Moving overseas is a common ambition for men in this part of the Internet, for various reasons: better women, cheaper cost of living, fewer laws, and so on. And while it’s certainly a good thing to get out of the U.S. (or whatever country you were born in) and experience other cultures, there’s a bleak side to expatriating that gets ignored in all the hype.
Keep in mind that I’m not arguing against living abroad: I plan on returning to the Philippines at some point and visiting some other countries such as Japan, Colombia, or Russia when I get the time. But before you sell your car and buy your plane tickets, you need to know the whole truth about life in other countries. Here’s why expatriation isn’t the dream life everyone thinks it is…
1. Basic infrastructure is lacking
Most second- and third-world countries have power and water systems that are barely functioning, and the slightest error can knock them offline at a moment’s notice. In the Philippines, for example, brownouts are extremely common, particularly in smaller cities, which is why most high-end apartment complexes and hotels have backup generators installed.
Even then, that may not be enough: during my stay in Davao City, for example, I had the power shut off on me multiple times for seemingly no reason, killing my AC and Internet and forcing me to sweat it out in the dark.
Basic fundamentals of urban planning and sewage removal are also absent in many countries. Absent zoning laws, cities like Manila are a patchwork of construction, with poorly-designed roads, missing road signs and open sewers that overflow every time it rains. It’s not uncommon to find nice high-rise apartment buildings surrounded by blocks of dingy tin shacks, like a game of SimCity being played by a sugar-bombed spazz.
Finally, many third-world countries have ungodly amounts of air pollution, thanks to lax emissions controls on cars and industry. Portions of Manila resemble 60’s-era L.A. due to all the smog. Even if you don’t have lung problems, breathing in all these airborne toxins will have an impact on your health.
For example, the dusty, dirty air of the Philippines forced my eyes to start producing extra moisture. When I came back to the U.S., I went around for a week looking like I was perpetually crying before my eyes readjusted.
2. Many amenities that you’re used to are not available
Since you’re in Rome now, you’ll have to do as the Romans do, and that includes acclimating to local tastes and peccadilloes. If there are certain types of food you like and your new homeland doesn’t have them, you’ll just have to suck it up. For example, a simple American staple like peanut butter and jelly is horrendously expensive in the Philippines; a jar of Jiffy is about $7. A carton of orange juice can run you as much as $9, and many supermarkets don’t even carry milk (not that you’d want to buy milk when many of those places skimp on the refrigeration).
But assuming you can adjust to the local menu, what about the cultural offerings? Again, depending on your tastes, you’ll probably be left out in the cold. If you want coffee shops in the Philippines, for example, you’re pretty much limited to big chains like Starbucks or Figaro (though selection is a bit better in Manila). Music? Get used to sappy soft rock or 80’s cover bands. Film? It’s either Hollywood blockbusters or obscure Asian films. And I really hope you like karaoke parties.
3. Culture shock is real
You might read the previous points and think, “So what? I hate American culture and I can deal with a few brownouts!” But can you? You need to face reality: you’re an American (or a Canadian or an Australian or whatever), raised in a culture that has trained you to see the world in a certain way. You have no idea how much your culture defines you until you’re placed in one that’s almost entirely alien.
For the first couple of days in the Philippines, I had difficulty even leaving my house, and it wasn’t because I was having a bad time: every Filipino I’d encountered up to that point had been friendly and gregarious. It was because the Philippine culture of openness, spontaneity and fun completely clashed with my dour, sullen, American attitude. It only took me a few days before I was acclimated and enjoying myself, but it was a transition I was completely unprepared for.
Not only that, even after you’ve overcome culture shock, there are certain aspects of foreign cultures that will always grate on your nerves. For example, the Filipinos’ complete inability to be punctual nearly screwed up a podcast interview I did with my ROK colleague Quintus Curtius.
Additionally, Filipino waitstaff at restaurants almost never check up on you after they bring you your food; you have to practically grab them by the arm if you want your check. When I returned to the U.S. in October, I was so grateful to have a waitress bring me the check without asking at the first restaurant I ate at that I gave her a $10 tip.
4. You will always be just a “foreigner”
This is the kicker: even if you become a long-term resident of another country, you can never fully integrate. In many cases, the barriers are legal ones: for example, many Asian countries do not allow foreign residents to ever become citizens. Many of these nations don’t even let foreigners own property; in Thailand and the Philippines, when you hear about foreigners running businesses, the deed is always in their (local) wives’ names.
But more importantly, even if you learn the language and adjust to the culture, you’ll never fully fit in. People will always identify you as being from somewhere else based on your appearance and treat you accordingly. Even the Philippines, despite their unusually xenophilic culture (to the point where English is an official language and virtually everyone there is fluent in it), maintains a barrier between foreigners and locals. Try as you might, you will never fully assimilate.
I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from living abroad: it’s an experience I enjoyed and one I recommend every man try out at least once. But don’t think that life in other countries is some kind of permanent vacation with free martinis and blowjobs. There’s a price to be paid for everything, and the price of moving overseas is one you may not want to pay.