• Marina Chaffanjon

THE LIFE OF AN EXPAT: SOMETHING BETWEEN A JACKPOT AND A CURSE

Many people dream to work abroad, but most do not realize what it actually implies. My purpose is not to sell you a dream, to scare you, or even to explain how to become an expat. My idea is to tell as objectively as possible what an expat contract means and to give you the opportunity to decide for yourself whether you like this life or not.


According to the Oxford Dictionary, expat (short from expatriate) is a person residing in a country other than their native country. In theory, a student, a political refugee, a work migrant, or a person who left his homeland for family reasons could all be called expats. However, most often we call expats those people who left the country for career reasons and for a limited time.


I personally consider myself both an immigrant in France and an expat in French Guiana where I’m currently residing. To understand why, I’ll tell you a bit about myself.


AN EXPAT AND AN IMMIGRANT


I’m 32 years old; I left Russia when I was 21. I graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations - the main Russian university for preparing future diplomats - and dreamt indeed of becoming one but didn’t want to work for the government. I realized my dream otherwise.

First, I went as an exchange student to Sweden, then did a master’s degree in European Studies in London and stayed there for another year to work but, by coincidence or chance, as a marketeer. I then decided that I still lacked some knowledge in marketing and entered a business school close to Paris. After that, I found a job in Dubai in the luxury and beauty industry. In theory, I was supposed to work there for one year only but stayed in the UAE for three years as I had met there my husband-to-be. After Dubai, we came back together to Paris and lived in the French capital for three years. After that, my husband came across a very interesting work offer within his construction company – but this time with an expat contract, and we grabbed this opportunity. He would become a buyer in Mayotte, a French island in the Indian Ocean.


A year and a half later, my husband's position was cut due to a reorganization in the company. Instead, the company suggested we return to Paris, but we refused. However, my husband found another job as a buyer, also with an expat contract. However, this time in another overseas department that borders Brazil - French Guiana. Both Mayotte and Guiana have their own language, pronounced local culture and customs, but administratively they are full-fledged parts of France. Therefore, formally, we cannot be considered expats in Guiana and Mayotte, but in practice, it is exactly that. Such "internal" expats are called here détachés, literally translated as "fallen off".


There is no clear definition of the word "expat”, but it seems to me that the distinguishing feature between expats and migrants is the temporary stay in the country. When I lived in London in a hostel, I considered myself an expat. When I, yesterday's student, moved to Dubai with one suitcase, I was also an expat. Everything changed when I got married and received my first, second, and subsequent residence permits in France. Now I am going through the naturalization procedure to obtain French citizenship and can safely say that I am also an immigrant.


In this article, I will tell you about the life of people who travel and work under an expat contract.


PROS OF WORKING UNDER AN EXPAT CONTRACT


The expat contract is something between a jackpot and a curse. One thing is for sure: it will be completely life-changing.


All the points below are conditional. It all depends on your employer and where you are going.


The salary is higher than back home. In Mayotte, my husband's salary supplement was 40%, in Guiana, it is 25%. But it is the base salary that is taken into account to calculate the annual bonus, pay increase, or employee final payments.


The company pays for moving to a new country. Depending on the contract, the company may cover the relocation fees - from several chests of about 2 m³ to a whole container of 40 m³, where your car will fit. And then you will have to wait for this container to arrive through the oceans to your new home, which can take up to several months.


The employer helps to settle down. Usually, the company pays for an Airbnb-style apartment or a hotel until you find permanent accommodation. It may also pay a fixed amount for the rent of an apartment or a house on a permanent basis. Some companies also incur utility costs.


In Mayotte and Guiana, we were first housed in a temporary apartment. After that, in Mayotte, we lived in a house that was meant to serve one of the directors who preferred to live elsewhere. This house belonged to my husband's company, and thus, we did not pay rent and utility bills there. Now in Guiana, the employer pays 1,500 € per month for the rent of housing that we should find ourselves. Moreover, in the case of real estate purchases, the same amount can be used to pay off the loan. In addition, after the move, you will be given a company car and a phone. Sometimes companies cover the costs of gasoline as well.


The company pays for annual tickets to travel back home for all family members. Some employers cover the costs of renting a car as well while on vacation in your home country.


