An ode to the expat

An ode to the expat

I spent a fair bit of my childhood in a very comfortable expatriate life overseas, but once I entered the workforce I never really felt inclined to become a proper expat in the original sense of the term.

Growing up as an expat kid couldn’t be more cozy. Generally, the parent’s multinational company, at least if it’s a Western one, provides a lucrative package for those families that are willing to be uprooted. Lodging and private school education expenses are fully covered, as well as often some form of cost of living adjustment or monthly stipend. Throw in exclusive sports club memberships and an annual travel budget, and life is pretty good.

Expat packages today are arguably slightly less generous than those of a few decades ago, yet in balance the trade-offs of living as an expat are a lot more muted: keeping in touch with friends and staying abreast of news from back home is trivial with broadband access, for example.

Upon reflection, I think that subconsciously I always favored pursuing the foreign local worker status over the expat track because despite its numerous appealing attributes, one major drawback of the corporate expat role is the following: lack of free will. Almost inevitably following a 2 to 4 year period, the corporate mothership will summon back the expat employee to home base, or perhaps another international posting for the lucky ones. You love your newly-adopted country? Good for you, but sad to tell you it’s time to come back home (what does ‘home’ even mean at that point?).

I know a lot of expats. Some of my best friends are expats. My evidence is anecdotal, but every single one I know is a talented individual with broad potential. Corporate citizens, true. But not corporate drones. My interactions with expats have led me to conclude that:

Expats represent some of the most underutilized assets within a corporation

And here’s the worst part, most of the time the expats that return to their employer’s domestic country are slotted into a function that is equivalent or inferior to their level before they had left. Forget the fact that these individuals have grown in exponentially greater ways than their domestic counterparts. They’ve solved problems, managed people, tamed complexity, and exercised cross-cultural diplomacy in ways that far exceed their pay grade. Human resource mismanagement departments don’t know what to do with these aliens upon return. Corporations have a serious expat reinsertion problem.

Maybe the corporation really is dying, or at minimum, needs some reinvention.