Being an Expat Is Not All Travel and Sunshine

“Once upon a time I was someone then that stopped.”
Laird Hunt, The Exquisite

Let’s get something straight. Living abroad is not as exciting as most people think it is. The same goes for working from home.

Just as the phrase implies, living abroad is just that — living, just in another country. It’s not the same as living back home because it is a different country, but it involves similar concepts, which include working, eating, and living.

Working abroad is NOT a vacation

Of course, Yahoo! Travel would get this confused like most people in the US. They published another dull story titled “How to Stay on Vacation Forever – These People Did It!” I’m not even going to link to it because the headline is misleading and downright stupid. It has a brief story about a few people who went on vacation and decided to stay. How did they stay? That’s right, they got a job!

Another crowded park in China (least crowded photo I have)
Crowd at Lixiang Park in China (least crowded photo I have)

If you’re working abroad, you’re not on vacation. You’re working and earning a living.

Sure, it’s easier to travel someplace else for a long weekend while you’re working abroad (particularly if you’re in a cheaper country that pays expats well), but that can be done from the comfort of our home countries as well.

Typical night after work in Seoul
Typical night after work in Seoul

“But it’s so much more interesting to live in another country,” you say. Yes, to some extent it is. It can also be more frustrating depending on your language proficiency and understanding of the finer points of local culture. Depending on the country, it can be more difficult to make local friends — some countries are known for keeping foreign friends at a safe distance.

When I lived in China, I was not on vacation. I worked five days a week and had regular national holidays for my travels. It’s not like I could fly to Shanghai for a weekend (ok, I could have, but it would’ve been stupid and expensive for a weekend). My weekends usually involved hanging out with friends, going to a park or major grocery store, and drinking some cheap beer because there really wasn’t much to do in Shenzhen. The most exciting weekends I had were the day-trips I had to Hong Kong and Macau — they were my escape to a more developed world that had non-Chinese food for a break (and Macau had a shop that sold good coffee much cheaper than I could find in Shenzhen). My daily life revolved around working, eating what I hoped wouldn’t poison me, studying Chinese, not getting run over by cars and buses, and avoiding crowds as best I could.

Just another night in Macau
Just another night in Macau

Digital nomad abroad

When I set out on my current trip, I’ll admit it was a combination of work and vacation. Every weekend was an opportunity to see something new in a city. But I saw almost nothing during the week because I was locked away in a room, slaving away for almost 50 hours a week. That’s right, I had to work all week so that I could have some excitement on the weekend. And because I attempted to fit as much as I could into two days, I was exhausted by the time I started work again on Monday. On occasion I experienced power and internet outages, which meant I had to scramble to find a cafe that offered Wi-Fi so I could continue working.

You can't see the rest of the apartment in Tokyo because I couldn't move far enough back to get it in the frame
You can’t see the rest of the apartment in Tokyo because I couldn’t move far enough back to get it in the frame

Just because I worked from home, or wherever I chose to claim as home, does not mean I had a leisurely job. Some days I had a lot of work to do. I edited an average of 60-70 business news stories each day, sometimes more. I also did not have the luxury of taking extra-long lunch breaks — there was no one to cover for me while I stepped out to eat; I had to guess what time would be slowest so I wouldn’t return to a pile of backlogged work.

When I started the job, I worked overnight–8 pm to 6 am. That was the impetus for moving to Asia; I wanted to work during daylight hours and have the sun shine through my window. Even when I worked those hours, I had friends who thought I could take a nap or go out for a drink while working because no one would know the difference.

He was quite the active dog. This was his usual position while I worked.

That awful work schedule is part of the reason I fostered a dog for a little while. I thought he’d keep me company, but he really just slept while I worked and sniffed my face while I attempted to sleep. That dog was funny and I’m happy he was adopted.

If that job sounds like leisure time to you, maybe you should give it a try.

But, hey, I got to take a walk during my lunch break to watch the sun rise when I stayed in Italy. I also had dinner at noon and went to bed at about 3 pm. When I wanted to take a weekend out of the quiet town of Perugia, I had to alter my sleep schedule — it was difficult in the summer heat in Florence.

Working from home does not mean you spend a day in your underwear either. Studies have shown that people who work from home are more productive and effective when they act like they’re in an office (i.e., get dressed for work).

My office was somewhere in that building
My office was somewhere in that building

And what did I do after I was laid off from that job so long ago? I spent my days reading books, writing things I hope will one day get published, and searching for work. I had Skype interviews for jobs too (most of those jobs were awful and I’m glad I didn’t accept them because they would’ve led to a miserable life abroad). I had to remember some of my rules for searching for ESL jobs abroad, which can apply to other fields when searching abroad. Factoring in visa rules makes searching for work abroad more difficult.

I’m not complaining about my life abroad (aside from the lack of stable employment at the moment); I made my decision to stay because it’s what I want. The cost of living is much lower than back home — I currently live on less than $800 per month, excluding my visa runs every 90 days. I’ve also managed to make some worthwhile friends along the way to make life here a bit more comfortable and less mundane.

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