The dictionary defines an expatriate as “someone who lives outside of his/her native country” – which is the most basic definition possible. But once you get past that definition and really start to look into what an expat’s life is really like, you start to understand that there is so much more to it.
My expat story started from the moment I was born, in Malaysia, 30 years ago. While my mother was a newbie expat, my father had lived in the Middle East prior to marrying my mum. A few years later, my family moved us to Nigeria, where I spent 13 years growing up. For university, I moved to Switzerland and then to America to complete a management training, and finally in 2010, I moved to my new home, the UAE. There were definitely a few months in between that I temporarily moved back to Serbia, in between summers, schools, travelling etc, but I always felt it was more of a holiday.
So for those of you reading this post, who are new to being expats, or have never lived outside your home country … what is it really like? Well for starters, changing schools, houses, and neighbours becomes a routine, if you don’t experience some kind of change, annually, there is something wrong.
In Nigeria, we lived in a compound located approximately 20 minutes away from the city centre. My brother and I grew up with a large garden, swimming pool, clubhouse, tennis courts, fitness centre, supermarket, and clinic; as did all the other expats. When we moved there in 1992, things were VERY different to how they are now. My parents remember a time when there were no imported products so they had to buy local produce like milk, flour, and vegetables from the farmers (which if you think about, was the healthiest way to live!). Pampers came into the market much later, so my brother enjoyed loin cloth as nappies (as did I in Malaysia). I have been to 4 different schools (including a year of home schooling), and lived in 3 different cities, from my 13 years of living in Nigeria. Every school had its own community, and I was able to participate in activities which I may never have done if I lived in Serbia. During my elementary and middle school, I participated in every sporting activity. In high school, I advanced my passion for singing and theatre, as well as played in the school’s volleyball team for 4 years. During those years, I participated in many volunteer programs where an orphan’s innocent laughter, changed my entire perspective on life.
Moving to Switzerland for university, was an entirely new phase of my life, as I experienced solo travel for the first time in my life. It was an important stage of my life as I was stepping completely out of my comfort zone and protected “home” environment. With that came a lot of challenges, but a lot of joys as well! I made friends from around the world, some of whom I still consider my closest, I enjoyed weekend trips to different parts of the country, learned to defend myself from lunatics, and witnessed my first white Christmas 🙂 I started to walk in my father’s shoes by accepting my first job in a foreign country, the country which I now call home for 7 years; and with that I learned several other aspects of being an expat. While visas were nothing new to me, as a Serbian citizen / non EU member to be exact … the whole process of getting a resident permit, going through medical check ups, and attesting ALL of my educational certifications – most definitely were new to me. And of course, the fact that your work permit becomes your lifeline, especially in this country … if you don’t have an Emirates ID, you are basically a tourist.However, beyond the nitty gritty details of the formalities, you start to pick on several handy little things, which locals who have never left their country cannot understand. The biggest impact is tolerance. You learn and understand about different cultures, religions, nationalities and through the community you are in, you develop a respect for everyone. I have enjoyed different types of cuisine, learned about diverse cultures and traditions, and even picked up slang, habits and stereotypes of several nationalities. Today, I can confidently distinguish between different types of Arabs, Europeans, Africans and Asians – thanks to the influence of my many friends. Another of my favourite things, is holidays! For as long as I can remember, my family has celebrated 2 Christmases (Catholic and Orthodox), I love going to Thanksgiving feasts, and for my romantic side, I love all the cheesiness that comes with Valentine’s Day.
Life as an expat is not always easy, and my family and I have gone through some very scary scenarios over the years, however when I think back on all the experiences, and reflect on the person they have made me today, I wouldn’t have it any other way! The world is changing, expanding, and becoming much more connected than ever before. We need more people who appreciate diversity, who can embrace different cultures, traditions, religions, and nationalities, and those who want to make a difference. Expats play a crucial role in bridging the gap which separates that tolerance, with the intolerance and hatred we still see today.
Are you an expat? Where do you currently call home and what do you love most about it?
Disclaimer: All views are my own and all photographs are © My Pink Diary.