I HAVE often heard it being said that expatriate life is privileged and glamorous.
They have high-paying jobs, live in nice neighbourhoods and send their children to the most expensive international schools, with the bills footed by their companies.
They eat at top restaurants, stay in five-star resorts when vacationing, and mingle with one another at fancy charity balls.
And all the while, they are able to save a huge percentage of their salary, so all in all, the expatriate lifestyle is an enviable one – at least from a financial point of view.
However, there is a much less glamorous side to expatriate life.
Many are actually quite lonely.
When they move to different countries, they have to make friends all over again, and very few have their families close by.
It is even worse for those who travel a lot for work or have to work on project sites.
Depending on the industry, some work for 30 days in a row, typically in a remote location.
Some of my friends and family have been in this situation, and it is something that can be a real burden on one’s personal life.
At the same time, there are many expatriates who move with their families.
Some countries allow the spouse who follows to work; others do not.
What this means is that some people have to leave their job to follow their partners.
Suddenly, they find themselves alone and not a part of any social circle.
Partners drifting apart and divorce are common when the job takes its toll on personal relationships.
Of course, those expatriates who manage to make friends and integrate would be less lonely.
But even that is difficult as “locals” know that these expatriates will likely leave in a couple of years, so why bother getting close to them?
Depending on the country, there are also often cultural and language barriers that make it difficult for expatriates to integrate.
Another barrier is security. In places where there are security issues, expatriates often have to live in a compound built by the company to keep them safe.
While it is a plus that the company takes care of its employees by providing safe housing, the downside is that people living in these compounds are all your colleagues.
Imagine living next door to your boss, and right across the street from you is that colleague you cannot stand.
You not only have to interact with them at work; you also have to see them in your free time.
That is often the reality for many expatriates.
One may think that after years of living overseas, expatriates would want to return to their home countries.
This is true for some, but others have trouble reintegrating.
Once back home, their salary is usually lower and they are not seen as being exotic or special anymore.
Rather than drawing looks of interest and attention for being a mat salleh in the kampung, for example, they go back to being anonymous – just one of many.
And probably, even more importantly, expatriates who have been abroad for a long period of time often find themselves coming back to a society that they do not necessarily recognise anymore.
Expatriates change from living overseas, so they may not feel completely at ease when they return home.
More often than not, they find themselves not understanding why they cannot connect with the people with whom they were once so close.
For many who have lived overseas, the people with whom they have the most in common are those who have also lived abroad.
Nationality and being in the same ethnic or cultural group matter less in terms of finding common ground.
Being an expatriate may create some distance from one’s own culture, but at the same time, it may open up many more exciting opportunities to meet different people and explore different places around the world.
A creative and adventurous American who has found a beautiful life and love in Malaysia.