The company covers insurance costs in the host country for the entire family. This is also an important point as medical expenses abroad could explode your family budget.


Some employers pay education fees for the employees’ children. Pay attention to this perk because depending on the country (for example, in the UAE), it can be extremely expensive.

The bonus package you are offered and what is included in it will influence whether you agree to make the sacrifices that expatriation requires. And there will be many.


The expat contract is something between a jackpot and a curse. One thing is for sure: it will be completely life-changing.

EXPATRIATION PITFALLS


Many people think that expats are sitting on the beach, drinking cocktails, and harvesting money - especially when it comes to working in an exotic location. Of course, the terms of the contract can be more than comfortable, but you need to know that such a life is not always easy.


You need to work hard with long hours and under pressure from superiors. After all, your salary must be justified. In addition, expats often face problems of corporate envy: not all employees appreciate your presence in a position that could have been taken by a local. Moreover, not all employees have the same conditions. There are no clear rules about who is entitled to a local contract and to an expat one, and there is no “scheme” of privileges. But as people communicate with each other, this difference quickly becomes apparent. All this leads to scandals and even layoffs.


Other laws, orders, products, traditions, and people. You are a guest in the country, so teaching others how to live will not work - you must learn to do it "their own way" yourself.


Your family members will have to rebuild their lives too. Your spouse will need to look for a job, and your children will have to get used to the new school. Finally, you will all have to look for a house, prepare documents, open a bank account, and buy a car. All this must be done in a country that you do not yet know. In a language you may not speak. And even though you do not have friends here yet.


To minimize the stress from the move, you need to talk to your partner ahead of time about what role you both see for him or her. It is worth discussing before leaving whether he or she will stay at home with children, study, look for a job, or open a business. It is often unemployment and, as a result, the partner’s dissatisfaction that causes not only unsuccessful expatriation but also a ruined marriage. I know expat wives who had to transform into Zumba teachers or primary school teachers or store managers. The main thing here is to keep yourself busy and to meet new people.


For example, I am now actively looking for a job, doing my blog and podcast, and occasionally writing for a Russian magazine. Since I am a marketeer, and there are almost no marketing positions in Guiana, I have several backup options: to work again as a teacher, to start my own business, or to work remotely. In autumn, my children will go to school and kindergarten, so I am planning to go back to work.


You live far from family and friends. Unless you come from eastern France and work in Geneva where you can go by car, it is quite rare for expats to live close to their home country. The fact that it takes you 24 hours to get home, will not work as an excuse to have additional vacation days. You will most likely spend all or most of your holidays at your parents’. Your children will have to get used to seeing their grandparents a couple of times a year maximum, and you will have to cope with your offspring without the help of relatives. You can always find nannies of course but nobody will replace grandparents.


It is difficult to find a good school or college for children. As a caring parent, you will want to give your kids the best education possible. And most probably at an international school, so that your children not only speak the language of the host country, but also not forget their native language, and improve their English. Not only are these schools very expensive, but they may simply not exist. Or they could be far from where you work. In this case, you might even need to separate from your family and live in two cities or even countries.


Unexpected troubles may await you in the future host country. You may be sent to a poor and insecure country, to an isolated place where basic necessities may be missing, or where there is simply nothing to do, and you live in an expat "camp" like in a golden cage. Therefore, it is better to familiarize yourself in advance with all the disadvantages of the future place of residence. You need to be mentally and physically prepared for them. If you get paid because no one else wants to work in this country, ask yourself why this is happening. And then - why do you need it.


WHY DO PEOPLE CHOOSE TO BE EXPATS


There are many arguments here, and each expat will have their own:

  • To make money: no one argues, this argument is one of the major ones - otherwise, why bother so much.

  • To set yourself a professional challenge and to develop your career.

  • To travel, to see the world, and to try what it is like to live abroad.

  • To study the country, you are interested in, from the inside.

  • If not to leave yourself, then take your children away and give them a better future.

The most difficult thing in expatriation is the feeling of loneliness and isolation from the world. It gets better when you start having your circle of friends. When I manage to get so close to people that in a short time, they replace my family, I believe that expatriation has exceeded my expectations. And in order not to get disappointed, I try not to have any special expectations from the new country. In this case, the experience of expatriation can only surpass them.


In my next article, I will explain how to become an expat if you are sure to want to become one.



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