The ExpatPosted: March 3, 2010
“Where is the best place to live?”
People love to think there is a better life somewhere out there. They expect me to say: This Tropical Island or that City is THE best place to be. But honestly, I have to say: Nowhere. You always end up with yourself.
Sure, nobody wants to hear this. Thus, before I get frowns as a lousy conversationalist, I offer more entertaining versions: Open French restaurants on Madeira; add Balinese massages and Brazilian beaches and that would be a pretty good place. Bring German law & order to Madagascar, and let the Burmese do the cooking, that’d be good. Teach the Thais to speak some English and be less racist, then clean up the streets and it won’t be bad.
But really, any place is just as good as you yourself. People find happiness in the most unlikely places and circumstances. Life as a Buddhist monk is outwardly worse a punishment than prison but people do it voluntary.
Happiness is never over there, or then, and definitely not on the next island.
However, some Expat-myths need busting:
1. Living abroad is cheaper. Yes, but only if you can eat Ugali-Ugali (don’t ask) three times a day every day, just as the poor Kenyans do. If you want cornflakes and milk you will discover that they are more expensive than at home. Yes, you can build a house for 20k in Sri Lanka but it won’t keep animals out of your bed.
2. Life on tropical islands is easy going. Not a drop. Earning a local salary is nightmarish beyond a union member’s imagination. Doing business is inviting trouble with crooks and greedy officials. A visit to a Sri Lankan prison will deter you from doing business under the tax radar, let alone illegal stuff. It is hard to earn a foreign currency. If in the west 50% of all businesses go bust in the first year, it is 90% that go down in paradise. In each case naïve Westerners put their retirement funds on the line and lose it all, often including their health. The odds are so against you. The locals are helpful in the investment phase. After that, you will learn that money rules Rio more than New York. A common joke in Brazil: “How to leave paradise with a million dollars? Come with 5.”
3. The men/women are so whatever. Yes, but only if you have left your brain at immigration. Abound are the stories of guys/girls marrying local girls/guys and go on to build the biggest house in her/his village. Up-on completion he/she discovers that he/she actually is already married to the “house-keeper” and that the land deed is in his/her name. The whole village knew, and laughed. The local judge is his/her father-in-law, so you get kicked out of their own house, bye-bye, big time.
4. You can always go back. Yes, you can, but it is hard to move from Bali to Liverpool. A rule of thump amongst Expats says: ‘10 years or never”. You just don’t fit in anymore after 10 years and will feel an alien at home. Then, better be a true alien and never come back.
5. The East is more spiritual. Not anymore. The East has long succumbed to excessive materialism while California beams with meditation centers and yoga classes. In the hills of Thailand and Laos there are great meditation retreats but they are run by western monks. The West has infected the East with efficiency and wealth (nothing bad there btw) but has taken the flame of impermanence to shine even brighter in the West. It is an ironic wink of the universe: In the end the truth always survives.
6. The locals are good people. No more or less than anywhere else, but be wary: Poverty is bad for morals. A common illusion is to praise the virtues of a people (“the friendly Thais”) but to take for granted that they can add 5 and 5 without a calculator, but they can’t. Chances are it comes out 11; and that is not funny after a few years, especially if you always end up paying more if you don’t double-check. Lying and cheating is an honorable qualification in many countries. There are few human rights for a foreigner but the right to pay the bill.
Now, obviously, I don’t fancy couch-potatoes, but if you go abroad be realistic and be smart:
- Don’t buy when you can rent
- Don’t commit when you can test
- Don’t marry a stranger
- Don’t start a business you don’t understand
- Don’t assume the law will protect you
- Don’t drive motorcycles
- Take your time. One year is nothing.
- Do observe yourself: Are you only going local, or are you going crazy?
Above all don’t hope to escape bad days, nasty people, arthritis or your private demons.
Have a safe trip.