Many potential expats have exactly one choice of destination, based on a job offer or a spouse or some other situation, but many potential expats can choose nearly anywhere in the world. Especially retired people and location-independent people with good incomes, some have the ability to spin the globe and move to a place they feel will suit them well.
Recently I wrote about how different types of expats tend to move to different places, and some people have responded to confirm that theory, and one part of it in particular. Part of this research goes back to checking out and discussing online expat forums and discovering that many parts of the world are famously filled with bitter expats who seem to thrive on complaining about their newly adopted countries. The “cheap and sunny” expat is the main culprit, but there are others, and they may have a bigger influence on your experience than you’d like.
The importance of a like-minded expat community
Having traveled all over the world and discussed the expat living situation with those who’ve lived in so many different places, I’ve concluded that one of the main keys to happiness is finding a community of people you like when you get there. Before you leave home it’s easy to pick a place that feels like paradise and assume you’ll easily find good friends once you get there, but sometimes it’s not that easy.
As mentioned in that previous article, one of the potential problems is moving to a place where most expats are there to get AWAY from somewhere else rather than because they actually love that new place. Sadly, it seems very common for these people to move somewhere and then spend nearly all their time complaining to anyone who will listen.
It sounds simple enough to avoid negative people, but when they dominate discussions on expat forums and dominate attendance at expat gatherings it can be overwhelming. Those who can speak the local language fluently will find it easy to stay in their own orbit, so the problem comes for those who don’t speak the language and need to ask for help from fellow expats. Getting beaten up on an expat forum for asking a simple question is not fun, and it tends to chase the helpful people off the sites as well.
How to research an expat community from abroad
Needless to say, if you can get actual word-of-mouth reports from a particular place that is ideal. Better still, if you already have friends who live there then you are set because (as long as they have a similar attitude to you) you’ll be plugged into a good social scene from the moment you arrive.
But gauging the vibe in a place without any personal contacts can be tricky. I’d recommend finding the busiest local online expat forum and spending as much time on there as possible. Don’t just read posts about topics that interest you, also read posts with titles like “Question from a newbie” and see how those people are treated. In many places it’s painful to see how responses are often about how it’s a stupid question, or a nasty sermon on how they should have used the Search function before asking.
If the most popular online forum for your destination is dominated by bitter expats who appear to spend their entire day trolling new posts looking for things to complain about, it could be a sign that those people dominate out on the streets as well. In many more gentle forums it’s the bitter ones who get shouted down and then banned, so it’s interesting to see which group has the momentum.
Possible strategy: Avoid the most obvious places
Based on my own research and some anecdotal evidence, I think it’s easier to find a more interesting and less complaint-based group of expats if you avoid the most obvious spots in any given region. For example, in Thailand you’ll find large expat communities in Chiang Mai and in Pattaya (a beach near Bangkok known for its many prostitutes), and those places tend to attract generic expats who were actually moving AWAY from something rather than TO something.
It seems likely that moving to Chiang Rai (near Chiang Mai) or Hua Hin (a more upscale beach southwest of Bangkok) would put you among people who care more about Thailand and those destinations than about the cheapest and most famous place. And if you went to an even more obscure place (provided it had an expat community of some kind) you might find an even more interesting group.
I hear a lot of terrible things about the British expat communities in southern Spain, but that’s mostly about the people who’ve moved to the expat-crowded areas in and around Malaga. I’ve a feeling that if you went an hour or two away from the heavily populated places it would be better.
Part of this theory comes from my experience here in Kas, Turkey, where I’m about to wrap up my 13th and final (for now, at least) month here. This is a beautiful little fishing/tourist village on the Mediterranean that is more than 2 hours from two different airports. In other words, it takes quite a bit of time and effort to get here, so almost no one gets here by accident.
My friends here tell me that the expat communities in Bodrum and Izmir, and even Antalya tend to be more about people who wanted to live in a cheap and sunny place, and that complaining is a major hobby there. I’m happy to report that every expat I’ve met here is very happy to be here, even with a few inconveniences that pop up once in a while.
This might make me rethink my plan to move to Bali next year. I’d originally considered moving to Seminyak because that’s the popular center of the expat community there, but it’s possible that it’s also the worst place in Bali precisely for that reason. I’ll look around quite a bit before renting anywhere, if I make it to Bali at all.