Want to Expat? Don’t!

My wife and I became expats from the U.S. three years ago. It’s been interesting, fun, aggravating, at times exhausting, and always an adventure. Would we do it again? Probably not. Though nearly 3 million U.S. residents are now expats, and more people leave the U.S. all the time, here are reasons to stay home, and to forget the expat life.

1 — Why go? Be extremely honest with yourself. If you like a hot shower, mail delivery, punctual people, personal space, familiar systems, a clothes dryer, dishwasher, easy communication, and the simple ability to navigate around, stay home. We live in a major city in South America. Like almost everyone, instead of a hot water tank, we have an ‘on-demand’ water heater that has ‘issues.’ As in most of Latin America there’s no postal system, so no mail delivery of Christmas cards, letters, Amazon Prime etc. People are routinely late; punctuality is not a feature of this culture. Personal space is 12 inches, not 3 feet. Banking, bill paying, social interaction, and transport systems are very different, and hard to get used to even with language skills. Our Spanish is adequate, but nowhere near fluent, so we must hire bilingual help for the tough, official stuff, and there can be a lot of it.

2 — Becoming an expat is damn hard work, harder than we anticipated, for a number of reasons, and the language barrier is a very small part of it. The banking experience, for example, is best described as the Disneyland system: Wait in line for 45 minutes for a two-minute transaction. The assimilation process is like a thousand paper cuts, even with a bit of Spanish. Unless you thrive on new challenges, the tougher the better, stay home.

3 — How strong are you as a couple? Becoming expats together will strain the strongest relationship. Every day presents a new challenge that must be attended, and especially without language skills the tension can become very high. It’s not unusual to contract a case of ‘this was your bright idea’ syndrome, along with the negativity that implies. And let’s be honest, especially for older couples, why expose yourselves to health care and other risks that could put you in crisis in the few years you have remaining? We boomers are known for taking chances. But none of us are middle aged and in perfect health any more, either. Thus…

4 — Fourth consideration: health care. The health care system where we live can be world class. That’s the good news. Gaining access to it is third world. That’s the bad news. First, the emergency transport system is for all intents and purposes nonexistent here. Ambulances are private, poorly staffed, operate with the same lack of urgency characteristic of the culture, and are often unavailable. Plus, depending on traffic, an ambulance can take hours to arrive, and there’s no tradition here of giving right of way in traffic to an emergency vehicle.

Conclusion: Why don’t we return to the U.S., you say? We love living where we are, we’ve made wonderful friends, the city has all we’d ever need, the climate is perfect, and there’s more to do and see here than we’ll ever accomplish. The reasons we left the U.S. are still in place, and those reasons have been met. Also, we’ve done so much hard work in the previous three years to assimilate that it would seem like failure to leave now.

But if you’re considering the expat option, remember, they call it a Comfort Zone for a reason. Becoming an expat takes you into the Discomfort Zone for a long while. If you’re unprepared for that, a move can be very frustrating, not to mention an expensive proposition. Don’t be afraid to change your mind. If it’s hard to expat, it can be even harder to repat!

Our experience of becoming expats has been a revelation. If we had it to do over, we’d stay in the U.S. and make do. Finally, if you decide to become an expat, enjoy the experience, don’t sweat the small stuff, and never forget that life ‘back home’ wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, or you wouldn’t have considered leaving. But despite the enticing and alluring hype you might read in those slick expat ‘how-to’ brochures, it’s going to be much more difficult than you imagine.

Byron & Mariah Edgington are retired U.S. citizens living in Colombia. Find their blog and contact information at medellinretirement.com. Read time 4 minutes.