If you read a lot of this blog you notice that I often use the word “expat” or “expatriate“. This word gets thrown around so much for foreigners that I think the true meaning has become watered down and altered from its original intent. The truth is that a large number of people who live overseas for a short time, even who are simply traveling through, have started to use these words to describe themselves, as if it is a fad or romantic notion. Maybe it has to do with the Lost Generation, or the idea of being the next Hemingway or Fitzgerald, sitting in some dank cafe and writing the next novel that high school kids all over the country will be forced to read. Personally, I think this is a mistake.
Merriam-Webster defines expatriate as “living in a foreign land.” There is no distinction to time or place, which leaves open the idea that anyone who spends a couple of days somewhere is living, thus making them an expat. But as educated people, we know this is not the case. I am an expat by my own standards, which include living in a foreign land, working long term in that country, and doing day to day things like waiting in line for the bus or supermarket. Boring things like that which make life what it is.
It’s certainly possible to take taxis everywhere and go out drinking and dancing six nights a week in real life, but not entirely common. I have no problem with the idea of living abroad for a few weeks, and I actually think it’s a great way to get to know a place. But I just don’t think that you can call someone an expat for doing so. I remember as a kid taking family vacations to a place, we’d often rent out a cottage in Cape Cod or a condo somewhere else. But having a house rather than a hotel didn’t make us any different. We were still tourists.
The reason that I call attention to it is because I think there’s a misconception that being an expat is glorious and amazing. If you can earn dollars or euros while living in South America, for example, you’re golden. But making pesos and getting charged in dollars, for another example, makes life fairly difficult. Unless you get involved with expat circles, you could struggle, like I have, to find local friends or make meaningful relationships. It takes time but is certainly possible, but you have to be there long enough to see it through. The language barrier will definitely make things more difficult. There are groups like BAexpats where you can link up for advice or to meet other foreigners overseas.
For me, an expat will always be someone who works overseas and lives a regular life, just removed from where they grew up or were born. It can be a lonely and challenging lifestyle, but those of us who do it believe that it’s worthwhile in the end.