Tough decision: life abroad vs. staying at home
June 20, 2011 4:52 PM   Subscribe

Fellow expats: Need some advice! Weighing the travel/stability/benefits of my current career choice vs. the personal costs of a transient expat lifestyle

About a year ago, I took a job with a federal agency that, over the course of my career, will likely require me to move between various overseas locations every couple of years. I'm currently living in the US, but am planning to head overseas and start this moving around in another year or so.

The job is great - interesting work, low stress, fantastic pay, and solid career stability to boot. And the travel isn't bad either - I spent a couple of years living overseas in my late 20s and have been itching to try it again.

Problem is, I've been having some nagging doubts lately. As cool as traveling is (and as much as I enjoy it!), it seems that this particular choice of lifestyle requires some big sacrifices - particularly when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Family back home isn't seen as often, friendships tend to come and go, and romantic relationships seem to be almost impossible to pursue when you know you're going to end up moving eventually. I've learned how to deal with the first two points, but the last point is proving to be rather hard to accept (long story behind this), and is what ultimately made me start questioning my choice. Now I'm wondering if I should continue chasing the dream - or just forget it, buy a condo and a dog, and settle down like all my other single friends.

So fellow travel-crazed expats, I'm curious - did you find a way to balance the awesomeness of living in exotic lands and seeing the world with the hardship of not having deep lifelong connections? If so, how? And if you were single, did you manage to meet someone along the way who shared your dream of adventure and was willing to build a life with you, despite your lack of roots or a permanent home?

Thanks and look forward to any advice. Feel free to MeMail me if you'd prefer :)
posted by photo guy to Human Relations (33 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

So fellow travel-crazed expats, I'm curious - did you find a way to balance the awesomeness of living in exotic lands and seeing the world with the hardship of not having deep lifelong connections?

Might be different since I'm here permanently, but when I first moved to Australia I talked to literally everyone. It was easier since I was at college, but a simple "Hi, I'm photo guy, I'm an American" will do wonders.

Assuming your name is accurate, its even easier when you're carrying a camera at a club.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:28 PM on June 20, 2011

I don't see the problem? Senhora Quijano was first encountered in Saudi Arabia, a most unpromising environment, and has been my spouse through innumerable lands and situations.
posted by alonsoquijano at 5:29 PM on June 20, 2011

You seem to assume that buying a dog and a condo will magically result in finding a partner, in particular one who will never present the same dilemma because he or she has to move across the country for a job relocation, an academic posting, or an ailing parent. All buying a condo means is that you are tied to one place.

Speaking for myself, I met my husband as an expat. Time wasn't really a critical factor; we were married less than two years after we met. Being self employed, we both have the kind of jobs where we could have followed each other anywhere; as it happens, we picked up and moved to a 3rd country. My sisters, on the other hand, both live 10 blocks from where we grew up in The World's Biggest Dating Market, and neither has of yet found someone to settle down with.

I don't know what to tell you (besides "date freelancers") because this is, as I see it, a false dichotomy. It's hard to find a lifetime partner regardless of the circumstances. I'm not convinced that changing your circumstances will solve the problems you seem to think it will.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:33 PM on June 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

AS someone who'd kill for a good paying, secure, interesting government job right now, I'm probably projecting my own desires, but I wouldn't give it up, especially since you actually like the job. If you were miserable that would change things.

I don't mean to downplay the interpersonal issues, however I don't think that going abroad necessarily means that you won't meet someone. Conversely, you could quit, stay wherever you are, and still not meet anyone. Maybe you'd find another job that was just as good, and maybe you wouldn't. A third option that I'd throw out is to try it for a couple of years. If you don't meet anyone and feel that your personal life is taking too great a hit, you could come back, perhaps to a better economy with some international experience on your resume. I guess this would be partially dependent upon your age, but it seems like a win-win to me.
posted by kaybdc at 5:38 PM on June 20, 2011

Glad some people with first hand experience are piping up - you don't need to sacrifice personal relationships as an expat. I mean, it IS hard to go home to the parents' house for Christmas. But I have several friends who have met their spouses / long-term SO's when they were both living abroad as expats. Sometimes you continue bouncing around the world together, sometimes you decide to settle down (back home or elsewhere), but the relationship can work out.
posted by rkent at 5:43 PM on June 20, 2011

a) What other people said, i.e. being an expat doesn't preclude finding a romantic partner.

