James Durston

"If everyone knew how great being an expat was, there’d be no one left at home."

Those are the words of a friend, former housemate and fugitive whom I met while we were both living in an ant-infested gecko-shelter that doubled as our apartment in Mumbai, India.

There are few people whose words I take less seriously. He was living abroad (possibly still is) to dodge insurance-scam charges back home; he has more "obnoxious expat" stories than Bangkok has side streets, and has a knack of leaving terrible first impressions, especially with women. I liked to hang around with him because I appeared angelic in comparison.

But that line stuck with me, because it’s the truest thing I ever heard him say.

Living abroad can be an intimidating fantasy. There’s the language problem. There’s the food problem. There’s the cultural-differences problem. There’s the I’m-surrounded-by-foreigners-and-I-just-wanna-go-home problem.

For people like my friend, a refugee from the law, expatism is a kind of forced long-term vacation.

But I’d left a decent job, a pleasant house, family, friends and zero arrest warrants to live in a place where an upset stomach is so common is has its own moniker, "Delhi belly," where monkeys are ubiquitous along with lethal pests, and where 400 people die in traffic accidents every day.

What was I thinking?

For Mark Twain, travel obliterates ignorance. "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness," he said. "Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

But I don’t buy it. My decade living abroad has shown me that exposure can just as easily entrench ignorant views as defeat them.

For me it’s much more about adventure and excitement. While "a decent job and a pleasant house" are perfectly acceptable goals, somehow they’re elevated by being somewhere exotic. Just being somewhere different turns "the rut" into an adventure course.

And there are very practical perks too.

In Hong Kong, where I live now, the top income tax rate is 17%. In Dubai and other Middle Eastern places, it’s 0%.

Salaries are often higher too, or come with a package that includes accommodation allowance, school fees for the kids, insurance and more.

For teachers, writers and others who work especially with the English language, demand for your skills is high.

For families, domestic help and nanny services are a fraction of the price you’d pay at home.

But the real perks of living abroad are the less quantifiable, more life-enriching aspects.

An example: I was in a bar in Mumbai, a steamy kind of place filled with hot, humid people, and got chatting to an old guy at the bar. His skin had a dirt-smudged, glistening, wrinkled look that comes with being permanently soaked in sweat. He arrived in Mumbai 40 years prior—one of the original expats still living in the city—and had epic tales about mixing it up with gangsters in the 1970s who later became politicians. Those gangsters he used to swill around with now run parts of the country. It was a real Rum Diary experience.

But in addition to his somewhat boastful associations with organized crime, he introduced me to a fellow journalist, who a few months later sent me a job ad, which I applied for, which I got, which sent me to Hong Kong, where I met my wife, saw my daughter being born and started the second half of my life.

I’ll remember that guy, his stories and the impact he had on my future for the rest of my days. You can’t say that about the latest plasma TV you just bought.

James Durston is a writer and editor living in Hong Kong, via India, the UK and East Africa. He has written about finance, food & drink, and previously penned pieces for CNNTravel. Read more about him at

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