Expat Experiences Through the Decades

ExpatThroughTheDecadesExpat Experiences Through the Decades

How the Internet has Changed the Expat Experience

By Claire Bolden McGill

Global Living Magazine – Issue 12 | May/June 2014

As an expat of the 21st century, I feel exceptionally lucky to have the Internet at my fingertips. It means I can reach out to my friends and family back home, correspond and communicate with ease, sit down and Skype with a hot cup of tea in hand – and it almost feels like we’re chatting in the same room.

I can’t imagine what it was like to be an expat even 20 years ago when you had to rely on snail mail (which could take weeks or months and often confuse the communication thread) and that monthly phone call back home. However, as much as I love emailing and getting an instant response, and using Facebook to let my friends in the U.K. know what’s going on in my life, I miss that certain joy of receiving a letter. I do remember opening letters from friends back home as an expat child and being delighted to read it over and over again, absorbing the words and cherishing them, treasuring the fact that a friend had taken the time to write to me.

Additionally, the Internet has allowed me to blog, to reach out into my community and connect even farther afield (I correspond with Brits in California and Americans in Nashville) to create a very interesting life that perhaps I would not have enjoyed had it not been available. It’s also very cathartic to be able to chat with other expats who are having similar experiences, to learn from each other, share stories and even, sometimes, commiserate and moan!

But, what was it really like to be an expat 50, 30, 20 years ago? My research into this question opened up memories both good and bad of the expat experiences through the decades.


Sue and Sarah were expat trailing spouses who benefited from their mutual experience by becoming lifelong friends. Reminiscing about their time together in Gibraltar in the early 1990s, the Naval wives recalled both pros and cons of spending time in foreign climes.

“We certainly made the most of the Mediterranean climate and took advantage of many opportunities to try local food and activities. Being so close to Spain, we had the added benefit of real Spanish experiences such as fairs and fiestas, markets and history. That’s not to say we didn’t also appreciate the duty free! Oh, and the excitement when the U.K. papers eventually arrived a day late!”

“The expat life meant that we were able to share much of it with new friends, who we still keep in touch with, and our teenage children had an instant social life.”

Despite all this, Sue and Sarah agree that it was somehow comforting to know it was a finite experience. “Having to leave your existing job, friends and family was difficult, as was living in temporary accommodation, which never truly felt like ‘home’.”

“Being military wives, we often had to entertain people who were not always of our own choosing, and this led to new challenges at times! Military trailing spouses are often expected to fulfil a particular role and there were times when we just didn’t feel comfortable doing this, but it was part of the job and we had to accept that.”

Being an expat in the early 1990s meant that there was no Internet access yet or cell phones. Sue remembers that initially there was no BBC either.  “We just had the local TV station which was quite amusing, or Spanish channels – great to help you learn the language. When Sky TV arrived, we could tap into programs back home, even if they were a few months behind.”

“In order to communicate back home, we planned in advance, wrote letters and, if it was really important, made very occasional phone calls. It’s so much easier nowadays, I’m sure.”


Melissa was an American expat who moved to the U.K. in the 1980s. She says: “Nowadays, expats in any country are able to stay in contact with friends and family and can even order their favorite foods and things they miss to have them shipped over. You can also learn a lot about your new country just from Googling and asking questions about the culture and its traditions. There are tons of expat resources out there now in print and online to take advantage of where before you could only rely on what was available in the bookstore.”

“The Internet has made the experiences of being an expat 25 years ago and being an expat now almost as contrasting as night and day. In comparison to being an expat 25 years ago, home is not as far away as it used to be.”

British expat, Lucy, agrees: “I moved from Shropshire to Los Angeles in January 1987. It was almost impossible to find out the results of the Ashes series Down Under without waiting two days for a British newspaper to arrive on the next plane. Now I can follow live commentary on the Internet and I almost feel like I’m there.”

The challenges of being an expat in any country 25/30 years ago seem to shape the whole experience for many who undertook the journey. Julie came to the U.S. 27 years ago and the only way she was able to keep in touch with friends and family back home was via letters that “seemed to take forever; it was either that or very expensive – so very infrequent – phone calls.”

