How to Stay an Expat Indefinitely:
10 Tips from a Decade on the Move
|A photo of the author along the
fortress walls of Suwon, Korea, December 2005. It
is one of the first times (of innumerable to come)
that I ventured out on my own in a foreign country.
Life abroad started out as a bit of
a fluke. I saw a flyer on a snack machine in Allen Hall
at the University of Memphis and signed up for a course
to start a career I didn’t really know existed. I’d finished
graduate school, lacked a definite direction, and decided
to get an EFL certification in the Czech Republic. It was
the first time I had left North America. I have not lived
in the United States since. I didn’t end up staying in Europe
long, but this is how the ball got rolling for a decade
of living abroad.
- Trick #1: Get away! Find
a way to go beyond the boundaries of what seems blandly
comfortable. There’s nothing wrong with people who stay
in the same town their entire lives if that’s what they
want, but for those of us with a yearning for adventure,
a lifetime in a home town can prove tragic. Go! Explore
new ways of living! Find a good EFL
certification course, an internship, summer
job, or study
abroad program. Makes no difference where or what
you do, initially you must just get away.
While in the Czech Republic, I met people
from all walks of life, from all over the world, yet with
the same credentials I now have: teaching English as a foreign
language. The 3-week course I took in EFL opened up an entirely
new world. Some of the people I met had worked all over
Africa, Europe, and Asia. Some spent their summers teaching
at language camps and were even being paid to go off to
incredible countries. They were living what, up until then,
I’d thought of as a bit of a dream. Yet they all assured
me—each with a similarly knowing smirk—that
it was easy to do.
|Friends, expats and locals alike,
come in abundance when working abroad. An unusual
reliance on one another creates some of the most eclectic
combinations of acquaintances.
- Trick #2: Make friends. When
you’re out in the wide world, as opposed to being stuck
in the real world, you’ll meet people who have
been out there for a long time. They are full of first-hand
information, hard-won advice, inspiring stories, useful
connections, and couches to crash on when you are in
town. It’s amazing what friends newly made will do to
help you get started.
In my case, it started by applying for
a job at the University of West Bohemia in the Czech Republic,
where I’d received my EFL certification. I’d been told that
South Korea was a great place to start teaching: good money,
plenty of jobs, and an easy transition. So I went to Dave’s
ESL Café, the English teacher's portal abroad, and applied
for some job postings in Korea. I accepted a job in Ansan,
just outside of Seoul, a couple of weeks later. The day
after accepting the offer, I was also offered a spot at
the University of West Bohemia in the Czech Republic. Surprisingly,
it turned out that finding work abroad was far easier than
in the States.
- Trick #3: Just try. What’s
the harm in sending out a few CVs to that company overseas,
to the cruise ship looking for staff, to the NGO working
on a project that you find incredibly interesting? If
you were jobless in your hometown, you’d likely put out
CVs until something came up. Well, international
job boards work much the same: With a bit of effort
and persistence, usually in less than a month, you’ll
find some sort of steady work.
changed my life. One year extended into nearly two
and a half. I used vacation time to travel to countries
I’d never even thought of visiting: Cambodia, Malaysia,
Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Thailand, Singapore,
and England. I met my future wife, Emma, a fellow teacher
with the same overwhelmed impression of how accessible
the world had just become. Neither one of us wanted to
go home, so we decided we wouldn’t. When it came time
to leave South Korea (even abroad, the time to move on
always eventually comes), we went back to the job boards
and started looking for work in Latin America.
|A little later in this story
I marry the English woman I met in Korea, and the
fact that our wedding is in Vegas has always amused
people for some reason. We saw Cirque de Soliel’s Love in
lieu of an Elvis ceremony.
- Trick #4: Find love. I
won’t say a future spouse is a necessity, but having
a riding partner—however long it may be—makes a big difference.
They’ll have input into places you may not have otherwise
considered, and they’ll make the places you want to visit
that much more enjoyable. In the immortal words of Alexander
Supertramp (from Into the Wild), “Happiness
(is) only real when shared.”
In Guatemala, where the Latin America
job boards brought us, we became part of a new world of
NGOs and volunteer work. We got involved with a couple of
NGOs, Las Manos de Christine and Safe Passage, which were
in search of teachers just like us. We also learned that
life could be perfectly comfortable, rewarding, stimulating,
and fun in the absence of a huge salary. In eight months
in Guatemala City, a place infamous for danger, we also
learned that we could be happy just about anywhere.
- Trick #5: Involve Yourself. Eventually,
typically after about three months, regardless of where
you are, working is still just working, so it helps to
have something else lined up. There are few things that
make what you’re doing feel more worthwhile than helping
others. There are NGOs
all over the world doing all sorts of projects, and
they are looking for good people to lend a hand.
Then, the world's richness proved too
enticing. New experiences, new places, and new cultures
were waiting, and who was I to pass them up? For some reason,
perhaps the fear-driven politics of the day and my absolute
lack of direct knowledge, I wanted to know more about Islam,
firsthand. At the same time, I liked my usual evening drink
or two after a hard day’s work. I had been living with Emma,
not yet my wife, for three years by then. To simplify, I
needed a place that could tolerate me, a home that could
feel like home. So, I found a city that came pretty close
to offering it all: Istanbul.
|Istanbul remains my favorite
city in the world, a fantastic mix of hilltop views,
alleyway cafes, and stunning waterways offers a never-ending
wonderland to explore.
