By Joshua Wood
The expatriate experience is one that evokes many emotions at all phases of the journey. There are many elements to any relocation, and an international assignment is certainly the most complicated. Most expatriates, however, find themselves willing to do just about anything to remain overseas when their initial term abroad comes to a close.
The process one goes through when considering his or her first relocation to another country is fraught with excitement and apprehension. Both the positive and negative aspects weigh heavily on what seems to be - and is - a life-changing decision.
Questions abound as the prospect of moving abroad is considered. What is it like to live in another country? Can I hack it outside the comforts of life in my native country? Will my career suffer or benefit? What about the effects on my family? All of these issues and more shape the mindset of the potential expatriate.
Once the assignment has been accepted and the move completed, the long process of adjustment begins. Culture shock becomes a reality as immersion into a new society intrigues, bewilders and sometimes even frightens the newly arrived expatriate. Eventually, however, most move through their cultural adaptations and homesickness into a larger world of personal growth not possible in their former lives.
Individuals outside their home country are introduced to a variety of people, experiences and ideas. Many will often begin to question long-held beliefs and values that have shaped their sense of personal identity for many years. Over time, research indicates that most expatriates (77%) are so content abroad that they would rather take another expatriate assignment with a new employer than accept a domestic position with their current company.(1) An even greater number (87%) of expatriates would accept another international position by their existing employer.(2)
ExpatExchange.com decided to find out why it is that the majority of expatriates feel this way, and also to gain some understanding why the minority of expatriates were so turned off by their experiences abroad.
Perhaps the most widely cited reason by ExpatExchange.com members was the excitement of living abroad. Once settled into their new homes, the positive experiences seem to far outweigh the negative aspects of the expatriate experience. One expatriate has extended her assignment and feels that "there is so much to experience. Why limit yourself to one country?"
Others seem to feel that to move back to their home country would mean an end to a sense of "connectedness" established while living abroad. An ExpatExchange.com member in France notes that "the thought of moving back to the States gives me the impression of closing myself off from the world" and that "the values of the culture in which I'm immersed... would be hard to leave behind."
Interestingly, some expatriates that were at times treated poorly or unfairly in their adoptive countries are entirely resistant to the notion of returning home. One ExpatExchange.com member noted that "my difficult experience in the Middle East changed my life for the better and now I want to live abroad for the rest of my years."
There is, however, a minority of expatriates that do not enjoy their experiences abroad. As many as 20% of expatriates return early from their assignment, which can be a very costly experience for their employer.(3) Not only does the firm have to ship the expat and his or her family home, but also find a replacement and send them abroad. An early return home can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Over the course of the last several years, ExpatExchange.com has talked to dozens of HR professionals that manage expatriates, and very few will discuss the assignment failures in their programs, let alone disclose actual figures.
One expat who had a bad experience overseas adamantly states that he would never take another assignment. He had an accident and was subjected to poor medical care. Worse, the court system in the country in which he was living made it next to impossible to seek redress of his grievances. Such experiences seem to be commonplace among those that are more than happy to return to their home country and not eager to leave again any time soon.
Others simply return home after their first assignment, are content with the experience, but have no desire to continue to live abroad. The constant upheaval in their lives seems a bit much to handle on a regular basis. One expat had reservations about having friends coming in and out of her life and living away from her family as her parents grow older. However, she did envision the possibility of finding a "husband in the U.S. who would be open to living abroad should [she] still have the travel bug."
And the majority of expatriates do seem unable to rid themselves of that urge to travel. Even some of those who return home for business reasons, whether by order or self-imposition, often wish they could stay longer or have family members that want to continue their expatriate experience.
One woman offered that she and her daughter "would like to have stayed another 1-2 years or gone on to another assignment. My husband felt, for business reasons, that he had been 'out of sight, out of mind'... from the corporate office long enough."
More than anything it seems that most expatriates quite simply can't imagine finding the range of experiences and individuals they enjoy abroad in their old lives back home. Even when other reasons are cited, such as career development, the level of enthusiasm takes a precipitous decline. Cultural interactions and opportunities for personal growth seem to lie around every corner, and most people sent abroad by their employers are eager to find any way to continue the expatriate lifestyle at the end of their first assignment - even if that means leaving their current positions or company.
One expat said that she and her husband "enjoy expanding [their] personal world and learning about and experiencing new cultures first hand. It has made both of us more tolerant and patient. We are more respectful of other ideas and ways of living." She may have said it best, however, when she observed that "we all share a genetic heritage but our wanderings have added nuances of individuality... the differences make us interesting and that is why the expat life is so exciting!"
1 - "Maximizing Your Expatriate Investment," a study sponsored by The National Foreign Trade Council, World at Work and Cigna International Expatriate Benefits.
2 - "Maximizing Your Expatriate Investment," a study sponsored by The National Foreign Trade Council, World at Work and Cigna International Expatriate Benefits.
3 - "Maximizing Your Expatriate Investment," a study sponsored by The National Foreign Trade Council, World at Work and Cigna International Expatriate Benefits.
About the Author
Joshua Wood joined Expat Exchange in 2000. His areas of responsibility include creative aspects of the community, research, sales and business development. Joshua received his Master's Degree in Clinical and Counseling Psychology from Fairleigh Dickinson University and graduated from Syracuse University with a BA in English Textual Studies.
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First Published: Jan 28, 2003