The excitement of a new town, the fear of being alone, a built-in community and to be able to reinvent yourself. Most people will experience life changes at this level only once—when they go away to college. Expats endure the thrill and horror of beginning a new life every time they move. After four years in Dubai and eight years as an expat, there’s one thing I’ve realized about changing your countries: It has a lot in common with going away to school.
The most intense friendships seem to be forged when some people are put together in the same location with a shared purpose: i.e., college. They arrive on their own, are learning about their new environment, and need a support system—quick. It’s the ideal surroundings for the formation of strong friendships.
Expats are equally needy. As foreigners, they share a status of difference and are often alone. Friendships form fast and intensely. A woman heard my accent across a bar in India. She shouted: “Are you American?” In less than an hour, we were walking arm in arm through the city’s dusty streets while she told me how her boyfriend, had recently left her. I can’t imagine things developing that fast had we met in the U.S., where we are both from.
The Reinvention Test
A lot of college students who arrive home from their first semester of school are almost unrecognizable: different clothes, new vocabulary, and new friends. Leaving for college may be the only moment that a lot of people get to reinvent themselves. Going away to college is a period, likely for the first time when you can actively find out how new people perceive you.
Expats, when they leave their home country, also get to step outside of the role assigned to them by family and friends.
Mike moved to Korea, in part, to escape the materialistic existence he led in New York. He didn’t like being quantified by how much money he made, and felt trapped by the life he had created. “In New York, it’s impossible not to be judged by where and how you live, or what you wear,” says Mike, who wants to remain anonymous. He moved to Asia where he rented a simple apartment and began walking to work at a low-stress job every day. He expressed an internal change and become the person he wanted to be, someone who cared very little about money. “I live in a studio now,” says Mike. “It’s very much a relief to not always be trying to keep up.”
Steep Learning Curve
Life in college and in a new town can both feel like constant struggles. Things as easy as finding out where to pay bills or how to do laundry in a foreign machine can make you feel overwhelmed. I’ve broken down in tears in a cab several times when a driver couldn’t understand my poor Spanish. But the joys can be fantastic also: The first time I didn’t give myself an electric shock while trying to make instant coffee with an electric spoon—that was a great accomplishment. In case you have been lucky enough not to encounter an electric spoon, it’s an old device that plugs into the wall and rests in a cup of water to boil it. If you don’t unplug it before removing it from the cup it will give you a nasty shock.
It is very rare for most people to get to experience such an array of new experiences daily after college. The challenges of a new town, different food, another language—and how to use strange appliances. It may be the reason why people can be found reminiscing about their expatriate years with the same fondness the wider population remembers college.
From Freshman to Super Senior
When college freshmen arrive in their new environments, there’s an always-present “new kid on the block” fear: Will they know how it all works? How are they able to avoid embarrassment? For expats, there is also a time when colleagues shake their heads knowingly while hearing the “newbie’s” stories of getting ripped off by professional beggars or being taken to a late-night club that pays cab drivers for dropping off carloads of unwitting foreigners.
As a 12-year veteran of Dubai, Jamie has moved into the phase she calls “super senior,” in which she’s noticing people who look like they’re new in the country. “What do you need?” she thinks, and then she offers her help.
But probably the most important part of this comparison is what both expats and students hope to gain: the knowledge that comes from venturing far outside your comfort zones and pushing all of your boundaries. It comes with the territory.