The Importance of Recognizing the Economic Advantages of Being an Expat

Last weekend at WordCamp EU, there was a talk entitled, How to Run a WordPress Business While Traveling the World. Even though my ‘traveling days’ feel like they are more or less over (Or in the process of being reinvented?) now that I have a child, I was curious about what is being called the nomadic tech movement.

The talk was basic. It covered concepts like communicating with your co-workers while in different time zones, finding personal space to work, and dealing with people who think you are on vacation all of the time. The woman who gave the talk was a designer, and she said that traveling was important to her because that was where she drew inspiration.

That was the moment when the talk could have taken a different direction. It could have gone deeper. Because, what I was seeing on the screen were pictures of obviously impoverished neighborhoods that someone who has enough money to regularly travel the world was using to inspire her career that funded her lifestyle.

I am not saying that this woman was taking advantage of these people. I know nothing about who she is or how she interacts with people where she goes. For all I know, she spends a bunch of her free time volunteering to teach computer skills to impoverished children. I *hope* that she gives back in some way. (I say from the depths of my couch where I haven’t given back to anyone for the past two years). What I am saying is that would have been a perfect point to recognize privilege, especially that which a large majority of people in the tech industry have.

The traveling and global interaction that is common these days often brings me back to the idea of ‘expat’ vs. ‘immigrant’ vs. ’emigrant.’ There are not expats in the U.S. Even Brits who relocate to the U.S. are not called expats. There are immigrants. Occasionally, when their home country is referenced, there are emigrants. In other countries, there Westerners, especially Americans and Brits are called expats. They are not referred to by their relationship to their new country, but by their ties to their home country. But, in places like Bulgaria, there is no translation of expat. There are immigrants and emigrants. A Bulgarian will never be an expat.

This attitude seeps into economics as well. Coming from a country with a stronger currency than the lev, and continuing to work with clients in that country, affords me a different economic perspective than other people immigrating to Bulgaria who do not have the same advantages. I think it is important to take a moment and recognize the privilege we have when we go abroad to a country with a low cost of living while retaining our economic ties to our home country. I also think it is important to recognize that, at the moment, many people are being ‘forced’ abroad.

I say forced lightly, because it is not the right word. However, there are many people who are leaving the U.S., working as teachers or consultants abroad, because a decent standard of living is not available to them in the U.S. Going abroad to live cheap and get paid decent allows them to pay off student loan debt and save for a down payment on a home. It allows them to gain a financial foothold for reentry to the U.S.

Many travelers (or those they interact with) say that they can make more money in the U.S. It is true, that the same job is often paid more in the U.S., but only if you can get that job. Also, the high cost of living often means that even if people are paid more in the U.S., they are unable to save as much as they can while making less and living outside of the U.S.

What this ramble boils down to is that we need to stop and take the time to reflect on our global interactions. We need to recognize our privilege when we go to other countries for a cheaper standard of living, artistic inspiration, or better pay. At the same time, we need to recognize that not everything that gave us that privilege is positive, and each of our ‘countries’ needs to change, grow, and adapt. There should be no expats and immigrants, only people, living in places.


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