b) It's harder to move into a traveling lifestyle once you've settled down with someone, and possibly had a child or children. So I think it's harder on everyone all around if you find a partner *after* settling down with a dog and a condo, and then realize a few years later that you really miss the expat life, while your partner, your dog, and your condo are totally unsuited to that lifestyle.
posted by bardophile at 5:53 PM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: "did you find a way to balance the awesomeness of living in exotic lands and seeing the world with the hardship of not having deep lifelong connections? "

this is a false dichotomy. in fact, i'd argue that you figure out pretty quickly which ones *are* deep lifelong connections because you don't always have the artifice of proximity.

i'm and expat from the US who met my husband (an expat from South Africa) in London. we're now in the process of expatting to Canada.

yes, i've missed a lot - i've not been there for the births of any of my nieces or nephews, i nearly missed my grandfather's funeral due to an ash cloud. my husband missed his gran's funeral because we were in Laos at the time.

but your priorities become a lot clearer, and the important things become that much dearer. and there's nothing that says any of it has to be permanent!

try it. if it doesn't suit you, you can always move back home.
posted by wayward vagabond at 5:56 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a number of friends who have met their spouses while teaching ESL or traveling. Following your career (that you love) abroad isn't a death sentence for your social life. I'm not currently an expat but as a traveler I wish I could date people who were into travel like me and I have a group of single female American "travel friends" who feel the same way. Meeting someone who appreciates travel is key and I'd worry that if you settled down into your condo you'd get that itch and be upset that you're stuck.

So I say go, but in the meantime try to meet travel-minded folks in D.C. I know they're out there, my single friend in D.C. just got back from Egypt for work and is heading to Afghanistan later this year. Perhaps there are meetups or organizations that would help you meet like-minded people.
posted by Bunglegirl at 6:00 PM on June 20, 2011

Expat communities are weird, for sure, but there is a great deal of dating within them at all age ranges.

As someone that formerly lived abroad and had all the adventure and now is home in the U.S. with a spouse and a kid and pets, I'd say do it while you can.
posted by k8t at 6:01 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

You don't even need to meet someone where you are. One of my best friend did internet dating in NY while she was still living in London. She ended up hooking up with a Mexican national working in NYC. They married, had a kid, lived in Brooklyn... then moved to Singapore for his work. If you want to find that permanent person in your life, go out there and get her/him. Especially if you are upfront with what you expect out of life, I think people would be cool with it.
posted by tk at 6:26 PM on June 20, 2011

I lived overseas for two years, and I found that my family members made friends quickly. It's different than moving to someplace where everyone is already established. Instead, you move someplace where lots of folks are new, where lots of people are looking to connect (as friends or romantic partners). And this doesn't necessarily mean that the relationships are shallow. I moved back to the US almost two years ago, and stayed in touch with some expat friends who are only now moving back to the US. But I feel closer to them than others I've known for longer.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:15 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I lived life a bit backwards - had the house with a picket fence and a big dog, all the while finding no one compatible and very much single. Then in my mid-30's (gasp) I up and left for an expat opportunity and lived abroad for two years, and found the love of my life.

14 years, seven moves, three geographies, and three kids later, we're still going strong, and I don't regret for a minute the opportunity and eye-opening experiences that living abroad can offer.

I do remember clearly though, the heartache of missing some very small things about life in the US (like going to a huge bookstore with selection galore, or a supermarket with fresh fruit and vegetables, or even something as mundane as a public water fountain in a park that actually works).
posted by scooterdog at 7:28 PM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

You're in one place for a couple years. A lot can happen in two years. How is this going to stop you from pursuing a romantic relationship? And keep in mind, if you meet someone and fall and love and don't want to keep moving around, you can always give your job up then.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:30 PM on June 20, 2011

I'm not an expat, but I have several close friends who did/do the expat life or who live in NYC and travel very extensively (60-80% of the time). Of my friends, one lived overseas for two years, and then came back to the US to be closer to family/friends. She took a job here with very heavy travel (70% or so), which she ended up quitting after a year or so because she couldn't build a life anywhere and it was making her miserable. She met someone great and eventually decided she wanted to have a relationship, friends, and time with her nieces that she couldn't have on that travel schedule. She quit, took a domestic job, and didn't travel at all except to see her family for four years. She's now working in a job with just a bit of overseas travel and is really happy with that choice; she's been able to build the relationship she wanted and have the family time and friend time she needed. Another has stuck with the heavy travel schedule and hasn't had a relationship in the eight years I've known her; she's lonely. A third moved overseas with her then-boyfriend for a year (who also liked to travel) and is now married and settled in that country, several years later. A fourth met someone a couple of months before he was supposed to leave the US and ended up staying here; he's quite happy with that decision.

