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How to Be a Respectful Expat and Enjoy Your Life Abroad

Expat life with local children
Building relationships with people (and children) from the local community often create unbelievable bonds that cross cultures and reach deep into the hearts of everyone involved.

After the distinction between expat and immigrant was pointed out to me, the label “expat,” which I’ve used for several years now, has grown uncomfortable, the terminology more glaring and irksome. Back in the USA, people from elsewhere are considered immigrants, with perhaps the exception of those with Western European backgrounds. But, wherever I’ve lived—Korea, Guatemala, Russia, Turkey, Panama, or Palestine—my status was always the loftier “expat.” Seemingly based on the economic hierarchy, race, and origin, expats are wealthy and white, while immigrants are often less so.

Perhaps there is some element of political correctness in my worry, but I’ve noticed how the terminology, namely the overly positive outlook about the expatriate position in society, can sometimes produce a less than gracious guest. In other words, at home, we expect immigrants to be part of the society around them, whereas it often seems expats disregard—in some cases flat out shun—their presumably adopted countries. Personally, if I’m going to be called an expat—which often seems to be the case—I don’t want to be that sort of expat.

Fortunately, I wouldn’t say that all or even most expats behave in this manner. Many are great additions to their host country and local community. The lives of expats tend to be enriched by their location, not just because it may seem like paradise or cheap or lax in its laws, but because their relationship with the country, its land and its people, are of extraordinary value. Happy expats are grateful guests. Better yet, they feel completely at home, and there are several reasons I believe such is the case.

Happy Expats Live Locally


A local fruit stand abroad
Living in the tropics means a year-round abundance of fresh fruit with low food miles and tip-top flavor. Everywhere has their own version of tropical fruit that they especially appreciate.

As working and retiring abroad has become more and more the trend, somewhat regrettably that has also resulted in emerging networks of closed-off expat communities with supermarkets full of imported products and satellite links to television stations back home. Such a manner of living abroad often creates an unfulfilling existence, longing for things that aren’t available in the host country and disappointment in the things that are. In essence, it’s a calculated arrangement that presumes life in your chosen country is insufficient.

Most happy expats that I know enjoy what’s local. They relish the foods, fresh produce, and other idiosyncratic selections that come with their location. They appreciate the public parks, town squares, and rural hiking paths. They utilize farmer’s markets, public transportation, and real (not international chain) restaurants. Happy expats embrace their new location as if it is intrinsically home, loving its unique comforts and accepting (often appreciating) the lack of what they could get elsewhere.

Happy Expats Know their Neighbors

It seems, especially in the "First World," we have increasingly isolated ourselves. Our sense of community has waned the more technology and the convenience economy has advanced. Families—forget strangers—grow further apart, with homes that have “man caves” and separate play rooms for the kids. When living abroad, such sequestering easily escalates into cultural segregation and self-imposed quarantine. Life, once again, becomes overly sterilized and painfully impersonal, only further away from the familiar back home.

Music abroad: "Rufus and the Roustabouts"
Music has been a universal language in every country in which I’ve lived. There are always new musical partners to play with and people to entertain.

The happiest expats are generally those with social lives, human interaction, and meaningful friendships. They are cordial to colleagues, chat with neighbors, and welcome people into their lives. They are interested in others, accept differences between cultures, and recognize the need for community. They not only know their neighbors, expats and locals alike, but they also foster relationships with the guy running the shop or the lady from the café. Consequently, even though family and friends may be distant physically, the happiest expats never feel alone.

Happy Expats Learn the Local Lingo

For many people, one of the scariest aspects of moving abroad is the language. The truth is this can be an impediment, making even the simplest things—ordering at restaurant, getting a phone, telling a driver where to go, reading signs—more challenging. When our ability to communicate verbally, as we are accustomed, is taken away, it can leave many of us with a helpless and antagonistic view of the world. Even with a language in common, sometimes communicating is wrought with new intonations, turns of phrase, and forgotten words.

Luckily, the solution is simple: Learn the local lingo. While not all of us are linguistically gifted, just about anyone, with honest motivation and a couple of months, can pick up enough of a new language to survive. Those expats who make it their mission to master the mother tongue of the land find themselves not just capable but intrigued by what’s happening around them. As more permanent guests, the onus is to adapt rather than expect an entire country to cater to our needs. Doing so makes life so much better for all parties involved.