“Back then,” she adds, “it was practically impossible to connect with other expats, and there was certainly no way to connect with people across the country and share experiences and advice on all sorts of topics that we now can. It’s changed my whole way of thinking and living as an expat.’

Tom, based in South Carolina, is a big advocate of technology in the expat world and compares it to his early experiences in the 1980s. “I love technology! It has brought home so much closer (I can watch a football match on my phone). It has also been very positive for folks back home too; now my mom can see her grandchildren via Skype. It has eased, somewhat, a lot of pressure of having to be so far away. I remember going to Barnes and Noble trying to find a British newspaper for any news I could lay my hands on 30 years ago. Now I can read about what’s going on every day.”


While we thrive now on these connections and the ease of the Internet, many expats found the transition and experience hard to deal with 30-40 years ago. Chris came to the U.S. in 1971 to stay with her mother-in-law while her husband went to Vietnam. She recalls the difficulties she encountered in the first year.

“I did not drive at that time and what I missed most, apart from my husband, was that there was no transportation or local shops to walk to. I felt so isolated, as my mother-in-law worked all day, and I grew depressed being shut in with no friends. Thank goodness we were then stationed in San Antonio, Texas, where I learnt to drive and joined the British wives’ club. Meeting them was my saving grace.”

Donna recalls the struggles of being a woman who came to the U.S. in the mid-1970s. “Back then it was almost unheard of for a woman to go into a bar on her own. But I did it out of desperation. I’d heard that a bar called the Brickskeller in D.C. had dart teams and I thought I should check it out. I’m glad I did because of the people I met.”


With no Internet and limited communications, the 1960s expats’ experiences tell a story of diving in headfirst, and many recollected how they just had to “get on with it”. Sonia remembers being able to get a Green Card very easily in 1967, and how, as a very young woman, she used everything she encountered as an educational experience.

“In the early 1960s many more families could ‘afford’ domestic/child care help – of which there was a shortage. So that’s what started the very large influx of Brits and European young women to the USA in the 1960s and, whilst we were away from friends and family, the idea was to gain experience.”

“Sadly, the family that ‘contracted’ me was really not a match for me. They had such ridiculous rules and the job description was not what I expected upon arrival. I was ‘sold’ to a family of my choice after just three weeks. It was tough to go through, but it shaped the rest of my time here.”

Mary reminisces how she initially had a tough time integrating into the community in the States where she lived in 1968. “I always used to complain about my mother-in-law, who was Turkish, back in the U.K. seeking out people from her own country, but when I moved to America from a little northern town in England, I understood it. What I craved more than anything was to joke and chat with people from my own country.”

“The interesting thing is that, once I found a British community, I became more confident and branched out into the American community, and they are now some of my best friends because I have ‘grown up’ with them over the past 40 years. It’s a lot about shared experiences, and whilst I am British at heart, I’m now part American.”

The expat experience will continue to develop and change, hold challenges and opportunities, and, while we have a lot to be grateful for with the Internet and all that if offers, nothing beats going ‘out and about’ to truly discover your host country and its people. And whether that experience is communicated back to your friends and family at home via email, a Facebook status or an Instagram picture, it’s made me realize that a handwritten letter can still bring such joy, even in 2014.

Claire BoldenClaire Bolden McGill McGill is a British expat with a head and heart for adventure. Claire writes the blog ‘Desperate English Housewife in Washington’ (www.ukdesperatehousewifeusa.com), which she says is ‘a little bit adventure, little bit stream of consciousness, little bit Bill Bryson.’ Claire confesses to being slightly obsessed about seizing every opportunity that comes her way. Based in the U.S., she spends her time writing and blogging in her British tongue-in-cheek style about the quirky nature of living in the strange land of America as a Brit. Oh yes, and she says she is also a mother, wife and rather rubbish housewife. Follow Claire on Twitter @ukhousewifeusa or contact her directly at clairebolden@hotmail.com.

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