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The Inevitable Changes That Come with Living the Expat Lifestyle

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Are you new to the expat lifestyle? While it’s filled with excitement and discovery, there can be no doubt that it brings many changes along with it, some of which are less noticeable than others. Well-seasoned expat Pete Brunoehler shares some of those changes, and points out that even the subtle ones can be impactful.

Over the course of contemplating and, once accepted, planning for our initial expat assignments, whether the working expat, the trailing spouse, or the kids; most often the focus was on those overt, tangible changes that this new life would entail, such as new housing, new schools, new car, new job and co-workers, new friends, new activities, etc. With a handy checklist, we could always clearly see how we were doing in this transition – tasks complete vs. tasks still in progress.

However, changes that are not so visible, and usually not a part of any planning, are actually much more impactful. In fact, during and especially after your days of being an expat are complete, these will be the changes that will stay with you longer, perhaps forever. These are changes to your perspective.

Your perspective of the world, of different cultures, of different religions, of varying approaches to health and family; to holidays, to globalisation, to sports, even to names. Similar to the butterfly that emerges from the caterpillar, we may begin expat life a bit sheltered, but hopefully will emerge from expat life more worldly, open, accepting, and acting as informed, engaged, and tolerant global citizens.

Let me illustrate with a few examples:

Holidays

When you first arrived in Malaysia, you were probably still very focused on the holidays of your home country. While understandable and normal, I believe most long-term expats are now far more attuned to Malaysian holidays – Chinese New Year celebrations with local friends and family, Hari Raya events, Thaipusam processions, etc.

Sports

You left home still keenly following sports there. Now, in addition to that, you’re an international follower – EPL, La Liga, F1, NBA, the All Blacks, etc. As one who originated in the US, I always find it interesting when I meet Malaysians (or others) who have lived in the US, often to attend university, and become American Football fanatics while there, often still following closely. During the recent Super Bowl, I got more messages and comments from Asian friends who’d lived in the US than from my American friends!

Names

I recall attending the birthday party of a Swedish classmate of my son when he was in an international middle school in KL, and hearing him and other kids introduce their friends – from all over Europe, Korea, Japan, Malaysia – with many names that were frankly hard to understand when hearing them for the first time. But the great thing about it was that when they were all introducing their friends to their parents, these kids never realised how odd some of the names would have sounded to their old classmates back home. To them, they were normal names. And they were – just from different places.

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News from and about your home country

When you are out of your home country, you tend to view it and events that take place there differently. In part, this is because you now have a ‘global’ set of references. For an American in America, news will come from websites and broadcasts of local television and radio, local newspapers, and friends with (usually) like-minded opinions.

But once you’re an expat, that news will tend to be infused with the BBC, Sky News, UK newspapers, a plethora of other global sources that report on America, and of course opinions from a diverse cross section of friends, all of whom have their own varied sources of information. Mixed all together, a much more nuanced, informed, and analytical view of events will typically emerge. I have had numerous experiences where my ‘overseas perspective’ differed completely from those of my US-based family and friends. I am not saying any one is fully right or wrong, just that different sources of input can lead to very different output.

When in Rome, you evolve

Outwardly, this is hard to see since we retain many of those cultural identifiers (i.e., accents, behaviour, body language) that we acquired at a young age. In my own case, now in my 25th year of expat living, while I retain many of the same expressions, and roughly the same accent as I had when I left, in fact the contrast is quite significant when it comes to my opinions, word choices, US and world events perspective, and in my interest level as it relates to specific sporting events and holidays.

I trust that your own expat perspective change will be (or has been) relatively subtle. Evolution, not revolution, is usually the case here. As you grow your circle of friends and information, observe, listen and learn, you’re bound to globalise along the way. Your family likely has begun to do so as well, even if you haven’t had time to stop and really notice or contemplate it yet.

Maybe a good topic around the dinner table tonight.

A version of this article was originally published in The Expat magazine (May 2017) which is available online or in print via a free subscription.

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