So....yeah, I think it can work, you can balance both, and the posters above have had it work for them--but it's hard. From conversations with my friends it's the exception, not the rule. For each of them, they got to a point where they had to pick a priority, a relationship or the career, but I think for the ones who chose relationship here, there was a moment where it hit them that a relationship/family/friends was more important than that next job. Maybe that moment hasn't happened (yet?) for you, in which case moving would be the right decision for now, even if it turns out in a few years not to be. (And of course, it's not as easy to meet someone as just deciding, okay I'm going to meet my future spouse now.)
posted by min at 7:33 PM on June 20, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the answers so far! I should probably add that I'm in my early 30s and like scooterdog, actually did try settling down suburban-style for a few years in my late 20s. Won't go into details, but suffice to say that it didn't work out as I had planned.

Also originally posted this question due to concerns raised after meeting someone not too long ago who apparently isn't so crazy about living overseas after all - guess it left me with some doubts. Still, reading these responses is encouraging, particularly hearing that there are plenty of you who successfully made it work.

I'm not currently an expat but as a traveler I wish I could date people who were into travel like me and I have a group of single female American "travel friends" who feel the same way. Meeting someone who appreciates travel is key and I'd worry that if you settled down into your condo you'd get that itch and be upset that you're stuck.

Excellent points Bunglegirl. Deep down I think I know you're right; if I did settle down I might be happy for a couple of years, but then I'd probably get itchy feet again (but unable to do anything about it. Better to stick with my original plan and keep traveling. BTW, surprised that you know so many travel-minded folks in DC, I'm actually having a pretty hard time meeting people here who share my level of enthusiasm for it...
posted by photo guy at 7:39 PM on June 20, 2011

Best answer: Just wanted to chime in that I met my (now) wife the same week I started a job that had me traveling to Asia every 6 weeks for a month at a time. This went on for a while until we took advantage of an opportunity to go to Australia for her job. Several years later we moved to the US for two years, then off to London. We're now on our way back to Sydney. We absolutely love the opportunities being expats has afforded us.

This all started when I was 38. So, I don't think age is any factor at all. What matters is that you live the life you enjoy and surround yourself with other people who also enjoy that kind of lifestyle (whether they are currently living it themselves or not). Things work out. Follow your bliss.
posted by qwip at 7:51 PM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

My husband's parents were expats when he was born, and we met (and married) in the third country he'd called home.

He left for a fourth country a few days ago, and I'll be following (for my first experience as an expat) in a couple of weeks.

We've already arranged to meet up with friends we haven't seen in a few years once we're in our new locale. He's currently at a conference meeting close friends face-to-face for the first time - people he's known for years, but have never been in the same hemisphere.

I'm currently staying at the house of a friend who's an expat of the country I'm going to.

I would say, at this point, I have deep connections with people who reside in many different places. Some of these deep connections were in fact formed when I travelled.

I am not at all worried about establishing new lasting connections as an expat, or maintaining my current connections. There are ways and means, and a lot of them are called 'the Internet'.
posted by ysabet at 7:55 PM on June 20, 2011

What I mean to say is - based on experiences of people I know, don't fret. It'll be awesome.
posted by ysabet at 7:59 PM on June 20, 2011

I've been an expat for about 4 years now, and I'm planning on moving back to Canada temporarily simply because (in my experience) the dating scene is nearly impossible. I don't mean this to sound as bad as it does, but as a guy, you'll likely have much better chances. I can't count the number of times my female expat friends have been turned down by fellow expats simply because they "just don't date white chicks, sorry." Mind you, I've never lived in England or France, so it might be different there.

As far as keeping in touch with friends and family back home, this is why Facebook is such a precious tool to me. Dis it all you like, but once you start missing all the "little things", like the leaves starting to turn red for the fall, the smile on a niece or nephew's face, or updates about local sports teams, Facebook comes to the rescue.

All this to say, expat life is an adventure. It changes you, and you can't ever be for certain where it's going to take you. But personal connections are difficult to create and maintain, and so it's a matter of deciding what your biggest priorities are.
posted by hasna at 8:28 PM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Well, I've literally been an expat since I was two years old. I'm 25 and will be moving to my "home country" for the first time in decades this summer. So I'm not sure to what extent my experiences are relevant to someone without that background. I also don't have any non-expat life to compare it to.

