Does the idea of an expat assignment conjure up images of sipping gin and tonic in tropical surrounds with a slight breeze blowing and Michael Buble playing softly in the background while waiters and other house staff cater to your every need? Or are you more inclined to have visions of fighting your way through a village with open sewerage and rubbish decaying on the side of the road trying to ignore the young children begging you for money for their families survival while you drown in a pool of your own sweat (maybe you have malaria!!!)?
The true experience of being an expat is somewhere in between. Of course, a lot depends on where you go. Sub Saharan Africa is a little different to the United States, although both have their challenges. Other factors that make a huge difference include the facilities available at the site, the roster rotation, whether you can take your family and whether you can get along with the other people on site. That is important in any job but absolutely critical in an expat environment. If you can surround yourself with your family and/or great people, life will be much easier.
No matter where you go, you will experience culture shock or homesickness. This is a rollercoaster of ups and downs where you go from being totally thrilled at all the wonderful aspects of the new culture to be completely fed up with everything and desperate to get out and get home. Over time, the cycle smooths out and becomes more normal but it can be quite a challenge at first. And then there are the actual physical illnesses that come with the territory. It is definitely worth checking out the medical facilities available at the site as well as the medical evacuation plan before you go, especially if you are taking your family. And if you have a serious health condition or a health condition that could become serious quickly, check with your doctor.
There are always challenges dealing with a different culture, no matter how tolerant and flexible you are. If your company doesn’t offer a cultural awareness program and/or a site visit, do some research before you accept the offer. If there are cultural, religious, ethical or other standards that you cannot compromise, make sure that they are not common in your new work country. A good example is a corruption, which is part of life in many developing countries (and many developed countries if you look hard enough). Corruption can be very frustrating to deal with and can be a deal breaker. Know what your deal breakers are so that you can choose the right assignment in the right place.
Having said that, there are enormous rewards in taking an expat assignment. The obvious one is financial, although the laws around tax have changed over the last few years so check that out before you commit. And making lots of money won’t seem so great if you are miserable all day, every day so that can’t be your only reason. Travel is another fantastic bonus of an expat assignment. On breaks, instead of returning home, many choose to travel to different locations. Even if you are away from your family, you can arrange to meet them somewhere else once in a while. But the rewards that will stay with you long after the money has gone and the travel memories have faded are the wonderful people that you have met and the difference that you have made in people’s lives. The friendships that you make as an expat seem to give you that special and unique bond that comes from sharing experiences in adversity.
Once you have done all of your research, including talking to other people on the ground, make sure that you include your family in the decision. That seems pretty obvious but sometimes we can get so caught up in the excitement that we don’t really hear their concerns. It is a big decision and the better informed that you are, the more likely you are to make the right choice. And if you do decide to embark on that adventure, stay safe, stay sane and stay away from stagnant water.