Now more than ever, people are seriously considering a life of work and family away from their home countries. The world, as everyone knows and says, has become much smaller. Becoming an expatriate sounds pretty romantic, too, at least in the abstract. After all, who wouldn’t want the money, the travel, the cultural experiences?
Some thirty years in, I’d like to offer a bit of insight into taking your family abroad. Please keep in mind that we chose to do our expat experience in a slightly more local manner – we lived in a district with few other expatriates, and sent our kids to “local” schools – we laughingly refer to ourselves as lopats. I’d like to recommend you try it as well.
Of course, nowadays many countries are no longer considered as “hardship posts”, and companies are therefore not offering the big expat expenses packages that they used to. Case in point, you’re headed to Singapore on contract for a couple of years. Don’t count on the live-in maid, kid’s International School tuition, and car with a driver to be included. Maybe if you’re the CEO, but not on down the food chain.
So be prepared to do the lopat thing, at least in some aspect, and I hope you’ll look at it with a sense of adventure. Living in another country shouldn’t be about trying to find ways to make that place exactly like home. Living amongst only other expats will exclude you from a true local experience. Making friends with only other expats does not broaden the mind, nor improve cultural acceptance.
It’s not always the easiest route, believe me. For instance, navigating a school system unlike the one you came through can be extremely hard. I speak from experience here, our two kids did have a somewhat rougher time in the book-and-board/exam-based Singapore schools. However, it did toughen them up, and I’m proud of the fact that, (through that experience), they’re now both living quite autonomously in a completely different country from us. The lopat life we chose prepared them for this.
What are the best ways to enhance your family’s expat experience? Here’s my top tips:
1) Choose housing within an area not known as “expatriate”. Bonus: It’s probably less expensive.
2) Encourage relationships with locals, for your kids and yourself. Over our years abroad, we were invited to so many different cultural celebrations, (Eid, Depavali, Chinese New Year, and so on), and made lifelong friends through these shared experiences.
3) Enroll your children in the local school system. Ok, this may not always be doable, and is in fact a very daunting task, but even signing your kids up for a few local courses, (maybe language or art classes?), where they interact with local children, will broaden their cultural acceptance.
4) Immerse in the local culture. Spend your free time visiting local hangouts, restaurants, museums, and the like. Try all the food, and encourage your kids to do so as well.
5) Consider skipping your annual holiday in your “home” country, and opt to stay around to find out what happens while you’re usually away. A number of years, we celebrated Christmas in Asia, quite a departure from our norm.
If you look at this as a learning and growing opportunity for the whole family, everyone will benefit in ways you can’t now imagine. Years from now, when you’ve raised a family of self-reliant, resilient, and culture-wise children, you’ll thank yourself for sticking it out…in the local trenches.
The author is an American expatriate, living abroad for more than 30 years in Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, and New Zealand.
*All photos aquired from free image sources