The Difference between Expats and Locals

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If you’ve studied abroad for a semester—or a year—or if you’ve spent a year or two in another country on a work assignment, you didn’t really live there. You don’t even really know what it’s like to live there.

Face it:

When you know you’ll head home someday, you have an out. Everyone can endure the temporary. You can cast the entire experience as a lark.

Life in an expat community with a super-sweet financial and benefits package to compensate for the inconvenience of relocation, spending the majority of your time with other expats, and knowing you’ll transfer away after a year or two does not count as living in a country.

Studying in a spot for a blink sequesters you with other students—often also expats—in a dorm situation. Dorms do not approximate local—or real—life. Even college life on home soil doesn’t come close to adulthood with full-time jobs and serious responsibilities.

Most students and expats don’t deal with the particulars of real local living: Facing cultural constraints and prejudices, procuring food and household items, getting licenses, navigating the public-education system, dealing with bureaucratic machinery, finding and maintaining homes. And so forth.

Some do, but these folks number few.

During my stints living abroad, I lived in neighborhoods as the only American; I shopped at local stores; I knew only local people; I navigated the necessary systems to purchase property, do business, and get licenses; and I had no fancy expat package with a salary bump or expenses coverage.

Yet if someone had threatened to force me to stay abroad forever, I’d have high-tailed it home post haste and never looked back.

I have a bit of a sense of the lives of natives in the countries of my residence, but I realize the limits and biases in my perceptions. Even with multiple years in a different country living fairly close to the ways of the locals, I still stood apart. Without true long-term residency with no expectation of return to my home country—and perhaps even then—I realize that I don’t truly know the lives of the locals.

What’s your take?