Is it better to be an expat or a nomad?


Recently I did a tally of all the countries Drew and I have visited together, and which countries we’ve spent the most amount of time in. I think Drew has some ideas on how to analyze this information in interesting ways, but until that happens, the project has unearthed some interesting thoughts of my own, particularly as I compare my experiences as a nomad with Drew to my pre-Drew travels living, studying, and working in Northern Ireland.

I’m looking at this as a sort of comparison between living internationally as a nomad and living internationally as an “expat”, (or rather, like an expat, since my experiences were in the study-abroad context). The real comparison is between living an international but stationary life, and living an international but nomadic life.

The International, Stationary Life

I don’t really know what it’s like to be an expat.  But I know what it’s like to create a routine in a foreign place- to love it and know it intimately enough that each memory of it is nostalgic.

Yesterday it started to sprinkle as I was walking to the grocery store. A strong breeze made a cluster of little yellow leaves crash into my stride and immediately the feel of N.Ireland clicked into place like a filter over a lens. This happens any time a pale gray sky makes the temperature drop, and lingers there before the rain actually falls.

There are few other destinations that sneak into my recollection like that and I sometimes feel my experience in N. Ireland was more “imprinting” than anywhere else. Let me explain.

During my years at Bluffton University, I spent a total of roughly 188 days in Derry N. Ireland, spread across two separate semesters.  (This makes Northern Ireland, (or the UK if we’re being technical) the country I’ve spent the most amount of time in, beating out Thailand by ~70 days.) Both semesters were spent either working, studying, or both, and living with one host family the whole semester.

Which is to say, during both semesters I was stationary and I had a routine.  I walked the same cobble-stoned route downtown nearly every day.  I bought groceries from the same grocery store every week and met the same group of fellow students at Wetherspoon’s for half-off curry night every Thursday.

Routine is a powerful differentiator between these two international lifestyles.

Because of a consistent home and routine for instance, I made friends in N. Ireland.  Friends who I saw regularly.  I developed favorite “haunts” that I still remember fondly.  My family  knew when and where to reach me via mail or phone.  I had one time zone for them to coordinate with for phone calls and a predictable schedule.  I got letters from my grandma almost every week and care packages from my friends back home.  I didn’t have to “go out” to socialize- I attended and hosted family-style meals.  I had friends over.  I had a place to do laundry.

But I still had some of the perks of living abroad.

Nearly every weekend I was hiking or site-seeing with my local friends as guides.  I took short vacations to Dublin, Edinburgh, Galway, and countless trips to Donnegal. Had I been a real expat, staying longer than a semester, I’m sure that list would be much longer.  Fellow students for example visited Paris, London, and Rome during that semester.

These study abroad semesters gave me a glimpse of what I imagine expat life is like.



The International, Nomadic Life

Diving into a specific culture is an extremely rich and meaningful experience, but it’s not quite the same adventure that being a nomad is.  Routine is not thrilling.

As a nomad, you have virtually no routine.  At least, your routine is in no way attached to a specific place or culture.  Checking in and out of hotels becomes your routine rather than a specific restaurant or coffee shop.  And as a result, you are constantly figuring things out and constantly surprised.  You are forced to explore, because nothing is known.  Forced to speak with strangers because your friends are thousands of miles away.  You don’t have the option of becoming complacently comfortable.  You are constantly making mistakes and constantly in a place of serendipity.


Most travelers will admit that their best stories come from the most unexpected accidents.  Getting on the same bus every week, all semester is nowhere near as exciting as hoping against all odds that you’ve happened to board the correct bus from Wuhan to Jingzhou, China, and spending two hours watching a starkly unfamiliar landscape offer no hints as to whether or not you chose wisely.

Going to your favorite pub every weekend with your classmates is a great feeling, but it’s nowhere near as exciting as picking something only marginally recognizable from the menu of a bustling cafeteria in Nairobi.



“Routine” and “unexpected” are two very different contexts producing very different, but valuable feelings.

With one version, you use routine as a tool to better understand a culture that was once foreign and unknown.  You engage a place that is simultaneously strange and your home, so that you can truly get to know a culture other than your own.

With the other, your lack of routine is a tool for stripping away comforts, and making yourself both vulnerable to and open to all the blunders and adventures you could never know to plan.

With one, you learn to know a place so well that you come to love it.  With the other, you go places so unknown that you are constantly learning something surprising and new.

I’m immensely glad I’ve had experiences that had flavors of both, though I’ve undoubtedly had much more experience with the nomadic style of international life than I have with the expat style.


If any of you have experienced expat life, I’d love to hear if any of these reflections resonate with you.  My study-abroad experiences gave just a little glimpse of that stationary/international lifestyle, like an expat demo.  But I’ve always been curious what the expat life is really like, and how it differs from nomadic life.



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