10 Things I’ve Learned as an Expat in an Emerging Market

I moved to South Africa in August of 2017. It has been the most amazing experience for me, and has been transformative from a personal development perspective, as well.

I am privileged to find myself in Johannesburg, surrounded by a diverse, ambitious, intelligent, fun, friendly, socially conscientious people.

I am bullish on living as an expat, and wholeheartedly support anyone who is considering making the move.

My list of things I’ve learned is not exclusive, and will grow in perpetuity. But here’s a few things that stand out from 16 months abroad…


1. The best way to learn about your home country is to live (far) outside of it.

Often we’re too close to the problems to see them clearly.

In today’s political climate especially, it’s been tremendously beneficial to step outside of the echo chamber and watch things unfold from a 30,000 foot view.

I’m feeling more critical (of both sides) than ever before.

2. Being a white, college educated, middle class American male is like winning the lottery.

Seriously, what social group could be considered more privileged?

It makes the “plight” of the alt-right that much more laughable, in my opinion.

I can feel privilege everywhere I go in South Africa. Firstly, it’s signaled by my skin color, and then exacerbated the second I open my mouth.

It’s not fair. I didn’t do anything to earn this. But I better do something good with it.

In post-apartheid South Africa, there is affirmative action legislation called BEE (Black Economic Empowerment). Many white people in South Africa (and males especially, since BEE also weighs gender accordingly) believe BEE regulation to make doing business here very difficult for them.

But when someone makes a positive judgment call about you the second you walk through the door, no amount of affirmative action can change that.

White privilege is real — in the U.S., in South Africa, and across the world.

3. In spite of differing cultural norms, there is more “sameness” than difference between cultures.

I feel more alike than different to the large majority of the “different” people I’ve met. We’re all humans, after all.

(I met Homo naledi at the Cradle of Humankind but she wasn’t much of a conversationalist so I couldn’t get a read on her…)

And certainly, I feel more similar to many South Africans than I do to some Americans.

4. There is nothing more impactful than surrounding yourself with diversity.

While it’s beneficial to step outside of the echo chamber and look at things from high above, the only way to gain real empathy is to surround yourself with diversity.

They’ll teach you about themselves, and more importantly, teach you about yourself.

5. There are many more “important” problems to solve in emerging markets.

This is pretty intuitive, but it’s true.

In South Africa, more than half of the population lives below the poverty line, on less than R1000 per month (around $75).

The World Bank also determined that it has the most inequality in the world.

Poverty and inequality is simply more visible in South Africa, and it underscores the about of “real” problems needed to be solved here.

And these problems are being worked on by some of the best minds in the country.

Whereas in the U.S. — though poverty and inequality is less visible, but no less real for those enduring it — some of the world’s smartest people are creating another piece of obscure software, for example.

6. Travel is different than immersion.

Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.

There’s a distinct difference between a stereotypical, fleeting travel experience, and mixing & mingling with locals.

Go out there and immerse yourself — even if it’s for only a week !

7. The stories told in the U.S. about South Africa (and I presume other African countries and emerging markets) are completely misrepresentative.

My dad forwards me every single article written about South Africa in the New York Times.

And every single one is about either crime or political corruption (and sometimes both)!

When I am back in New York, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been asked if Johannesburg is safe.

Obviously, the media is built up on fear — those are the stories that sell.

Yes, there is crime in Johannesburg and political corruption in South Africa.

But that’s not everyday life. I have not felt unsafe for a single second while living in South Africa.

Americans in general can greatly benefit by seeking out alternative methods of learning. The media is letting us — and South Africans — down.

However, it’s also our responsibility — especially given the ease of content distribution — to create and share the stories that ought to be told.

8. No one cares as much about American cultural norms as we think foreigners do.

Yes, everyone listens to Drake and wears Yankees hats.

Pop culture may be pervasive, but American cultural norms are not.

I was a bad American traveler at the beginning, questioning why everything is the way it is here.

Hotels may be fit to American or western cultural norms, but South African society at large certainly, and not surprisingly, is not.

9. My problems are trivial.

They feel important to me, and therefore they are important.

But the phrase “First World Problems” could not be more real having actually lived in an emerging market.

10. Friendship can be out of sight, out of mind.

And it’s my responsibility to stay top of mind.

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