What it really means to be an expat

After living as an expat in three different countries, I can easily say that there are a number of misconceptions about this kind of life. Part of the reason for putting together this blog has been to attempt to address some of these misconceptions. I’m always flattered when people congratulate me on the life that I’m living, but I fear that some of those praises stem from preconceived ideas of what being an expat actually is. So, here is my attempt to address some of these misconceptions.


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Being a Digital Nomad

planeMy personal/professional situation is a thing. It’s a situation that many people find themselves in. Perhaps it’s common enough to even be a phenomenon. It’s called being a digital nomad.

When I finished my undergrad degree, it was really hard to find paying, relevant jobs while I completed my Masters part-time. Sure, as an aspiring writer I could be an unpaid intern at a publication, but it was hard to see the point of doing so much busywork for free when, if I applied a little initiative, I could be paid real human money for doing interesting work. So I created my own job. I registered as a business and I emailed publications about ideas I had and some of those publications said (more or less), ‘Yes! We’d love to give you money for words!’

A lot of the pieces I wrote were very location-specific. I wrote about local events, state and national politics, and stuff I saw around me. Increasingly though, I diversified, wrote about things that could interest people worldwide and for publications in countries on the other side of the world. When I moved abroad, my work became even less tethered to the spaces I actually inhabited. In the last year, while living in the UK, I’ve written about gluten free flour in Kenya, youth engagement programs in Haiti, global challenges relating to HIV, the European Union’s robotic workforce policy, the Australian Prime Minister’s five-dollar donation to a homeless man, a Scandinavian teen TV show, and so on. The nature of the work is likewise distant – I’ve worked with dozens of editors and have actually met about three of them.

A digital nomad is a person who conducts their work remotely. They can be anywhere in the world (as long as it has an internet connection) and do their job. This frees them up to travel when they like.  I can live in Norway for two months without any disruption to my career, for instance. It’s a privileged, agile position.

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Living Without Modern Luxuries

There are many different places to live as an expat. In fact, any country other than your own would probably count, so you have hundreds of options! Most “expats” choose to live in comfortable countries with all of the modern amenities included. However, people are often surprised when I choose to live in “developing countries”. Although each country is different, these places often lack access to services that we would consider non-negotiable back in our home country.

powerCan you imagine renting an apartment in Canada and someone telling you that it didn’t have central heating and that you may figure out what to do during regular 12-hour power outages? I’m pretty sure you would say “No!” right away, and quickly leave to find another place that’s more suitable for your needs.  But in reality, that’s the kind of decision I make all the time when working in development. Although many rich expats have ways around these problems (like hiring someone to wash your laundry by hand for you, or buying an expensive gas generator), these solutions are not in the budget of your average aid worker. Plus, it’s often important to live in local neighbourhoods instead of embassy neighbourhoods, for the sake of learning about the culture and understanding the people you’re there to work with. So, how can you cope?

So, I put together a little guide about the lack of services you may experience in different parts of the world, and how you can survive (and thrive) in situations you’ve never dealt with before! Here are some tips I have for being “an expat in a developing country”:

electronicsElectricity – Having electricity is pretty useful, and something a lot of people take for granted. Not only is it necessary to light your home at night and charge your electronics, but depending on where you live, it might also be necessary for heating/cooling your food, heating your home, and your ability to communicate with others! Wow, that’s quite a lot of things…  If you want to know more about the best ways to cope with power outages in developing countries, you can read my blog about my different experiences with power outages in Ghana and Nepal.

What to do: If you don’t have electricity ever, then you just need to live a more simple lifestyle. Get up with the sun, only use electronics in your office, cook using gas/wood, etc. But this is not an easy lifestyle and takes a lot of getting used to (like camping – but permanently!). If you don’t have electricity occasionally, then there are a lot of different strategies you can use. A few I recommend most are: shopping daily for food (instead of worrying about meat and other produce in your fridge – which may or may not be cold), using multiple electronics for different purposes (instead of using your iPhone for reading books, alarm cloth, phone, camera, etc. – because what happens once your one gadget dies?), carrying a flashlight, and trying to figure out the electricity schedule in order to charge all your electronics when you can. You can also check what the system is like in the country you’re living in. Some countries even publish a schedule of when the power will be out (like in Ghana) and some are even more tech savvy (Nepal even has an app!).

