8 Colossal Benefits of Expat Life

8 Benefits of Expat Life

Sometimes expat life IS all it’s cracked up to be.

Last week I posted about 8 Ways Expat Life Sucks Worse Than Puppy Cancer, and I meant every word. But I also said I wouldn’t trade my expat experience for the world, and I meant that, too. So for the sake of balance, I thought I’d post about the benefits of expat life, cause there are many.

1)  You’ll Get To See The World

This one’s super obvious, but it still needs to be said. If you want to travel, but you’ve been blowing all your hard-earned cash on lifelike replicas of your ding-a-ling because you have a lot of people on your Christmas list, expat life is for you! Just before I entered discussions to take an overseas contract, my wife and I were discussing how much we wanted to bring our kids to South Africa on a vacation. We had visited several years ago, and we fell in love with the country.

But because kids are awful and ruin all your plans, dreams, and ambitions, we decided against a South African vacation. We’d pay full price for the kids, and they, in turn, would more than likely make us regret it for the rest of their lives. And as a bonus, they wouldn’t even remember any of it when they grew up.

And then, suddenly, we were not only able to visit South Africa, but we were able to stay for an extended period of time, AND we’ve been getting PAID for our trip. I’m still waiting to wake up.

My scenario isn’t unique- expats all over the world love their temporary homes and make the most of the local (and surrounding) culture, scenery, and lifestyle.

2) You’ll Be More Popular Than You Deserve

If you’re British and you show up in Canada, I promise we won’t even notice your crazy teeth or the fact you let your single greatest achievement as a nation – the Spice Girls – break up. To be honest, your accent is so charming and sexy that you could walk into my office, drop a giant steaming dump on my desk and tell me that you’re a big Justin Bieber fan, and I’d be totally cool with it. And we have the same accent infatuation with people from Australia, South Africa, Sweden, etc.

As a North American, it never really occurred to me that I had an accent, let alone one that would be “cool.” Look- I’m the first to admit I’m patently NOT cool. I’ve never been able to pick out decent sunglasses, and I value the pure practicality of fanny packs. They used to have “National Beat On Phil” days in high school. Every day. That kind of thing doesn’t happen to cool kids.

But I’ll tell you what- the second I start talking here in South Africa all bets are off. I get compliments on my accent at LEAST once a week, like it’s something I can control. Being different can open doors for you, whether it’s in your job or in your social life.

I get that won’t be the case for everybody in every country, but chances are, the second your plane touches down you’ll be more popular and attractive than you have the right to be.

3) You’ll Become Closer to Your Family (Probably)

When we landed in South Africa, we knew literally nobody except each other. It’s funny how that kind of jarring isolation can bring you together. Everything is new and exciting (at least at first), and you’re doing it all with your family (if you’re a single expat, I have no point of reference. Skip this and go to number 4). While I certainly didn’t hate my wife and kids when we were in Canada, I definitely stepped back and realised how much I actually loved and appreciated them when they were all I had. And now that we’ve been here for a year and have new friends and social lives, that feeling hasn’t gone away.

Of course, there’s a lot of stress that comes with expat life, and sometimes that stress leads to families falling apart, but thankfully that’s not the norm.

4) You’ll Become a Better Person

I know what you’re thinking- “How did Phil improve on perfection?” And I’ll admit, it wasn’t easy. My list of faults was limited to one item (my wife might disagree, but luckily she has no input on this blog whatsoever): I’m not very patient. I HATE waiting in lines, and I HATE when people make me wait for something because they’re not good at their jobs. Guess what’s in abundant supply in South Africa?

The first several months here were more frustrating than repeatedly punching your finger through one-ply toilet paper the day after burrito night. I was angry. A lot. But then something happened- one day I realised I was waiting in a line at a store, watching as the cashier screwed everything up and having to call the manager over several times, and I wasn’t even mildly annoyed. I had adapted.

And this newfound patience had bled over into other parts of my life as well. Waiting for my kids to put on their shoes doesn’t almost end up with me in the newspaper the next day. Being on hold doesn’t end up with me devoting hours every week to mailing envelopes full of garbage to corporate offices. I’ve learned to relax a little.

Your experiences will vary, of course, but I can guarantee that in some small way, you’ll likely become a better person.

5) You’ll Learn What (and Who) is Important to You

When you bugger off across the world, it’s incumbent on YOU, not your friends, to keep communication open. After all, you’re the jerkwad who decided to leave. Back home, life continues. And even though you may try, you won’t be able to keep in touch with everyone. Some people will fall by the wayside. This isn’t a bad thing!

We’ve all got those friends we keep around but have no idea why. This is the perfect opportunity to ditch them. And there probably won’t even be any hard feelings, which is awesome.

When friends actually do make the effort to figure out your time zone and call you, that person’s a keeper. While I don’t get upset at the ones who don’t call, the friends that do remind me why they’re so important to me.

As cliche as this sounds, you’ll also find out who you are as a person. You’ll find out what values you hold dear and what beliefs you’re willing to adjust. This is all positive.

6)  You’ll Gain Perspective

I was born in Canada. I’m a straight, white, middle-class male. Anyone in my position who denies they’ve won the privilege lottery is a complete and utter nincomboob. Yes, I’ve worked incredibly hard for what I have, but others have to work harder every day, and they may or may not enjoy the same quality of life I do. It’s easy to make risky decisions that could have huge rewards if you have a safe place to land. We’re all playing the game, but I’m playing it in beginner mode while billions have defaulted to expert setting. And I’ve always been aware of that- at least from a North American perspective. Then I moved to South Africa.

