Ex-Pat Living: What are the Markers for Success?

As we’ve been talking about repatriating, and all the issues that go along with leaving an adopted home to come back to a strangely different home than we left, and being different ourselves, I got to thinking about what makes a successful expat in the first place, and what qualities cause/allow some to thrive and others to barely survive or, sometimes, even flee?suitcases 3

In my travels I have seen plenty of scenarios, watching others come and go for a decade.

Here are a few examples. Take Dave and Sheila who, though raised in a small community of less than 2000 people today (imagine what it was 70 years ago!), jumped in with both feet and owned their place in the expat community, and everyone was grateful for the pleasures they brought to our lives.

Another, a public servant brought his family to Baku and stayed after his tour of duty was over, starting a lucrative business. His wife stayed for a while traveling, taking art tours and so on, then went home to resume life in the states caring for aging relatives.

A corporate couple made friends, partied and worked hard, but eventually the wife spent more and more time flying to Dubai to shop and escape the lack of comforts and accommodations, then she just faded away before anyone realized she had repatriated for good.

In each case the husband’s* business decision brought the family to Azerbaijan. (*Note: These examples could just as easily have been the other way around as well;  I knew several females who were transferees. For the sake of continuity, I’ll stick with these three families for the examples).

  • With Dave and Sheila, they came on their own dime, with no support and no transition training, although prior work in nearby Kuwait and Saudi Arabia gave them a good background.
  • The Public servant had the benefit of strong support, being required to take language training and culture briefings, plus they had been stationed in the region for several high ranking posts before and had a strong affinity for the area. The wife had done many charity projects and had success heading a student exchange group in a previous post.
  • The Corporate couple had not been in the region before but did have company support. In the early days both husband and wife worked for the company, she in HR and he as the country manager. He established a base for the company and she built the office and staff. Once her staff was established, though, she stopped working rather than create a conflict of interest.
Man on a Mission, Prepared for the Challenge

Man on a Mission, Prepared for the Challenge

I think there are some observations that can be made about these examples. I don’t mean to generalize and say all will fall into these patterns- these are only observations for thought and discussion, why or why not:

1. ) In each of these cases, the husbands came with a clear mission and responsibilities. Each of the wives participated with the same mission,  finding their part in that plan.

2.) The husbands were able to maintain this structure even through transition to retirement or maturing a business office. The wives had a more difficult time as the mission changed and their role changed in relation  to success.

3.) Each of the husbands had his world with him- family, home, work, colleagues. Each of the wives looked for satisfaction in additional ways- ladies lunches/groups, projects, alcohol, travel, shopping, more frequent visits home and even just staying home stateside, dealing with a split family for a time.

Inexpensive plastic surgery, exotic body treatments, affairs, drug use- any of the escape mechanisms available stateside were also available as expats (male or female). Extra income made some of these pitfalls more available. This is the side we don’t like to acknowledge but will admit that temptations and self-soothing exist.

What Can We Do To Prepare for Success in Our ExPat Life?

World Map: What Can We Do To Prepare for l;ife abroad?

What Can We Do To Prepare?

These are “differentiators” that I saw:

Dave & Shelia had strong home ties, people who could help solve problems or send supplies to ease the transition issues. They also understood the region and their place in it. They chose to be entrepreneurs and problem solvers, working with local people to build businesses (yes, plural).

The Public Servant built ties in the area that sustained them in retirement. They had a long term family plan and worked for years to make it happen.

The Corporate Couple had the roughest transition start, but they were sympathetic to each other’s needs and dealt with issues one by one as they came up. Fortunately money was available for travel and excursions for the wife. Had the budget been tight, had they had children, it could have easily frayed the relationship. Oddly enough, not having children was part of the problem- not feeling part of the community.

To me, one of the strongest similarities in all these stories is that each family knew who they were- entrepreneuer, financial planner with a goal, up and coming executive. They kept the mission in focus and didn’t make the challenges personal.

What's in Your Baggage? (Suitcase, Baggage metaphor)

What’s in Your Baggage?

Deciding when to come home was more difficult. Each had settled in along different pathways. When enough was enough was sometimes dictated by strong health issues, the desire to have children or to have children in different schools. The differentiator here is communication, being able to say “I would really like to do X” and listening to the conversation for real and potential hurdles.

It isn’t necessarily any easier being a single expat just as being an expat family has its pros and cons too. This is a fascinating subject, one I am so glad is being discussed freely among movers and returners.

This is a great time to be exploring the world, as the internet can bring resources as close as your fingertips. Just please don’t tie yourself to the interweb world at the expense of the “real” world.

