderful first hand experience. I find the idea of living abroad appealing and scary at the same time! I’d love to hear more about the day to day life you live.

    Kate Benzin - August 24, 2016 Reply

    Thanks, Peggy. I’ll be publishing the next chapter tomorrow. Hope you’ll check it out.

Judith Rook - August 24, 2016 Reply

I have met many expats, short-term and long-term, from all over the world, and I think your basic classification is spot on. It works just as well for UK to Thailand, for example, as it does for your US to Indonesia. Have you read Rumer Godden’s three novels set in India? Your observations set me thinking about them again. Thanks for a well-written and thoughtful post.

    Kate Benzin - August 24, 2016 Reply

    Thanks, Judith. Nice to hear you say that it works UK to Thailand as well. I didn’t want to generalize to other situations, so it’s nice to get your take on it. I looked for Rumer Godden’s books on India. I think they might be quite old and not available on kindle. Does that sound right?

Christine - August 24, 2016 Reply

Great read Kate. I lived in many different parts of the world as a child but ended up in Canada. That itch to travel never quite leaves me though. Can’t wait to read more… I love ‘in the trenches’ information regarding locations, customs and affordability. Your blog promises to be fascinating reading for me. Thanks!

    Kate Benzin - August 25, 2016 Reply

    Glad you enjoyed it, Christine. Yeah, I think once a person does some serious traveling or living overseas, that itch remains. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

Sandy - August 24, 2016 Reply

Great post. I’m looking forward to the next post about how you ended up in Indonesia and decided to stay there. I’ve always admired expats because living abroad seems like such an adventure. I hope you’ll write about some of the challenges of the expat life. I’m also curious if you’re seeing younger expats in Indonesia. So happy I found your site!

    Kate Benzin - August 25, 2016 Reply

    Thanks for reading this article, Sandy. Yes, living abroad is an adventure, and I promise to include some of the challenges. Yes, there are younger expats arriving here. A couple of months ago, I was at Ace Hardware (yes, we have Ace here – I was thrilled when it opened) and I made a comment to the next person, a young expat man, in line at the cashier because he was buying something I’d recently bought. Turned out he’d come to Indonesia with his wife and toddler to teach at a local college. He’d just arrived a few weeks earlier and was stocking up on necessities for the house they’d rented.

Fran Fach - August 25, 2016 Reply

Hi Kate! Love to read how you came from where we were to where you are–my travels started later in life and are so much less adventurous. Great to say I knew you when . . . .

    Kate Benzin - August 25, 2016 Reply

    Thanks, Fran. Interesting to think back on the many directions we followed over the years. Happy you enjoyed the article. The next one is almost ready to publish. I’ll mention on Facebook when it’s online.

Elaine - August 31, 2016 Reply

Hello from a non-expat American. I don’t fit in any group, but it’s interesting reading nonetheless because like you, I’m one of those people who’s always trying to figure out why people act the way they do. Love the pic!

    Kate Benzin - September 1, 2016 Reply

    Great to hear from you, Elaine. Actually, I think most of my readers will be non-expats who want to learn more about expat living. Thanks for making a comment.

Steve Boyce - November 26, 2016 Reply

I was married to a Singaporean and had a few interviews with job agencies and an expat manager where she worked. Not being highly (paper) qualified I was unable to get work in the expat ranks, and I was too qualified along with wrong nationality to get work amongst the general workforce.

A Dull Roar - April 9, 2017 Reply

We’re U.S. expats living in Costa Rica. I loved your observation about U.S. Americans not understanding why you’d live anywhere else. That kind of attitude would always leave me speechless, so parochial, so unaware of the rest of the planet they are. We’d definitely fall into the “adventurists” category and still love it here after more than 8 years. But … without much of a push we could definitely become serial expats, there is so much more to explore and experience!

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