For this expat, the journey home has been a long one. Many perceive my time abroad as nothing more than an escape from the real world. In actuality, I have returned home with more than just a collection of photos and visa stamps.
Many expats don't return home, but this is not necessarily due to perpetual wanderlust or adventure-seeking. Residing abroad can also be motivated by a particular fear. This fear is not politically, culturally, or emotionally rooted. It is a fear of what our expat lives have done to our resumes.
Expats work odd jobs. These jobs can range from dog-walking to teaching English. Regardless of the title, expat jobs are rarely related to the expat's education or career aspirations. The leap abroad usually is motivated by finances or a desire for adventure. Expat-hood requires a person to be more broad-minded when it comes to making money. This can lead to rewarding experiences and wonderful opportunities. However, upon returning to their homeland, what used to be a great experience can turn into a career roadblock.
Expats can end up with a thematic hole in their resume. While the international job may fill a time period, it may not compliment the criteria of an "ideal candidate." International employment history can also become a distraction to employers who have preconceptions of expats. Many employers look at international experience as "just-out-of-college jobs" in which expats spend their time site-seeing and participating in shenanigans.
These preconceptions are frustrating for the returning expat. While living abroad can involve extensive travel and even the occasional shenanigan, the day-to-day life of an expat is hardly a frat party. In fact, the skills acquired to navigate in another culture, language, and environment are frequently underestimated by most who work in Human Resources. Expat life isn't a vacation or a study abroad program. Many expats live and work in a foreign country, on their own, for years. They have to operate completely out of their comfort zone every day. Expats will admit that there are days when they don't even want to leave their apartments because the smallest task required ten times more energy. Getting your clothes dry-cleaned is a little more challenging in Korea.
"International experience" hardly covers an expat's life. Anyone who has taken a long international vacation could list "international experience" on their resume. How do I quickly describe, in bullet-point format, the challenges of operating in a Korean business environment that is ruled by age, not experience? How do I demonstrate that living in Korea and Sweden opened my eyes to the reality of racism and extreme nationalism? The value of those lessons greatly outweighs my PowerPoint skills or marketing experience. Expats have to adapt: everyday with no exceptions. They must be open-minded or they will not thrive. This is not something everyone can do.
As an expat, I learned that each nation has its own big bucket of problems and there is no one solution. I now see that everyone believes their culture and perspective is the "most correct," not because they're ignorant, but because they're human. I've learned it's better to make the best of the worst outcomes and see solutions in the impossible. These are characteristics most employers would want in an employee.
Someday the expat's experience will be valued beyond a long international vacation. I believe many expats would return home if they knew the stigma of working abroad would not derail their true career aspirations.
Here's hoping! Happy 2014 to all you expats out there!