Happy Expats Acclimate and Assimilate

Many times I’ve watched as new expats struggle with the transition, their cell phones either glued to their ears or their eyes glued to the phone. They pine for the pizza shop they used to go to every Friday. They miss the family, the friends, the dog, the car, the city they left. They spend so much time worrying about what’s gone that they fail to recognize what’s in front of them and forget why they came in the first place. As a result, their new home never feels like home at all, and things inevitably go amiss.

Industrious expats evolve. Instead of constantly trying to pull the past along with them, bringing their home with them wherever they go, they explore the bounds of what’s to come. They search for a new pizza shop to continue an old tradition, or they switch the Friday feeding to a taco stand down the road. They may miss their family and friends, but rather than mourn their immediate absences, they plot out the possibilities for frequent future visits. Accepting and adjusting are necessities for a happy life abroad, or anywhere for that matter.

Happy Expats Offer a Helping Hand

As it is often the case that expats generally come from more privileged positions, economically and perhaps educationally, then living abroad is the perfect time to repay that lucky draw. While it is tempting to focus on the newfound luxury and freedom that those dollars or pounds afford, it’s important to recognize those around us who weren’t born into such circumstances. Contrary to many a sales pitch, living abroad is not solely about cost of living and affordable housing—at least not for the responsible expat.

Fundraiser by expats for locals
It’s a very rewarding feeling being involved with local initiatives to improve people’s lives. Bryant, the founder of Las Manos de Christine in Guatemala, and I sit with the bounty of a material fundraiser that Emma and I organized.

Nearly every energetic and enlivened expat that I’ve known helps out in some way. This could involve helping the neighbors by dropping someone off at work every morning. It could be fundraising or volunteering for an NGO. It could be taking a particular shine to an employee and his or her family, making sure that their lives are fruitfully influenced by the association. Without a doubt, expatriating can make our money stretch, but only coldly taking advantage of that benefit will not result in the good life. Rather, it’s the ability to share our health, wealth, and hearts that creates happiness for all.

Happy Expats Practice Patience

Generally, in “paradise,” the pace and way of living changes. Folks from the Western world are accustomed to tight schedules, uber efficiency, and manicured customer service, but these materialistic or commercial aspects of living are not necessarily how the rest of the planet operates. When you are an expat, often reams of red tape, casual tardiness, and slowly sauntering through the thick of it are simply how life goes. Living in such a way may not always seem to make sense, but then again, neither does paying $3.50 and up for a coffee for a lower wage worker back home.

Realistically, to keep from going completely insane and losing your cool every other day, wise expats are patient. Life will go on. Things will get done. If that ever seems in doubt, it’s as easy as realizing that the rest of the population, expat and local, is managing to make it through life. Besides, most of us ditch hectic homes to have more meditative and peaceful lifestyles somewhere else. It makes no sense to get upset that the locals are living that way, too. Patience, sometimes only realized in retrospect, is the crux of how expats exist blissfully.

Happy Expats Accept That They Are Immigrants

Project Somos in Guatemala
Here I am speaking with Greg Kemp of Project Somos. Beside us is his beautiful earthbag home, and in the distance, before the stunning landscape, are the homes of local families with single mothers with whom he works daily.

The most respectful expats realize that they are immigrants and know that they are no better than the people around them. Happy immigrants and expats, whatever term we choose, should (and typically do) have a positive impact on their host countries in human and material ways. That usually means being a good guest by respecting the people amongst whom they’ve chosen to live, as well as the nation in which they’ve chosen to settle. Expat income spent locally can also help with the needs of the local community. While the identities of expats may by tied to foreign origins, happy expats become part of a new community, the country in which they reside, and they are thankful for the good fortune.

Jonathon Engels Jonathon Engels, Living Abroad Contributing Editor for Transitions Abroad, has been an expat since 2005, just after he earned an MFA in creative writing and promptly rejected a life teaching freshman composition. He has lived, worked and/or volunteered in seven different countries, traveling his way through nearly 40 countries between them. For more, check out Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad or visit The NGO List.

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