eli james

The Expat Horizon

12:43am, 10 August 2015

The expat horizon is the time limit an expat can survive in a country alien to his or her own.

This horizon differs from person to person, and varies according to host country. Zambia, one would imagine, would have a different expat horizon when compared to Singapore, or Malaysia. In Saigon, the informal number I hear the most is: 3 years. 3 years is typically how long it takes before an expat flames out. The ones who survive beyond 3 years can usually live on indefinitely.

The expat horizon is attributed to a number of reasons. If you never get used to the surrounding culture of your host country, for instance, it’s death by a thousand cuts. The expats that suffer from this are usually the ones who tell unbelievable stories about local idiosyncrasies. Here, as with most things, tone tells more than content: I once spent 15 minutes at a meetup listening to a Swiss entrepreneur complaining about the horrible print quality of his name cards; I remember thinking at the time that he wasn’t likely to last in his business.

Other expats, ones who have lived here longer, tell these funny stories with an underlying tone of acceptance. But such cultural differences do grate, and I believe the ones who survive are the ones who can come to terms with such differences.

‘Coming to terms with the differences’ is too vague to be useful, however. There are many strategies to cope. The expats with wealth can use that wealth to create a bubble in which they live, however long that lasts, their social needs fulfilled by hanging out with other expats in expat bars and expat haunts and reading expat publications (e.g. in my case: Saigoneer). This is as good a strategy as any.

Still others take pains to have a local experience, and to adapt to it. And there are those whose personalities are made for the life – one Singaporean man I know tells me that he can never imagine going back to Singapore.

Ultimately, the expat horizon boils down to comfort, and one’s tolerance for the lack of it. When framed this way, any such experience is pretty much a race against time to make yourself comfortable: to navigate commuting in 3rd world traffic, to learn the language, make friends, and find ways to accept good food, bad air, and occasionally terrible bureaucracy.

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