Meeting Other Expats Abroad – What’s the Reality?
When it comes to meeting other expats, many people think that they will make friends easily when they move abroad. I mean, we’re all expats, right? That’s a big thing to have in common! But when meeting other expats abroad, the reality is that the 1% rule governs.
What is the 1% Rule?
The 1% rule is a law of averages I’ve come up with to make sense of what my personal experience of living abroad in Costa Rica and in Panama for the past ten years. My experiences – and those of other expats who I’ve interviewed and known as friends and co-workers – leads me to believe this rule applies to expats as people…not to expats living in a particular location.
The 1% Rule is numbers driven. (Accountants and Mathemeticians,rejoice!) Let’s use the United States as our backdrop for this post, since it’s my home country.
Why the Rule is Called “1%”
The U.S. has 350 million citizens. Of those, 46% hold passports for international travel. In 2016, just 19% of U.S. citizens traveled abroad. But how many of those travelers venture out further and make the decision to actually move abroad?
While the diagram below gives a fun breakdown by Internations published in 2016 of what the average U.S. expat looks like, there are no firm numbers of how many U.S. citizens actually live outside the U.S., only estimates.
Estimates of how many U.S. expats live abroad range from two to seven million. Hmm…that’s a pretty big range!
So back to our 1% Rule for Meeting Other Expats Abroad equation.
Let’s assume – since there are no firm numbers – that five million U.S. citizens live abroad. Five million of 350 million equates to 1.4% of the total U.S. population.
This 1.4% is why I named this Meeting Other Expats rule, “The 1% Rule”. I assume that this number is more or less going to be the case for most other countries (not taking into account those that are war-torn).
Let’s Keep Breaking It Down
Keeping the 1.4% in mind, consider Costa Rica and Panama – where I’ve resided full-time for the past ten years. Estimates in Panama for U.S. citizens in 2012 were around 20,000. In Costa Rica, according to the U.S. State Department in 2013, U.S. citizens in Costa Rica totaled 50,000, though only 12,000 held legal residency visas. (I have yet to see more recent statistics reported online to date.)
(Side note: I’ll do another post soon on legal residency in Costa Rica.)
Back to our numbers – let’s estimate 70,000 U.S. expats live between Costa Rica and Panama. When you split that number across all the little retirement towns along the Pacific coast and between the two capital cities in the two countries, 70,000 expats is really not that many. Yes, you’ll run into more expats from the U.S. and Canada than those from other countries, most likely, but even so, 70,000 is the size of the town I grew up in. It’s not that big.
Applying the 1% Rule when Meeting Other Expats Abroad
Now remember, when you live abroad, you’re not just living with other expats from your country of origin. Our tiny coastal community of Costa Ballena in South Pacific Costa Rica is comprised of expats from around the world – Argentina, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Scotland, Spain….you get the picture. It’s colorful and it’s fun to have this much diversity, much less the local Costa Rican nationals!
So, assume that 1% of all the countries in the world are those that you will meet abroad.
Now, consider your city or state back home, wherever that might be, and think of it like this: when you live in your country of origin (the U.S., in our example), you have the entire diverse population of your citizenry around you. And from that pool of different personalities and backgrounds and sub-cultures within your own country, you select your friends from within your community. But even within your own community, you don’t get along with every one, do you? Nope. There are lots of people in your own home town or state or province that you would never choose to fraternize with.
Can’t We All Just Get Along? Well, Maybe…
Keeping that in mind….here’s the bottom line. You cannot expect that just because you meet other expats in your new country that you’re going to like them or that you’re going to have anything in common with them.
In fact, often, it’s just the opposite. Remember that guy at your old job back home that bugged the living sh#t out of you with his stupid jokes? Or the gal in your church who was always skating the line between legal and illegal with her business? Or the Peeping Tom in your community with a window washing company who got caught?
Yep. You’ll find those same kinds of characters here – whether Panama, Costa Rica, New Zealand or Timbuktu. You’ll encounter top of the line and bottom of the barrel folks and the truth is you’re just not gonna gel with everyone.
Why Can’t We Be Friends, Fellow Expats?
Let’s break down the final equation.
Every time I now meet an expat – no matter where they hail from, whether U.S. or not – I keep the 1% Rule in mind. I know that they too come from the 1% of “those who moved abroad” from their home country.
I then expect that 50% of all the people I meet will be people I have zero interest in socializing with.
Because these people will be living abroad for a reason that doesn’t jive with my values – maybe they’re running from the law, maybe they’re evading taxes, maybe they’re just living abroad illegally, who knows. It doesn’t really matter. The law of averages bears out such that I know that one out of two expats I meet is someone that I’ll say, “Hmm. Okay. Nope. Next.” (And by the way, this is not conjecture…this is not real….I’ve met these people – over and over and over again.)
Of the remaining 50% (of that original 1%), half of those people will be the characters I referenced above – the ones I would never have anything to do with if I met them in my home town. So why would I want to socialize with them here? Bottom line, I probably won’t, though I might on occasion if we’re in a larger social setting. (Except the Peeping Tom guy….assuming I figured that one out…ewww.)
The reality of living abroad is that the expat circle from which you select your friends – whether they turn into close ones or have-a-drink-with ones – is much smaller than the pool you had to choose from when you lived back home.
But don’t forget the remaining 25% (of the 1%)! Now, THESE are my people! Yahoo! They are fun, adventurous, open minded, interesting, educated and savvy. And this is where my social circle forms. And it’s probably where yours will too.
If you think about it, 25% of 1% is one of four, right? Those numbers are pretty good, aren’t they?
Expat Life in Costa Rica: It’s Paradise, but It Ain’t Perfect
Now you can be sure, as soon as I put this post up, I’ll hear it: Hey, JuliAnne, you’re being way too negative.
But this stuff is truth, my dear readers.
Keep in mind, I’ve lived abroad – as a corporate executive and now as an entrepreneur – for ten years.
So, this is not about slamming anyone or making stuff up.
This is REAL EXPAT LIFE, people. And I choose to share it – the good, the bad and the ugly – so that other future expats like you have a bit of a leg up on knowing what it’s really like.
With these morsels of shared experiences, perhaps you can avoid some of the heartache I and many others like me had along the way because of unrealistic expectations.
Because at the end of the day, it’s your expectations which will make you sink or swim as an expat living aboard, no matter where you are.
So, pack your bags, get out there, shake some hands, throw back some cocktails (or a freshly-squeezed Costa Rica fruit juice) – it’s so much fun once you find your 25%! And, believe you me, they’re waiting for you too!
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Until next time, Pura Vida, and good luck to you as you start your new life as an expat abroad!