The Accidental Expat
Turning Your Travels into a Temporary Home
When I arrived in Australia, it was not my intention to become an expat. Rather, it was a necessity borne out of lack of funds that grounded me in Sydney. My mother was coming to visit from the U.S. a few months later and so I had to scrape together a way to live (and spending money for her visit) until she arrived.
I chose an unlikely destination to set up house. It was a neighborhood in Sydney called Redfern. Though the area has apparently since become “gentrified,” at the time, if I mentioned to an Australian that I--a blue-eyed blonde Yank--was living in Redfern, it would elicit the kind of response I would have expected from an American if I were to say that I was living in Harlem 20 years ago. Yet I had somehow been accepted in this neighborhood that was comprised almost completely of “blackfellas.”
Without a preconceived notion about the people (prone to burning their furniture in the front yard if they ran out of firewood) or the crime rate (high, given the level of poverty), I showed no fear, animosity or doubt and, in return, the locals responded positively. Despite the fact that I was obviously a foreigner, I experienced nothing but mutual respect and understanding.
While I do not necessarily advocate ignorance as a survival tactic, sometimes “not knowing” can indeed be blissful and, for many travelers, being plunked down in a strange environment can be downright invigorating. Rather than experiencing culture shock, you might be more open to fully take in your new surroundings, or even notice details that the locals have long overlooked.
Whether you arrive with a job in place, you are simply biding time because you have an affinity for the region, or you have to choose between working or returning home, expat life can be as rewarding as it is exhausting.
Through subtle social pressures, you will be forced to blend in and will soon learn that simple activities at home, such as crossing the street, require different skills in Seattle than in Saigon. In addition to learning new customs, you will either need to learn a new language, or, at the very least, a new vernacular. The word “boot,” for example, means very different things in England than it does in the U.S.
To help get yourself get grounded, you will want to assimilate into your new environment as much as possible. Perhaps most importantly, become an astute observer and take note of how the locals behave and then act accordingly.
Clubs, Expat Groups, and Online Resources
Another way to cope with being “a fish out of water” is to make friends by joining clubs and/or networking organizations, visiting online forums for expats and getting to know the locals through websites with social networking components such as Couchsurfing, Global Freeloaders, Facebook, or Twitter. Meetups are sure to take place in any town of size.
Finding a Home
Once you have discovered a destination that you do not want to leave immediately, you will need to figure out how to set down some roots, however temporary.
Youth hostels are an obvious first choice as beds are generally inexpensive and you can plenty of people, perhaps others also looking to share a flat or apartment. Check the message boards at the hostel as well as Internet cafés and shops where travelers tend to congregate.
If you are in a developed country where housing can be expensive, scour travel forums and post messages about your needs. For women travelers, you will want to be careful about who you choose as a housemate to avoid any unwanted attention.
Areas of town that are located near a university often advertise inexpensive shared housing and offer good public transportation.
If, like me, you are an accidental expat without a job lined up, not only do youth hostels provide perfect accommodations but they are often the ideal starting point for finding work. You can often sleep for free and work by doing much needed chores—cleaning, answering the phone and, often, more cleaning.
Rarely does this type of work pay--as was the case when I stayed at the hostel in Glebe Point before settling into Redfern. But it was an ideal first step until I could find a paying job (off the books, of course, since I did not have a work visa).
Once you have established yourself in the community, make yourself known—to the baristas, the café workers, the bartenders, and other travelers. Tell them of your plans to stick around and that you are looking for odd jobs. For the entrepreneurial type, you might consider plastering fliers around town offering pet sitting services, English tutoring classes, or cleaning services. While it might take you some time to find work, the longer you plant yourself in an area, the more likely something will come along.
I lived in Saigon for two months during a year-long backpacking trip through the Pacific Rim countries. I had not intended to stay for more than a week but when I found a family-run guest house for $6/night and opportunities to teach English, I jumped at the chance. I taught English in two schools and as a private teacher. At $2/hour, I wasn’t making much, but it allowed me to experience the area for an extended period of time and to get to know my students. I found these positions through long-term expats who were working with NGO’s.
Taking It All In
Staying put can often be more expensive than traveling. But the point is to experience the culture to its fullest. You can easily do this by participating in and attending events in the region, getting to know the locals, or through simple observation.
During my five months in Sydney, I lived with a group of locals whom I met at the hostel. In addition to working at the hostel, I found a job as a phoner surveying locals about their driving habits, sold beauty products over the phone, and sang in a band that was half Aboriginal, half white (OK, it was not a great band, but I was on stage!).
I did not make a lot of money (and one of the companies closed its doors before I received my final paycheck), but I learned more about both the white and black cultures of Australia than I could ever have learned from a tour bus through the Northern Territory or a boat ride around the Great Barrier Reef.
No matter where your travels take you, you will quickly discover that settling in for more than a handful of days when you are on the road, reaps great rewards in friendships made, deepened discoveries about the area you are visiting, and, if you are lucky, a little extra spending money.