Next month will mark 15 years living in Asia, and as the song goes, "what a long strange trip it's been."
In my book, Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm, I identified a class of expatriates, called independent expatriates which for the most part I also belong to, although I am currently have and have had a few in the past what could be classified as more traditional expatriate assignments. Independent expatriates are those living abroad who are living off the local economy without support or a permanent connection with an organization from "back home." Most English teachers and others working in education in Thailand and surrounding countries could probably be classified as independent expatriates.
Living abroad as an independent expatriate for long periods of time requires one to give up many things. For one, it is unusual to have long-term friends, at least friends which have a similar cultural background, as many co-workers and others one comes across while working internationally seem to be very transient in nature. Of course one makes good friends, but for the most part these are not long-term in nature. And while most long-term foreign independent expatriates make some local friends, the cultural differences, from my experience and observations, limit the closeness of many of these friendships.
Also, choosing to become an independent expatriate is usually not a road which leads to riches or financial security.
Furthermore, most independent expatriates have limited career options. Unless one is completely fluent in the local language, the independent expatriate is at a disadvantage to locals in acquiring the vast majority of jobs. And the legal restrictions on foreigners, found around the world, further limit the job opportunities of independent expatriates. From conversations and observations it would appear most foreign English teachers in Thailand and throughout Asia teach English in order to live abroad, and don't go abroad to teach English.
But on the other hand, choosing the independent expatriate lifestyle is filled with rewards. Travel, personal growth and cross-cultural experiences are gains expected from living and working abroad. But arguably the biggest benefit which comes from packing up your bags and moving to a foreign country without a safety net and "making it" is confidence. Becoming an "independent" expatriate requires far more self-reliance and ability to adapt than does staying in your home surrounded by family and friends or being a traditional expatriate and being supported by an organizational structure that usually spans both the home country and new location.
Finding a job and creating a life with little support in a foreign country can be a huge boost to the ego and can create the confidence to follow one's dreams. No surprisingly so many famous and innovative authors, including Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, William S. Burroughs, and even Mark Twain, have lived outside of their home countries. Maybe it is easier to follow crazy dreams and take the road less traveled when one is outside of the comfort of home.
It would appear some independent expatriates focus on the limitations while others use the confidence gained and create interesting lives while pursuing a variety of interesting goals.
Personally, I have not found much in the way of financial success from choosing the expatriate lifestyle, "but at least I am enjoying the ride" (couldn't resist another Grateful Dead reference). I arrived in Asia with only a high school diploma, today I have a PhD. My first job in Thailand was at a three letter language school teaching English at 220 Baht an hour. Today I am a visiting professor for an American University operating in China (with summers off which I will spend back in Thailand). In between, I have worked as an instructor at a number of universities in Bangkok and Vietnam, an instructor at online university programs around the world, a writer, a manager in an export company in Issan, and with an NGO working with refugees alongside the Thai-Burmese border. It is felt the experiences from my initial period of living and working in Thailand as an English teacher has given me the confidence to pursue other employment options internationally. In my youth I rarely thought of life outside the world I knew, today I have connections with people and organizations around the world and see few limitations on what is possible.
While choosing the independent expatriate lifestyle has required some material sacrifices, I don't feel poor at all. I don't think I would trade my memories of a midnight motorcycle ride in Laos, visa runs to Malaysia and Cambodia, New Years in Saigon, friendly faces in Issan, and so many other memories for a new car, a nice house and lots of stuff that I might have accumulated if I had stayed at home. I have always wanted to travel, write and have new and varied experiences, and I have done those things.
Knowing what I know now, yeah, I would have made the same choices and decided to follow this lifestyle. It hasn't all been wine and roses, but it has been an interesting ride and I can't wait to see what comes next.
Scott Hipsher is the author of
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm,
as well as numerous book chapter, academic journal articles, conference papers and other articles on international business and other topics.