One “mistake” I see now that I made, one that Naomi Hattaway (Box 53b  and Project #WorldColors/#WorldColours) , and Anne Lowery (Part Time Traveler and on Facebook ) have shown me through their photography, was burying myself in my work and not taking advantage of opportunities to take more photographs of  people and places. I was abroad before the internet was widely in use and photos were still film based. Some of the few photos I did take, got lost before being scanned. More is the pity in that sense.

So, what Life Lessons have you learned?   What would you like to have a ‘do over’ for, if you could?  I’m interested in hearing your perspectives on this and other life lessons you’ve observed in your journey.

13 thoughts on “Ex-Pat Living: What are the Markers for Success?

  1. Great reflective post. Lifts the lid on the multitude of reasons people choose to go expat but also the importance of having a clear plan with anticipated outcomes before you go. Planning and adapting are a key part of the success, as well as you rightly articulate, not personalising every challenge that comes your way.


    • So true, Jacqui. I agree- planning together if you’re going with a partner, keeping an open mind for adapting – these are so important. And, as you say, not personalising every challenge. That last bit may be the hardest thing of all to do but critical to success overall.


  2. Hi Jonelle, I agree that having a shared common purpose is a must. There needs to be an overall partner/family objective on which you are agreed, and this means that the relocation decision needs to be openly considered and discussed even argued about until that joint understanding is reached. I know from personal experience when things have not been good abroad we have always pointed to our “reasons why”. These sustain us but also mean that when things change, as life always does, we have a yardstick against which to measure our experience and when our situation no longer makes sense or our reasons why change then we know it is time to re-evaluate and move on.


    • Great reflections, Louise! You’re absolutely right that every “decision needs to be openly considered and discussed even argued about” if need be. I sense that sometimes partners don’t want to rock the boat when it comes to voicing their feelings. You were wise to ground your decision and discussions in that shared “why”.

      I feel like I made every mistake on the list and am finally now figuring out what happened, cause and effect. I see now the choices and outcomes more clearly linked.

      One of Judy Rickatson’s posts on LinkedIn this week led to an older post that was like a light bulb for me last night (http://crossculturalinsights.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/the-early-days-after-a-relocation/).

      Even after all this time, I am still seeing new things, and still learning about how to make the choices that contribute (not guarantee, but contribute) to success. A never ending process… Thanks for your input!


  3. A thought-provoking post to get aspiring, current and former expats mulling over the key points. As Louise mentions, change is inevitable (as the wife in the corporate example learned firsthand), and you have to be willing, able and interested in continually building/fine-tuning your life abroad, especially as friends, jobs and opportunities come and go, and/or children graduate..


    • Thank you, Linda. Absolutely agree on change being inevitable! I hope these vignettes highlight the wide range of potential changes, and the need to be open and, as Jacqui added earlier, adaptable. The ability to be “willing, able and interested in continually building/fine-tuning” without also “personalising every challenge” is a fine line but a very rewarding place to get to. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.


  4. The fact that situations change over time for expats is rarely discussed. Sending organizations may offer support initially, but after that the expat family usually has to fend for themselves as everyone believes they have adapted and that’s the end of it. Even for normal life changes – parents returning to work as the children grow, empty nest syndrome, aging parents – living in another country and culture adds a layer of complexity. It takes real resilience to be a successful long-term expat.


  5. Judy- You’re spot on about how change affects us and the need for the sending group to continue to keep in touch, ensuring that resilience is evident.It’s surprising that relatively few companies get that, given the costs for a firm to send personnel.

    The beauty of these discussions and organizations like FIGT (http://www.figt.org/) is that it gets the comments and experiences into online history that expats and companies alike can refer back to as they revise policies and procedures. This is a great start- and the more we share, the more opportunities for others to benefit.

    Thanks for highlighting this!


  6. Pingback: Expat Authority - Where to now! - Expat Authority

  7. I’m really inspired along with your writing abilities as well as with the layout to your weblog.
    Is that this a paid subject or did you modify it yourself?
    Anyway stay up the nice high quality writing, it’s rare to see a great blog like this one these days..|


    • Thank you for the kind words. All writers appreciate encouragement for hard work, no matter how we enjoy the process. Life Lessons is built on the Nishita theme from WordPress, which I customised with color palette and background photo, stretched and tiled to form the abstract background. I’m not a web designer and had little experience, so I was pleased that WordPress was easy to customise for free. Thanks again for the question and thoughts.


  8. Pingback: My Best Ex-Pat Repatriation Tip: Viewing “Home” Through Ex-Pat Eyes | Life Lessons

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