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Home away from home :)

We all have different conceptions of home and last week, Erin wrote about what home means when you’ve moved your physical location at regular intervals. It got me thinking about what home really meant to me, someone who has had fairly constant physical locations (18 years at my birthplace, followed by 5 years in college and now 2 in Oxford).

And I realised that while home is obviously multi-dimensional, what it really boils down to for me, is that warm, fuzzy feeling of having a solid support system, of knowing that irrespective of whatever may happen, there are people who will stand by me, love me and care for me. This is not to say that all the people who make up my support system make me feel exactly the same way, they don’t. They all contribute differently but together, their love allows me to grow and prosper. But despite the fact that this feeling is not dependent on the physical location of individuals, living away from this very support system is tough.


Nothing like a quaint town full of bookshops to make you feel at home.

So, I got to thinking about the ways in which I have tried to connect with home away from home and here’s what I came up with (aside from actually communicating with friends and family over video/voice calls, of course!).

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What is Home?


Images from places I have lived in the past.

I’ve lived at six different addresses, four different cities, and two different countries since my eighteenth birthday (nine years ago). The first was my parents’ house, a property at the end of Melbourne’s stretch of suburbs adorned with dry grass, lizards, and the smell of eucalyptus. The second and third were at a residential hall affiliated with my university in Canberra. One room I took there for two years was a tiny box in super-utilitarian block which overlooked other tiny boxes and a barbeque area. Then I lived in a share flat on the College premises with four other people and oh, the stories I could tell about that year (I will never forget the experience of opening a freezer and finding a dead pig’s head staring back at me). When we were kicked out of there I lived in another, smaller share flat conveniently located just off-campus where the sun could never convincingly shine through the poorly situated windows. The fifth address was in a hip, inner-city part of Sydney in a townhouse that had been subdivided on a very busy street. The floor boards were a deep brown, the ceilings were high, and technically we had a garden though nothing stayed alive in it for very long (we put it down to pollution, though it may have been a matter of poor gardening).

Now I live on the other side of the world with my partner, in a one bedroom flat in Oxford with double-glazed windows and a bathroom that doesn’t have power points (I’m told this is the British way).

I have a certain fondness for all these places – both for their desired aspects and their (in some cases, multitudinous) flaws. All tingle with familiarity – I can remember where we stored the cutlery and the parts that were hard to reach and how the floor felt on my bare toes – but none are definitively my home.

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Taken for Immigrant-ed

Immigration is a hot-button issue at the moment, so I think it’s time for an important re-labelling. ‘Expatriate’ may sound glamourous in a Lost Generation sort of way, but really it is just a euphemism for ‘immigrant’ – in fact, the dictionary entries for the two words are nearly identical, with some variation on length of stay. Expat seems to be a more temporary state: someone who goes to another country, works, creates, lives and takes their earnings home eventually. ‘Immigrant’ implies a more permanent move: a person who leaves one country and commits himself fully to a new one without plans to leave, therefore stimulating the new economy long-term and making lasting cultural contributions. Surely the latter is more favourable than the former, but immigrant remains a dirty word, expat an exciting one. What is more telling is the example sentences given for each in the dictionary: “they found it difficult to expel illegal immigrants” and “American expatriates in London.” Expats are privileged westerners moving to another country in search of adventure or culture. Immigrants are ethnic minorities looking for opportunity or often fleeing danger in their home countries. In the current xenophobic political climate it is too problematic to continue to use the whitewashed term ‘expat’. Call me an immigrant. And let it be known that other immigrants have as much a right to be here (or there, or wherever) as someone whose Syrian background is much less obvious.

So in this month’s installation let me take you instead to Immigrant Green Tea Club, a foreign culture within a foreign culture I found hiding in the privileged enclave of Hampstead, Northwest London.

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Life as a Traveler vs. Life as an Expat


Walking the streets of Venice, Italy

A lot of people think that traveling the world is very exciting, and it is! It’s interesting to learn about new cultures, it’s fun to try new activities you may have never even heard of, and it’s (sometimes) yummy to try new foods! But when most people picture this around-the-world adventure, they picture traveling as a tourist. Everyone is having fun all the time on vacation, right? That may work for 2-3 weeks, but after that, you will probably start to get tired, and one cathedral just blurs into the next. It can be overwhelming for some people.

Living out of a Suitcase

Say you’re European and have a gap year, where you’re planning to go with your boyfriend on an epic adventure and back-pack around the world. Sounds great! Some people really do love doing this, but I’m not one of them, and I know a lot of people are like me. Living out of a suitcase isn’t always glamorous, and a backpack is even worse! In fact, a lot of these people end up stopping for a month or two in Sucre, Bolivia (where I’m living right now) because it’s a great city to chill, volunteer, and take Spanish classes while regrouping for the next leg of your adventure across South America.