One thing I've found is that it's important to be fairly aggressive when it comes to keeping in touch with friends. You can't just count on seeing them "around" because you won't. I make a point of calling and emailing even friends that I'm not super close to frequently. I Skype my parents and siblings every week and text them constantly (like many people who were expats as children I'm extremely close to my nuclear family).

I also reserve a substantial portion of my income for travelling to see my friends who are scattered all over the world. If you invite me to a wedding in Mumbai, a long weekend in Amsterdam, or a fortnight of trekking in Tibet I'm very likely to come and pretty likely to tack on a short side-trip to see other friends nearby.

I don't bother getting into any kind of serious relationship with people who don't share my desire to move every few years, it would eventually lead to one of us getting resentful.
posted by atrazine at 11:13 PM on June 20, 2011

I do remember clearly though, the heartache of missing some very small things about life in the US (like going to a huge bookstore with selection galore, or a supermarket with fresh fruit and vegetables, or even something as mundane as a public water fountain in a park that actually works).

I've been in Australia for 7 years and its 'minor' things like missing TV and not experiencing NetFlix that really drive me nuts.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 11:53 PM on June 20, 2011

Being an expat is amazing. Go do it, sort out life later.
posted by gonzo_ID at 12:37 AM on June 21, 2011

Traveling like that is the best way to go – two years in a place will give you a real feel for it, and if you ever decide you want to stay somewhere for good, you'll have a strong foot in the door (depending on the country, of course).

I would also second what hasna says about the man/woman difference in dating. I'm a woman, been living in France for twelve years now, spent two years in Finland... in general (i.e. this is a generalization and not true for each and every European man, obviously, just the few hundred I emailed/chatted/talked with over the years...) just are not interested in American women as long-term relationship potential. A fling-arrow to put in their conquest quiver? Sure. Long-term? Watch me as my face drops... I honestly considered moving back to the Pacific Northwest just to find a sweet, outdoorsy, laid-back, REI kind of guy who'd appreciate me. Then, luckily, life got up in my business and sent a sweet, outdoorsy, laid-back Norwegian expat-type guy my way in France :)

Anyway. The flip side is that as a man from North America, there are a lot of women who would be fine with your expat lifestyle. I've seen it!
posted by fraula at 12:52 AM on June 21, 2011

Everyone knows you can't go home again... and that applies in the interpersonal sense as well as the physical one. Once you leave your country and travel, you're just much less likely to click with someone who hasn't done that. And you have already lived abroad, and want to do it again... so in fact, the woman of your dreams is highly unlikely to he hanging around her hometown living a settled life. She's out there somewhere, doing the expat thing herself. Go get 'er.
posted by jetsetlag at 1:39 AM on June 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

Once you leave home, you start to see both the faults of your old home and your new home. Maybe it's easier if you travel constantly, or if you have the travel bug, but I reckon if you've got a place where you feel happy and content you should stay there. OTOH, having a great job is probably the most important thing, so if the travel is essential for that than travel. Just make sure you have a way home.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 1:42 AM on June 21, 2011

I left a sold job in The States and transferred to a new position in Asia which has me traveling 3/4 weeks each month. Back in the US, I had an established routine, 5+ yr long relationship, everything was set. When the opportunity came up, I had the same feeling as you on whether or not it was a good idea but the chance to live abroad with expat benefits was too hard to turn down.

Normally, it shouldn't be a problem to make friends with other people in similar situations, but it was a huge problem at my first city (15 months) because even though I was living in the CBD, I had to travel 1hr by car outside of the city, and everyone at my workplace was married or at a different place in their life. In the second city I moved to, I lived and worked in the CBD and was able to meetup easily with other expats. So that's one thing to consider, the proximity of your workplace from where you live. I've also managed to find someone along the way. Whether you stay or leave, there is no correlation with finding someone to share your life and interests with. There are heaps of interesting people out there.
posted by peachtree at 2:26 AM on June 21, 2011

Best answer: I've been living abroad for about 2.5 years, and am planning to stay here for another 2. My situation is a little different from yours (married, 2 kids), so I can't speak to the dating scene firsthand. My observation is that the single guys here (China) have no shortage of casual dating opportunities, and the number of mixed couples suggest that at least some of them stick.

As for friendships generally, I've befriended some amazing folks, people that I never would have met had I stayed in the United States. But the hardest part about being here (aside from missing family and friends back in the US) is losing them as they cycle out. We're now at the end of an academic year, which is a common time for people to leave, so June especially sucks. And contrary to the implication of your question, what makes this worse is not that the friendships are superficial, but that they are in fact quite strong.

