Expat dilemma : stay or go?

The Expat Dilemma

Expat life is full of excitement and unexpected twists and turns. You experience the highs of having a whole new place to explore, possibly learning a new language and a new way of life.

But there’s a downside to expat living as well, and it tends to rear its head as we get older and think about setting down roots and what “home” really means.

As an expat in my *shudder* mid-thirties, I’ve lived all over the place, but now I’ve started wondering “where home” really is for me. Is it in Sydney, where I was born and grew up? Where most of my family are?

Is it London, where I had a glorious time soaking up the culture, traveling around Europe and enjoying way too many museums to count? Or could it be the US, where I met Mr M and have been happily existing in for almost two years now?

Putting down roots

It’s all about where you, as an expat, what to put down roots I suppose. Unless you want to become a travelling family, which is feasible for some. I do think that children require some form of stability and uprooting them every few years to go to different schools and make new friends in strange places is probably not the best idea.

The Expat Dilemma: Stay or Go?

There are so many things to consider when deciding where home is:

  • Chances of securing an appropriate visa
  • Cost of living
  • Laws around buying property
  • Family and friends
  • Ease of travel to and from
  • Lifestyle

I had a great conversation about this with a coworker from The Netherlands the other day. Talking about constantly moving and being in that state of flux. He said something that I found really interesting:

“Being a third-cultured child, you know that you might not want to live in your birth country, so you’ll never really have that feeling of “home”. Where is home? You’re always in doubt, you’re always floating.”

Living away from family and friends generally means missing out. Weddings and birthday parties are held without you, new babies come into the world that you won’t get to be close to, despite the leaps and bounds of video chat. It brings you closer but really cements that distance between you.

All of these factors have my head in a bit of a spin. I can’t see into the future and the US isn’t exactly a friendly place to immigrants right now. Expats get a bit of leeway, but rules are tightening anyway. Which leads me to the second option of sorts.

Expat Repatriation

It’s a sticky subject for most expats: the question of whether to move home and when to do it. Will home be the same as when you left it? Will you be different?

I’ve repatriated once, from London back to western Sydney and the shock was palpable. It didn’t help that I was going from total freedom to moving back in with my parents – it was like the double whammy of repatriating.

That move made me feel like I was going from a huge world with so many possibilities, places to visit and things to do, to a much smaller one. It wasn’t bad, per say, my family and friends were all glad to have me home. But it was a big adjustment at first.

Then I was off again. The problem with repatriating and settling down is that you’re always going to have that “itch” to get away.

Being a third-cultured child, you know that you might not want to live in your birth country, so you’ll never really have that feeling of “home”. Where is home? You’re always in doubt, you’re always floating.

How have others found the daunting task of moving back “home”? Unfortunately, they haven’t found the support for their decisions that I did. One expat was greeted with comments like “thought you’d be too worldly and good to come back to this town” and “I’m sure you’ll look at private schools now that your kids are too smart for the public ones we use”, when they told friends of their imminent return.

A home base

When kids are involved in the equation, it becomes a bit more of a tough decision. Should you give them a home base to return to between trips, so that they do have a sense of home? Or just move from place to place? What’s best for them?

Expat dilemma: Having a home base
Yes, I went there. Sorry, I couldn’t help it. Here we are, at home base.

Cynthia started off with a home base of sorts, “somewhere that would create some kind of sense of stability, especially for the kids”, but after attending a Families in Global Transition (FIGT) talk she changed her mind.

“…but then at FIGT at one of the talks this phd had done research on it and it seems the constant repatriation actually has a negative effect on the identity of [Third Culture Kids], Cynthia said.

“Knowing how difficult it was to repatriate (which I tried) it kind of makes sense. So I’ve let go of that idea and try to be “here” wherever we are and take it as it goes and embrace it fully while it lasts and it’s time for the next place.”

Karen and her son had a different experience though. While the family lives overseas, her youngest child repatriated to the United States to attend college, and basically have a place to call home.

“All kids are different but as my youngest went back to the states for college a home to share Christmas and a place for him to go that he can call home has been a good choice,” she said.

“He just finished spring break there with eight friends from college. It gives him a sense of belonging.”

Not for lack of trying

There are those who want to settle down in one place, but then life got in the way. Take Esther for example, she moved from the UK to Vanuatu and intended to stay there, but it didn’t quite work out.

“Then I thought I would put down roots back ‘home’ in the U.K. I didn’t get the family interaction I was looking for and the GFC made keeping a job hard,” Esther said.

“An opportunity came up in Dubai. Lifestyle was too flash and we lasted 2 years. Sydney, 3 years on, is great. I feel like I’ve been trying to settle since I first left the UK in 2003!”