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A little uncertainty is good for everyone

In a few months’ time, my life will be at one of its most important turning points – the transition from a student to a professional, from someone pretending to be an adult and living in fear of being discovered (trust me) to a real person with a real life (whatever that means). And I’m very, very excited about it. But somewhere, a little part of me is sad that this adventure will come to an end.

Growing up, we are taught to value confidence and certainty. We are taught to plan ahead in life, in the short term and the long term. Above all, we are taught to treat the absence of these things as less than ideal, if not as a complete negative. While it can hardly be denied that those are important values to inculcate, my experiences and interactions over the last year and a half have made me realise that it’s equally important to be able to see the value in the opposite.

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This is not how I imagined our first years of marriage

“This is not how I imagined our first years of marriage.”

This is what Thomas told me late one night while talking about the distance between us over the past two years and our uncertain future. When he told me this, his voice was filled with sadness, pain, and a hint of frustration. I’ve written before on this blog about how lucky I am to be in a marriage that has traveled globally and accepted my decision to live in Taiwan for nine months, but that does not mean that my time here has always been smooth sailing.


The hardest period, to my surprise, was when Thomas went to Canada over Christmas. I thought that while he was at home with his family and friends he would not miss me so much. However, surrounded by all of our friends, he could see how their relationships had progressed, some buying a house and some thinking of having kids. I chuckled when he emphasised that some even had a fireplace! It was not that he desperately wanted a house, kids, or even a fireplace, but rather that he envied their stability. He envied their ability to plan ahead with decent certainty, while we are currently separated by a continent. People naively assumed when we got married that we were starting a stable and predictable life. Little did they know… 

Thomas supported me in my decision to study in London and now in Taipei, but that does not mean that deep down he is not saddened but the fact that over the past two years and therefore most of our married life, we have not been able to live under the same roof, save for two months last summer. I know that if he could, he would meet me in whatever city I chose to live in, but currently neither of us have that kind of flexibility.

Now, how does this affect my career path? I’m a logistically oriented gal. I like understanding how things are organised and how plans are made feasible. Sitting at an event organised by the Swiss Office in Taiwan, I couldn’t help but get distracted and think about how the Swiss diplomats got there. What were their families doing? How did they accommodate the various postings of their husband/wife? It’s because of such concerns that I’m having to really question any aspiration of going into the diplomatic service or working for large aid agencies. Both of these career paths would require me to spend more time abroad in areas that would be very hard for Thomas career wise. In no way do I regret my decision to come to Taiwan, however I know that I will not do this again. It would be unfair for Thomas and unpleasant for me to pack my things again and move to another country.

Before moving abroad two years ago, I chatted with family about Thomas and I’s respective fields and our career goals. At that time, several people told me that Thomas or I would have to accommodate the other’s career by sacrificing some of our ideals and that we would not both be able to reach our goals. It was harsh advice and I didn’t really pay attention to it. You always think that you are the exception to the rule. However, I’m finding now that I’ve started to make alterations to my career goals. I’ve taken my aspirations down a notch. There are things that I don’t strive for anymore. One could argue that those things were never really attainable, but it is more the process of choosing to delete these options from my possible career paths which is important here.
I’m therefore re-evaluating my career aspirations based on my relationship, something I promised myself I wouldn’t do. When I naively made myself that promise I thought that my career was the most important thing and that my relationship would always accommodate my choices. Although I know that it would and that Thomas would always support my decisions, I’m now realising that it’s not necessarily what I want. Yes I want a cool job in an area that is interesting, but really the most important thing to me is my relationship. I’m still a strong independent woman, but I’m also recognising what really makes me happy.


Plane sailing

I love flying and always have. Yet, even in my 24 years, I’ve seen changes to the air travel experience – in security, cost, frequency, comfort, style and most notably, entertainment. A few years ago, there was a spate of articles and nostalgic photo galleries celebrating the ‘golden age’ of airlines (namely the 50s, 60s and 70s) when passengers dressed to the nines, chateaubriand was carted through wide aisles, and brightly patterned seats were arranged spaciously. As an appreciator of all things retro, I find these glamourous images drool-worthy. However, that is not the main reason I lament modern flying. Continue reading