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  • Writer's pictureZanny Merullo Steffgen

Pros and Cons of Expat Life




Zanny Merullo Steffgen Jan 12, 2019 · 7 min read · Listen Pros and Cons of Expat Life When I graduated from high school in 2016, I decided to waitress and travel instead of heading right to university (and into the debt that comes with it). I had been lucky enough to spend time abroad with my family for all of my life and lived in Italy for a while as a teenager, so I suppose my world citizenship was much deeper ingrained in me than my citizenship of the United States. It wasn’t until I turned 20, however, after another six months of living at home and working hard as a waitress and bartender, that I made my way to Siem Reap, Cambodia on a work exchange for a month. As soon as I stepped out of the plane and into a tuk-tuk, I fell in love with the scenes I saw around me. One month became two, then three, and next thing I knew I was putting together a larger backpack to move to Cambodia. The year since has been full of challenges and lessons, so I have compiled some of the most significant here to honestly inform anyone who is curious about the realities of expat life. A countryside adventure with expat and tourist friends.Pro #1- Being an “outsider” gives you a unique perspective on both your country of origin and your adopted home country. I happened to move to Cambodia during a particularly interesting political time for both countries. While in the US, newly inaugurated president Donald Trump had begun immediate controversy and dominated news outlets, Cambodia was gearing up for an important election, with the chance to unseat the prime minister who had been in power since the Khmer Rouge times. I felt extremely fortunate to be removed from my home country’s situation and able to discuss it with fellow American expats, as well as Cambodians and residents from other countries who offered unique perspectives on the situation. As for what was going on in the country where I lived, I enjoyed getting to watch the election unfold with no involvement required, as well as talking to expat and local friends about what was going on. Living as an expat allows you a different outlook on what is going on in the world, without having to be directly involved in any of it. That being said… Con #1- Living as an expat means you never truly belong. As much as it is a gift to live abroad, it also means that I feel less “American” every day, but will never be accepted as a Cambodian, either. While I work in Cambodia, pay rent and taxes there, and have begun to learn the language, I still get harassed by street vendors: “Buy something, lady? Souvenir lady?” and tuk-tuk drivers: “Where you go, Lady? I bring you to hotel, to Angkor Wat, lady?” Although I do my best to reply in Khmer that I live there and do not require their services, it saddens me that I will never be seen by Cambodians as belonging to their country. When I return to the US, I have an even harder time. While I am expected to fit in there, and friends and family talk to me about bits of American culture I neither know about or care about, I don’t feel like I belong, or want to. Culture shock hits me profoundly, as the places I grew up near and culture I grew up surrounded by no longer seem to fit… Pro #2- Expat community. One of the aspects of Siem Reap that convinced me to make the move there was the wonderful community of expats from around the globe. I would spend most of my weekend nights with a glass of wine or 50 cent beer in hand, surrounded by friends from Cambodia, the US, Canada, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Africa, Argentina, and Bosnia. We’d often talk about current events in the world, places we’d seen, cultures we experienced, often offering up examples from our own home countries. Not only that, but each of us had a different take on Khmer culture and life in Cambodia, and coming from all corners of the earth to live here together brought us together in a deeper way than any other friendships I had experienced. A typical weekend night spent with expat friends from all over the world…Con #2- Friends come and go. One essential characteristic of expat communities is that they are mostly made up of lifelong travelers. This means that every so often, one of my expat friends will leave to pursue another adventure elsewhere or travel to their home country for a few months’ visit. Often some of the most interesting people I meet in Siem Reap are only stopping through for a short time in the middle of a larger trip. Part of choosing to live abroad is accepting the transitory nature of friendships and the impermanence of it all- actually a good lesson that is true of life in general, and only amplified by the expat lifestyle. Pro #3- Exposure to a new culture, cuisine, and way of life. You don’t realize until you fully experience another culture, that everyone around the world lives differently, each convinced that theirs is the “only” or “right” way to live. This has been one of the greatest gifts of my time in Cambodia. I spent a week in the countryside, where I slept on a bamboo mat on the floor, lived without electricity, and bathed by pouring freezing cold water on myself from a bucket filled up by a pump. I’ve become accustomed to eating rice with nearly every meal, traveling by motorbike and tuk-tuk, and sitting at outdoor plastic tables with my elderly male Khmer neighbors, eating fried grasshoppers, drinking beer and saying “chol moy!” cheers every few minutes. Instead of visiting church, as I did during my time in Italy, or cobbling together my own spiritual practice as I did in the US, I spend a lot of time seeking out temple ruins in the jungle, meditating at local pagodas, and taking day trips into the countryside past examples of extreme poverty. These moments have given me a new perspective on life, and have shown me a new way of being that I had never before experienced Getting blessed at a Buddhist temple on Kulen MountainCon #3- Missing the comforts of “home”. As much as I enjoy my life abroad, there are certain comforts I occasionally miss from the US. In Cambodia, it is rare to find a public bathroom with a toilet, even more so to find a toilet with a cover that you don’t have to flush manually by pouring buckets of water in it, and pure luxury to find a covered toilet with an automatic flush and toilet paper. Even so, the plumbing is so weak that you can’t flush toilet paper, something I grew up taking for granted in the US. Occasionally I find myself nostalgic for comforts such as those, or being able to eat without worrying about food poisoning. Occasionally I crave a burger with thick American beef you cannot find in this country, or a place where I could go to watch the Patriots play on TV. While these are small inconveniences in the face of the joy of living in Cambodia (which I would not give up for anything, including toilet paper), they are still a part of expat life. Pro #4- Availability of jobs for foreigners. One of the gifts of having English as a native language is that there are many jobs available to me in a country where English is necessary but not widely spoken. English teachers are highly sought after, as it is nearly impossible for locals to make money in a tourist town such as Siem Reap without some basic knowledge of the language, and many other companies run by foreigners and locals alike seek native English speakers. Many Americans living overseas will find this to be true, and some may even discover they can work remotely for their own companies seeking someone on the ground in another country. Con #4- You are subject to the laws and bureaucracy of your new home. Part of being an expat means respecting the laws of your new country, no matter how ridiculous they seem to be. When it comes time for me to go through the arduous visa and work permit process, I just put my head down and provide all of the necessary documents, no matter how superfluous they seem and how many times the requirements change. I avoid talking politics or making comments on the Cambodian government, as it is not my place and saying the wrong thing can be detrimental to my life here. When certain restaurants or coffee shops charge different prices for locals and foreigners, I cough up the few extra bucks even though I work a job that earns a salary just as low as most Cambodians. I think of it as a fair exchange: they allow me to live in their country and pursue my dreams there, as long as I abide by their rules. Worth it! The view on an exploration.All in all, becoming an expat was the greatest decision I’ve ever made. It has allowed me to challenge many of the social guidelines I grew up with, has given me a different perspective on simplicity and happiness, and has allowed me to discover more about myself and my place in the world. The list above is here to honestly expose both the positives and negatives of living abroad, with the hopes that anyone considering the expat life will just take the leap and discover it for themselves.


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