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The idea of putting down roots in a certain place might not quite match up to the reality of the country you’ve moved to. Like Esther, it might take a couple of moves before you find the right place.

Living in limbo

What about the perpetually indecisive, like me? Maybe I shouldn’t tar everyone with that same brush, but I do tend to change my mind quite a bit.

Samantha and her husband are both “third-cultured kids” and find living in a place where everyone around them has settled down “a bit odd”.

“We go back and forth between feeling we should have roots somewhere and finding the things people with roots concern themselves with hard to understand (such as the way they accrue stuff such as decorations for different holidays/seasons because they don’t have to keep moving),” she said.

Keep on moving

Then there are the perennial explorers and adventurers. They’re not ruling anything in or out, just going with the flow and seeing where life takes them.

Heather fits into this category… sort of. She says she has “zero intentions” of taking up any of these options.

“My intention is to do what feels right in the moment. Right now, that feels like I’ll keep jumping around, whenever my visa runs out, I stop enjoying where I am or find a better opportunity elsewhere,” she said.

“No intention to stay here, no intention to repatriate. But I would never try and predict my own future by saying that I won’t stay, go home, leave tomorrow or any other option. That’s just how I feel right now. It works well for me. It helps that I have chosen not to have children because I only have to consider me and my husband with this way of life. And luckily, he loves following me on these adventures (or at least he has so far!).”

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Now it’s your turn. Have you repatriated to put down roots? Or have you kept on moving where your career or whim takes you? What’s your experience?

Linking up with The Ultimate Rabbit Hole.

44 thoughts on “Expat dilemma : stay or go?

  1. I got to the point that I felt it was time to go home. I voice inside my head kept saying go home. Fortunately I got offered my old job back and I thought it was a sign so I packed up and come home. Do what is right for you.

    1. That’s interesting Anne. Did you go through that awesome adjustment period where you wonder what you’re doing? Hehe, I never know what’s right for me, I just go with the flow and see how I land.

  2. Love this post, I’ve been living on the European continent for almost at year now but have to move back home next month to complete my studies. Being in my early twenties I find it hard to imagine ever settling down somewhere and you’ve given me lots to think about!

    1. You’ve got heaps of time before you have to think about those things! Get out and enjoy the world now 🙂 Thanks for visiting Antonia.

  3. This was a really interesting post. I am just finishing Uni and have been bitten badly by the travel bug. Italy seems to be the country I have fallen deeply in love with and have contemplated moving out their for a while. But, then I think about the things you’ve mentioned like family, settling down and having kids, where will my career be etc. I guess as cheese as it sounds, to me home will always be where the heart is – with my Mummy and siblings. I really enjoyed this post (:


    1. Aww, that’s so lovely Ashlee. I guess I’m thinking about all of this stuff because I’m very quickly approaching my mid-30s and I spent a lot of my 20s and early 30s travelling all over the place. Italy is gorgeous, I hope you get there! But I’m sure that your mum and siblings miss you heaps!

    1. As long as you’re still loving it, go for it! It is a bit sad that you’re missing out on stuff at home, but your friends and family will always be there for you.

  4. I am an “expat” of sorts without moving countries!! Having moved around NSW & lived in isolated communities in my 20s as a young married mum & teacher it was quite the adventure but we needed to settle somewhere for medical & schooling reasons so north western Sydney became that place for over 38 years. Now, in our late 60s we have moved to a regional area of NSW and I like it but remain unsettled. I think it is because of my life stage & that adventures are not what I want. I’m wanting what is unattainable – security & certainty. Great post K & much good for thought. Do you follow Kirsty Rice & Nikki Moffit’s Two Fat Expats Podcast? They’ve interviewed people re the issues you also raise. D x

    1. Moving out of your comfort zone to a different part of NSW that is vastly different to what you’re used to is very expat-like! Do you think that moving back to western Sydney would help you to feel more settled Denyse? I’ll have to check out the Two Fat Expats podcast – unfortunately I don’t listen to lots of podcasts so they tend to pile up.

      1. Nope, never! I actually never felt like it was home either. Funny isn’t it? One day, with our own house I do believe this will help..and neither of mind if it is regional NSW. D xx

  5. Loved this! I moved around a lot as a child. Never an expat, but one thing I always learned is that once you love, things are never the same. We all want them to be, but people move on and get their own lives. It doesn’t freeze while your gone. Do what makes you happy.

    1. That’s spot on Shannalyn, life doesn’t freeze while you’re gone, nor should it. I miss my brothers like crazy but things change as you grow older as well.

