I also think living as an expat has slowed me down — in a good way. It's definitely made me a better listener. I don't judge people so much, and I'm starting to understand why China is the way it is.
But there are common threads that run through the lives of every expat. If you were to make a tag cloud of recurring worries on relevant forums, themes like 'homesickness', 'language' and 'Skype connection' would loom large.
Away from the safety net of home, uncertainty is perhaps the one thing that unites all expats. HSBC's 2014 Expat Explorer survey revealed that 35% of those interviewed claim a lack of job security is their biggest worry, while a further 30% cite the state of the local economy as the main source of their anxieties.
So, given that uncertainty, why make the leap? To answer that question, we spoke to three expats who have lived and worked all over the world to find out what impact moving had on them both emotionally and practically.
La dolce vita
Italian expat couple Marco Raugei, 40, and Daniela Russi, 38, spent five years living in Spain before moving to London in 2012.
"When I moved to Barcelona [to be with Russi, who was studying there], I couldn't speak a word of Spanish," Raugei admitted. "But I tend to be an optimist and we were eager to start living together.”
For environmental policy analyst Russi, who moved to Spain as a student in 2001, the switch to London proved more trying.
"I missed my friends in Barcelona," she confided. "Also, Spanish is quite close to Italian, so it was easy to pick up. Learning English has been harder. At first, it was difficult to understand my colleagues and I didn't have time to study the language. But I love books, so I began reading novels only in English to improve my vocabulary."
Now happily living in North London, and with a newborn baby to occupy their days, both Raugei and Russi agree the chances of moving again are slimmer. For Raugei, however, expat life has been a liberating experience.
"It's similar to the feeling you get on holiday. There's that same sense of freedom. You always have something to discover and it keeps you curious… Yes, if I had only lived in Italy I would perhaps have a stronger sense of being Italian.”
Russi feels less certain. "I feel rich because I had the chance to have many different experiences. On the other hand, you don't feel complete. If I'm in Italy, I miss my life here; if I'm here, I miss my friends in Spain. I think one of the conditions of being an expat is that you don't feel you belong anywhere."
"…Or perhaps you belong everywhere," Raugei added.
Out of Africa
Originally born in Malawi to Irish parents, Dubliner Ceire Sadlier, 32, relocated with her husband to Africa in 2006. Two kids, eight years and three countries (Malawi, Zambia, and Tanzania) later, she and her family moved back home in late 2014.
"My parents had lived abroad for 35 years, so I thought it would be second nature, but it's hard," said Sadlier. "Right from the start in Zambia, we were reliant on my husband's employers to set everything up. They picked our house and the area we lived in, but there was no water, intermittent electricity, and it was full of cockroaches."
Having found a new home, settling at work was the next issue.
"I got a job at a [non-governmental organisation] NGO and as the only non-local there it could get lonely. There was a financial divide between us, and in Zambian culture if you invite someone out you have to pay for them,” Sadlier said. “The only place I was ever invited to was church. I didn't make many local friends until I volunteered at a youth centre for street kids.
"Many expats in Dar es Salaam [Tanzania] live on the Masani Peninsula. Walking down the street, you could easily be in a European city. The only way to escape it is to learn [Swahili] the local language. There, it was expected of you and people would be encouraging,” explained Sadlier. “Sport also helps — badminton is a big social event for everyone."
These days, Sadlier admits it would take a lot for them to move abroad again, with the financial benefit of higher wages offset by the potential drain of costly international school fees.
"Some companies offer to pay for your children's education in full, others pay a portion. For us, we received 6,000 euros ($6,819) per child. But if, say, the American International School charges 17,500 euros ($19,891) annually, unless you're both working or you've a really good contract, it's tough."
For Sadlier, homesickness has never subsided and her biggest regret is perhaps not quite embracing life abroad as much as she'd have liked, but there were still benefits, she believes.
"I wasn't confident. When I got to Zambia I found it hard to go to events, and it would suck a lot of energy meeting people, but you have to go through that cycle to settle,” Sadlier reflected.
“Now I find it a lot easier to walk into a room with strangers and enjoy it. I also learned that it's OK to love my country and love being there.”
Back in 2012, Spanish cinematographer and documentarian Marc Martinez Sarrado, 40, was editing in Paris when he got a call offering him a job. "It was in China, and they told me I could take three days to think… I didn't need any and said yes right away."
It wasn't Martinez Sarrado’s first experience of Asia; he’d already spent two years flitting between Paris and Thailand for various film projects. Still, little prepared him for life in China.
"When you arrive it's as different as you can imagine. Initially, I was in Shanghai for six months and compared to Beijing, where I've been living since, it was far more Western. In Beijing fewer people speak English and it doesn't feel as cosmopolitan,” he said.
Even where he lives now, in Beijing's expat-heavy Sanlitun area, language has been the biggest hurdle. Excluding the dialectic switch from Shanghainese to Beijing Mandarin, just mastering the basics requires time, which Martinez Sarrado found difficult to set aside while working.
Ultimately, the most difficult adjustment for the Spaniard turned out to be environmental rather than cultural."I feel ashamed. For the job, I have assistants, but on a daily basis it's a handicap,” he said. “Still, even though I don't speak Mandarin, I use body language — and it works. It's just a matter of breaking barriers and a friendly smile often helps when communicating in China."
"I come from Barcelona, so I'm used to having breakfast on the beach. I knew before that China was polluted, but I thought: let's see how bad it is, maybe spring will be better. Then summer came, then autumn. I wear a mask all year round while cycling. I also spent over 1,000 euros ($1,140) on air purifiers because it gets in the flat too."
Nevertheless, Martinez Sarrado has no regrets about moving.
"Beijing is kind of wild. You can go with a bicycle everywhere, and sometimes it creates chaos, but everyone understands. Here, it's a friendly chaos,” he said. “I also think living as an expat has slowed me down — in a good way. It's definitely made me a better listener. I don't judge people so much, and I'm starting to understand why China is the way it is."
Calling all expats!
Be a part of this year’s results and compare with expats around the world. If you’re living abroad, take the 2016 Expat Explorer Survey.