In Canada, there are several disadvantaged groups who have the cards stacked against them, making it very difficult to succeed. In South Africa, it’s straight up impossible for millions to succeed. Unemployment, poverty, and institutionalized racism are still rampant (I’m going to lose readers for that last sentence, but it’s true). I could list all kinds of examples, but take the time to read for yourself from the Statistics South Africa website.

Because of the generous donations of team members from my company in Canada, I was able to bring a pile of school supplies to South Africa in the container with all my household contents. I worked with people from my kids’ school to donate the supplies to needy kids, and it broke my heart to see the conditions of the schools. One of them had no running water because there was no municipal budget to fix the water pump. All were extremely overcrowded. And all were filled with enthusiastic learners. I couldn’t help but think of all the times I complained about going to school under near-perfect conditions.

I know I’ve gained a new appreciation for everything I’m fortunate enough to have, and possessions are among the least of them. Both my parents are still alive. I was able to go to university, I have my health, and I’ve never gone hungry because I couldn’t afford to eat.

While my experience has been moving from Canada to South Africa, I’m willing to wager virtually all expats, no matter where they’re from and where they are, can now name several things they didn’t realise they were grateful for.

7) You’ll Boost Your CV

If your company thinks you’re valuable enough to send you to another country, they also think you’re valuable enough to hang onto when you get home. And in the meantime, you’ll have shown dedication, developed your skill set, and grown as an individual. I mentioned in my last post that my company didn’t guarantee me a position when I got home. I also mentioned they’ll do everything in their power to make a spot for me. It’s not in any company’s best interest to throw a butt ton of cash your way (including your relocation expenses, home leave, etc) just to cut you loose at the end of it. They sent you overseas because they wanted to develop you and reap the benefits of their investment down the line.

That being said, even if you aren’t able to return to your original company, having an expat assignment under your belt is great for your CV. Potential employers notice that kind of crap because if somebody else saw that much value in you, they’re going to want to take a closer look. Any way you slice it, being an expat can certainly help your long-term career options.

8) You’ll Constantly Be Surprised (In A Good Way)

I know I rip on South Africa a lot. It’s almost too easy. But I do it in the same way I mock my friends (and my mother-in-law, who I razz mercilessly). And it’s because I love them, as I love South Africa.

But amid all the insanity, all the frustrations, and all the straight up WTF, I’m constantly reminded why I became smitten with this country to begin with. All it takes is one amazing customer-service interaction to negate all the times you experienced mind-blowing incompetence. You’ll come to expect exasperation, and then someone will go so far out of their way to help you that you feel bad for ever losing your patience to begin with.

Constant amazement is common in expats I’ve talked to. Just when you think you understand how things work, you’ll realize there’s so much more to discover, explore, and understand in your host country. And that couldn’t be more true than in South Africa.

In almost every way, South Africa is a country of extremes. For every negative aspect, there is something wonderful right around the corner. The natural beauty will never cease to take your breath away. The kindness of most people here is like nothing you’ve ever experienced. Even though the country has been beaten down, it’s still resolute. The people, and even the very soul of South Africa is more determined than ever to turn this country into the best place on earth. And they will.

So there you have it. While this list isn’t exhaustive by any means, it’s a start. Tell me what YOU’D add in the comments.

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About the Author

I’ve been many things. A university English instructor, a picker upper of dead bodies, a musician, and a sales guy. My work brought me and my family from Vancouver, Canada to Pretoria, South Africa in September 2016, and I’m still wondering how that happened. I started this blog mostly because my friends back in Canada kept asking me how things were in South Africa, and posting about my experiences seemed more efficient than repeating myself hundreds of times. Maple and Marula is a way for me to make sense of my new surroundings as an expat who has no idea what I’m doing.

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  1. Phil, you are killing me! My aspiration is to one day come up with similes even just half as good as yours. Is it similes? I never know. But I know a good sentence when I see one: “The first several months here were more frustrating than repeatedly punching your finger through one-ply toilet paper the day after burrito night. “

    1. Haha- sometimes I wish my language wasn’t as colourful…you may not believe this, but my mouth gets me into trouble. A lot.

  2. While I have never emigrated or attained ex-pat status, I did pack up an entire household and send its contents to the coast, leaving behind my beloved Jozi. I then put the cats in storage…oops, I mean kennels…and drove my daughter, her dog, and the batshit cray parrot in the car and drove us cross-country to our new place.
    Call it a semigration. Left behind family, security, familiarity, friends, etc, blah-blah.

    I really can identify with your sense of wonder (and occasional bafflement) even if it is within the borders of this amazing place.

    As my daughter gasped, when we stopped at the viewsite on the Outeniqua mountain pass on the final leg of our journey, “It’s another country!”

    1. Haha- you brought a PARROT on a road trip? I’ve never accused South Africans of being sane…

      Also, for some reason your comment ended up being filtered into my spam folder and I just saw it now. My apologies! Just checked out your blog and I love it- I’ve signed up for updates.

  3. Hi Phil. My wife and I are moving over permanently in the European summer next year to Cape Town (where she’s originally from, many years ago) and this collection is a huge help for me- many thanks to you and the other bloggers like Sine. Best, Nick

    1. I’m glad there’s some helpful stuff hidden in all the other crap I post, Nick! I’ve got to admit, I’m a little jealous. I only have 3 more years left before I have to leave. I’d stay if I could!

  4. Sanity is over-rated.

    The parrot rather enjoyed her trip, she’s probably one of the more well-travelled parrots in the country. The fact that she speaks a strange patois of English-German-Afrikaans (don’t ask) is only rivalled by her ability to mimic the chirp of a domestic burglar-alarm being activated. Sends tradespeople and random staffpersons into a small flap as they suddenly assume one false move will cause the alarm to trigger and have the armed response guys pouring over the wall to cuff them and do body-cavity searches….

    Glad you like my blog – and I understand the randomness of spam folders only too well.

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