  6. My husband and I decided not to have any mortgage because we are going to move around. We were thinking of family and friends to, and other things like you mentioned above, but well… we will keep moving 🙂

    1. Hey, if it works for you, keep on doing it! The thought of a mortgage scares the bejesus out of me to be honest.

  7. This article is way too real. I had such a solid plan to live FOREVER in the Caribbean (I am Canadian) to escape the cold winters and live by the ocean and dedicated my life to its sea creatures. I happened to fall in love there with a Spaniard and as our relationship grew stronger, we saw that maybe the life there was wanted before was great for career focused singles, but life had a new plan for us, we wanted a place to settle and have a family. We tried traveling around the world for a year looking into locations which could offer us both- but with our interests in work and wanting the best for a family settled life, nothing fit.

    Then we tried moving back to Canada where we had great jobs, good pay and a good place for creating a family. But once winter rolled around I got this feeling like THIS IS WHY I LEFT IN THE FIRST PLACE!!! It also didn’t help that we were used to remote island life and life without franchises.

    After 1 year and over $1000 dollars invested in my partner’s residency paperwork, we canceled it all to move to the East Coast of Spain. I have had to change career direction, but I have still found something that works for me. I don’t have harsh winters anymore and I get to enjoy the ocean view. It also is a society we think will be good for our future children.

    In the end, it was a lot of searching but compromise was needed to find our place.

    1. That’s such a huge journey Megan! You must be so glad that you made the decision to move to Spain now, but it would have been tough one to make. It’s a shame that you had to change careers, hopefully you’ve found something that you equally like to do. Best of luck to your family xx

  8. This sounds really interesting! I’ve wanted to move abroad for so many years (I’m saving up for a move to Copenhagen); but I haven’t really thought about it from this angle.

  9. I am a third culture kid myself and can totally relate to you. I grew up moving around every few years and went to 10 different schools from K-12. I have finally “settled” down in Chicago (6 years so far – longest I’ve ever lived in one city), and I think I am starting to get the hang of having somewhere to call home. I’ve started to see the benefits of having a home base and establishing roots somewhere. It’s been an inner struggle for me at times but I think I’m moving in the right direction for me.

    1. That’s great Diana! I find that I start to get really homesick for Australia at around the one year mark, and then start getting itchy feet around two years.

  10. I’m dealing with this debate in my head right now, and weirdly it primarily centers around my pets. I really don’t want to leave them and give them to someone else. So, while I love traveling, I think I will always have roots somewhere. 😀

    1. That’s why I haven’t gotten a cat or a dog 🙁 Even though I’d really love to have pets. I can’t give them a proper home if I’m traveling around.

  11. We moved to Sydney and decided to stay put. If home is where the heart is, our heart is definitely in Sydney. Weirdly though, although we never want to go back, we still see the UK as our home country, in terms of where we’re from, because that’s where we grew up and that’s where many of our nearest and dearest are. I think when you find the right place, you’ll just know!

    1. That sounds very much like the “finding the right person” argument… hmm. I am just ridiculously indecisive and always second guess myself. So who knows?

  12. Its quite amazing how much you change over the years but you don’t realise it until you look back. In my twenties all i could think about was moving around, moving on and have wild adventures in far flung places. Now, i’ve settled somewhat with a house, a partner and a cat but we are still having adventures in far flung places. Last year we trekked in the Himalaya looking for snow leopards (and found one!). So home is where you make it really, where your heart feels content.

    1. Oh wow Julie! I can’t believe you found a snow leopard, that’s awesome! I guess it’s all about finding a place that you love and that you want to be your home base, and then planning from there.

    1. Oh yeah, that’s got to be one of the toughest moves to make. Back home with the parents. But you kind of get into the groove again after a while.

  13. What an interesting reflection, and a topic I’ve definitely been grappling with lately as I approach the last year of my current visa. It’s so difficult no matter what, but it helps to read words and stories of other expats who have been through the same decision making process!

    1. Hopefully it’s not a tough decision for you Sarah, and it’s great that you’re thinking about it sooner rather than later. Best of luck!

