The Difference between Expats and Locals
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.
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?