Even with this period of temporary suckage, the bottom line is that this is a fantastic experience, and I am extremely fortunate to have it. If the job sounds good otherwise, go for it.
posted by hawkeye at 3:34 AM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I met my boyfriend when he was an expat living in my home country. Then we both moved to a third country together, so now I'm an expat, too.

When we first started dating, I knew his visa would run out soon, but I didn't let being sensible stop me from pursuing it. As it turned out, I was able to travel with him in the end, so I'm very glad I made that decision.

Maybe that would happen to you. Maybe you'd meet someone who you could try long-distance with. Maybe you could leave an amazing relationship and pick it up again later in life. Maybe you love one of the countries you visit so much that you move there.

The point is, there are too many maybes, and you could just as easily meet the person of your dreams while traveling as you could at home. Don't let the maybes stop you from pursuing what you want most right now.
posted by guessthis at 4:23 AM on June 21, 2011

Best answer: I've done this the more usual way, living in a new country for a few years and then moving on, and I've done it hard core, moving on every few months with no permanent address ever. I traveled with someone for three years, and it was amazing. In the end, that didn't last. I traveled alone for two years, and was rarely lonely. I'm about the same age as you now, and looking at "settling down" again and staying based in one country for a few years, but not yet thinking of going home or getting a place in the suburbs.

I'd say go for it. Make a bit of an effort to meet people. You will never meet more interesting people that you meet traveling.
posted by Nothing at 7:12 AM on June 21, 2011

When you move abroad, you can live like you plan to be transient - and never make a home, and not get to know people too well because you're going to be leaving in a year - and this is what I did for a year and a half, knowing that I would only be there for awhile, I was already in a relationship, and that I wanted to spend my time flying and flittering around as much as possible. I barely unpacked. I had a small plastic plate in my kitchen and two forks.

OR you can do as some of my expat friends did, which was to go ALL IN on making wherever they were comfortable and welcoming for as long as they were there. They got real furniture and a real setup for balcony dinner parties. They made the place home, and made themselves at home, even if it was only going to be for a year or two, and this home became the gathering place for all the hummingbird expats who were breezing in and out, but also all the longer-term expats who had put down real roots or were seeking to.

You may be moving on in a year after this first placement, but a year is a long time to hold your breath. A lot of stuff - deep stuff that makes a lasting, emotional impression on you - can happen in a year. Go! How exciting for you! Jump IN with both feet!
posted by sestaaak at 7:19 AM on June 21, 2011

I am pursuing a similar (perhaps the same?) kind of work that you are currently in. And I have wrestled with the same concerns. As a woman, I think I may be at an even greater disadvantage when it comes to relationship odds.

That said, I've decided to still go for it. I can't deny to myself that this is what I want to do in terms of career and travel. I want to explore! A friend kindly advised me that I'll be more likely to find someone I'm actually interested in if I'm doing/pursuing what excites me.
posted by ihavepromisestokeep at 10:14 AM on June 21, 2011

Expat here. I moved to Bermuda 10 years ago. Best decision I ever made. The connections I have made from people around the world have been amazing. I met my wife here and my two kids were born here. Depending on where you live, you can qualify for the foreign earned income exclusion which means a very low tax rate ( If you are a U.S. taxpayer ). The only hard part is that I am from Michigan and my wife is from Trinidad. Being with family is challenging when you are not from the same country.
posted by jasondigitized at 4:42 PM on June 21, 2011

I moved to Japan to teach English for a year when I was 23... one of my fellow teachers (stationed in another city a few hours away, but we went through training together) ended up being the love of my life. Our teaching contract finished, we backpacked through China, and he went back to Australia. I went home to California, waited tables for a month, got a working holiday visa and joined him. He purposed a few months later and *bingo* I was married to an Australian who likes to travel! We lived in Oz for a few years, are now living in California, and are planning to move back to Sydney next year.

My roommate in Japan had dual citizenship in the US and Colombia. She lived in Costa Rica for awhile (with her mother), and then moved to Bogota for a few years where she met an American guy from OR. They're living in Hawaii and getting married in next month.

Another teacher I knew in Japan taught for a couple years and married a Japanese girl - they're living in LA now and expecting their first baby.

You want someone who will go WITH you - so keep going!!! Good luck! It definitely happens. =)
posted by jrobin276 at 9:34 AM on September 7, 2011

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