  14. Good article Katherine. Like you, Australia (Melbourne) will always be “home”. Like you, I too lived and explored what this world has to offer and became a better person for it. I too did the repatriation thing, where I stayed with my parents for a while before finding my own place and finding a new rhythm in a very familiar landscape. But now, I live thousands miles away from them in the San Francisco Bay Area, looking up at the starry sky and wondering what they have planned for the new day ahead over the pond.
    In my 20s, I would have agreed with “Heather’s” view point of being a perennial explorer. But, as I explored more, I have also come to value the ability to share the experience to be more fulfilling than merely collecting experience. I even find enhancements of my experience by sharing with others. What should also be noted in “Heather’s” comment is that she has her husband to share that experience, making it worthwhile and lasting. Would “Heather” continue if she didn’t have her husband to share it with? That would be an interesting question. Doing “what’s right for the moment” is a lifestyle choice, that’s easy to agree to in your 20s and even early 30s, but without making a lasting connection with those around you, it will ultimately be a hollow experience. It is a singular pursuit no different than someone who pursuits money on Wall Street or in their profession over all else. The all too late realizations and epiphanies are all too cliché.
    Having been through this discussion in my own head multiple times, I come to see the question is less about “stay or go”, but more about where you find your fit. What tugs our heartstring about “home” has no relation to the cost of living, laws around buying houses, even lifestyle. For me, “home” is where you had the most intense experience and connections that impacted your life. “Home” is less about a physical location, but more so a “North Star”, a reference point that makes who you are today. I believe we are less a jigsaw puzzle piece, where we have a fixed position, but more a Lego piece, where we are capable of being plugged in to many places, where we can either be part of a beautiful sculpture, or part of a hot-mess at the hands of a 3 year-old, eager to escape and finding a better fit.
    The decision should be to how can you be your own Lego Build Master, where you can take all the valuable experience in your life and make a better one wherever you are.

    1. Love your perspective Jack. It’s an interesting way to look at it. So, can I ask, is San Francisco your “home” now? I did the same as you – went to London and Europe, went back to Sydney, and now I’m in SF.

  15. This was a really thoughtful and in-depth post, I can imagine how difficult it is to be an ex-pat (and also how tough it is to go home again after being away). It’s hard enough just coming home after a trip! I’m sure many ex-pats will relate to all of the things you mentioned and appreciate this post!

    1. Thanks Sierra. I know from experience that it feels like your heart is in two places at once. When you’re home, you’re pining for the road and vice versa. But that’s not such a terrible thing I think.

  16. Well as a brand new expat, I don’t think I can add to this yet – I’m still doing the culture shock thing never mind reverse culture shock! However, in the UK I did move around a lot and I tend to be someone who appreciates change rather than avoids it. I think maybe the question about if/when depends on personality type plus life situation. Some people will always want to keep moving, I think. Others will want to find a place to have kids. Others will do both. I think with kids its hard to know whether they’ll thrive by change or find it upsetting. Again personality type I guess. Lots of stuff to think about here, thanks!

    1. Oh you poor thing. How’s Australia treating you? I apologise in advance for everything. 😉 It’s good to hear that you appreciate change though, that will work in your favour.
      You’re right though, personality and your outlook on life will have a lot to do with how you feel about this. And I think that if your kids are used to moving around a bit, they wouldn’t mind it as much.

  17. This is a really tough question. I left Oz 9 years ago with two kids. I only intended to stay 6 months because my then fiance (now hubby) was deploying with the Army. Well that changed and I stayed. Except my B2 travel visa stuck due to issues outside of our control. So that meant no work for me. I was lucky in that the military community was very homely. Even when he eventually left I felt ok because I had a good base of friends. Fast forward to today and he’s retired from the military but we now live in a city we both hate. I have my residency but in order to be a Nurse (again – the career I left in Oz), I need to return to school. I’m pining for home because life here doesn’t make me happy but my eldest daughter is not wanting to leave. I’m not sure I want to be away from her. So as much as I want to leave I don’t know if it’s an option. Hubby and I are planning on relocating next year but it feels as though I’m just treading water right now.

    1. That’s a rough situation Vee. It sounds like something that worked at one point in your life but just doesn’t make much sense anymore. When you say that you’re relocating next year, will you move somewhere within the US or are you going back to Australia? I can imagine that kind of upheaval would be tough on your daughter after so long in the states. 🙁 I don’t envy your decision at all.

  18. When I repatriated from Germany to the USA I thought I was really ready to settle back at home. But now, even after the reverse culture shock has (mostly) worn off, I just want to go be an expat again! (Just not in Germany.) The biggest dilemma for my husband and me, however, is taxes. Most countries have higher taxes so we’d be taking a paycut in that regard, plus still having to pay US taxes even when we live abroad (not fully but still it’s a huge issue). I feel very conflicted, and I don’t even have to factor kids into the equation yet! Nice post. 🙂

    1. Yeah the taxes are a big pain for me as well. Australian taxes and US taxes… it’s all confusing and a bit of a pain really. Best of luck deciding on your next adventure! The kid thing is a bit mind boggling to me. It’s difficult enough making a choice without them!

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