- Trick #6: Choose wisely. Whatever
the adventures you seek, whatever the safety nets you
need, there are destinations that offer them. Based upon
my experience, try to go to spots that’ll keep you intrigued,
exploring and content. After a while, everywhere becomes
home, so pick
a good one, with enough of a sense of risk to feel
many of the benefits of being abroad, yet also enough
of a sense of comfort to feel at home for a few months
or for a year.
By the time we’d concluded our stay
in Turkey, Emma and I had been abroad for five years. We’d
learned the ins and outs of the EFL game. We’d made and
abandoned homes, collected and said goodbye to friends,
and stacked our CVs with credentials and experience. We’d
survived one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
We’d lived quite happily in distant and different cultures.
We’d become, at least from outside perspectives, fearless
(we spent the next three months in the Palestinian West
Bank). We’d also grown weary of the same old EFL rigmarole
everywhere we went.
- Trick #7: Change up. EFL
is without question a fantastic way to get
started abroad. The money is good, the jobs are plentiful,
and it’ll take you wherever you want to go. However,
after a few years, I knew it was no longer the job of
my dreams. I had realized that it wasn’t the only way
to live abroad, continue traveling long-term, and earn
a living. It was time for a change.
During our stay in Guatemala City we’d
visited a place called "Earth Lodge" in the mountains
outside of Antigua, Central America’s colonial jewel. We’d
often taken the trip with our boss in the city, and he’d
never forgotten how much we loved it. He contacted us as
we neared the end of our contract in Turkey and offered
us a new direction. We could live at Earth Lodge, develop
an English program at the village school, and expand the
NGO that he’d founded: Las Manos de Christine. It was just
change of pace. En route back to Central America, we
|Upon learning we would pilot
an English program in a rural Guatemalan school, Emma
and I decided to do a massive material-raiser to help
us get started. We had to extend our wish list three
times because friends, family, and others were so
keen on our project.
- Trick #8: Follow fortune. I
mean luck, not money. It’s easy to fall into a rut and
become discontent, even when there’s a great café around
the corner, olives for a dollar a pound, and a good job
secured. If you are in that frame of mind, when a new
opportunity presents itself, you should pounce on it.
Isn’t that why and how you found yourself abroad in the
first place? It isn’t just luck if you seize the moment.
Living up on the mountain turned out
to be the hardest working year of my life, and probably
the most fun I’d ever had. Plus, just as with EFL years
ago, a whole new "biosphere" opened up to me.
Several actually. Suddenly, I was developing an NGO, managing
a hostel, cooking (I became the dinner chef at Earth Lodge),
gardening (I helped with the avocado farm), and writing
(I put a monthly newsletter for Las Manos), developed website
content, and published articles with a local magazine. New
- Trick #9: Create chance. If
you want fortune (luck), if you want change, then you’d
do best to cultivate situations for it to spring up.
Sure, it’s possible to wait for things to fall from the
sky, but the more doors you open, the more likely there’ll
be a new one to walk through. People always tell us we
are “lucky” to live the way we do, but we’ve also done
our share to earn our circumstances.
After our stay at Earth Lodge, we traveled
for three months back to the U.S., visiting my family. We
then traveled for three months to England, visiting my wife's
family. We taught in Moscow for nine months, with Russia
being among the top countries we wanted to experience. Emma
taught private classes to save extra money. I started writing
professionally. We moved back to Earth Lodge for three months,
which turned into four, which then turned into eight. Then,
we moved down the mountain to Antigua for another ten months
when we were offered jobs for which we hadn’t even applied.
Our plan was now to stop looking for jobs, and just let
things happen what may. It was working.
|Spurred on by our experience
at Earth Lodge, I’ve (we’ve both) fallen in love with
gardening and eco-living, which has turned into some
dirty, muscle-straining hours of work but also a load
of fresh homegrown vegetables and several job offers
on farms across Latin America.
- Trick #10: Work hard. Working
hard doesn’t have to mean being miserable. In fact, when
you’ve chosen a job well, working hard comes naturally.
It’s something you want to do because you are stimulated
by it. In turn, people want you to work for them and
with them. If you don’t like working hard, chances are
you’re not working on the right things. Try to find a
We set off from Antigua, Guatemala nearly
ten years after I left the U.S. and Emma left England. We
decided to learn more about growing our own food, so we
have been volunteering on farms on our way down to Patagonia,
however long that takes. In the last year, we’ve not applied
for one job but been offered paid positions in Nicaragua
(twice), Panama, and Colombia. We stayed in Panama for six
months, designing a permaculture site and establishing a
volunteer program. It was a blast.
Ten years ago, I was two interviews
away from life as an adjunct professor, one application
away from being a doctorial candidate, and thousands of
miles away from where I was to become the indefinite expat
that I was meant to be.
|Ten years later, this is the
portrait of a happy expat, through and through.