What does it mean to you to be an expat? Discussing this question with a group of South Africans I was given a variety of responses, as well as some words of advice for others either recently arrived in Australia or those planning to make the jump soon.
Coming from the Latin ‘ex', meaning “out of' and ‘patria' or fatherland, an expat is variously defined as “a person who lives outside his or her own country” and “a person who is voluntarily absent from home or country”. All expats meet the first definition, but I wonder how many of us fall into the second. How many of us are really voluntarily absent from home or country and how many of us have chosen to come here simply because staying at home is no longer a viable option? In other words, we're here because we have to be, maybe because we can't live in fear any longer, because we hate what our country is turning into, because we don't see our home country as offering us much in the way of opportunities – perhaps just because we think life must be able to offer us more.
Inevitably, there is an element of compromise in our being here, and this is what most expats who have been here for a few years have come to realise. For most of us, Australia is not perfect, but overall it is a big improvement on what we left behind.
One woman described being an expat as: “It's like getting married. You take on all the things you love about your husband – and a few things that you don't.” Another agreed: “It is like leaving singlehood for marriage – you leave a little bit of yourself behind, but you must be prepared to accept that”.
Someone else lamented that she felt like a guest here adding: “I'm okay with that, but I feel sad not to have a sense of shared history and sometimes it seems I will never fit in.” I feel much the same. After 17 years here Australia is my home, but some cultural values still grate and I don't think I will ever be ‘an Australian'.
Of course, others see it all as an adventure and a chance for a new life. Their advice includes: “Be positive, look forward and remember all the reasons why you came here.” “Push harder, work smarter, and don't look back, then Australia really will be the land of opportunity for you.”
Everyone recommended getting involved with as many different groups as possible, and whatever you do don't ever lament about ‘how we used to do it back home'.
Cast your net wide and maximise your chances of making new friends. Step outside your comfort zone and try something new or push yourself forward.
You have to be prepared to kiss a lot of frogs, but one day your prince (or princess) will come!
Suggestions on how to make it easier on yourself when you first arrive:
- Pay a little more for rent so the inevitable ‘relocation blues' are not compounded by living somewhere really depressing.
- Try to live close to your work so you can avoid too much commuting.
- Avoid moving with teenagers if you can possibly avoid it.
Patti McCarthy is an expatriate coach who helps take the pain out of relocating.