Top Ten (Small) Joys of Life as an Expat in South Africa (or anywhere really…)

‘Joburg Expat’ Eva Melusine Thieme, author of this article, grew up in Germany and has lived in Singapore, the United States and Africa. Four continents and counting.

As frustrating as it can be to move households across continents or to navigate the incomprehensible currents of the Department of Home Affairs to obtain your visa, or to find out – when moving from the USA to South Africa – that “just now” means “perhaps in three weeks” at best, there are also many happy sides to expat life, if you only choose to open your eyes to them.  

Joys of Expat Life South Africa
This picture and accompanying blogpost about starting my day in South Africa prompted the creation of the Expat Joys series. It may strike you as bizarre, but few things make me pine for South Africa as much as this picture does. (See point no. 9 below.)

And I don’t mean the obvious biggies. As a typical expat of the corporate world, you might have negotiated a generous package of expat perks – a gas guzzling car you neither had to pay for nor have to fill up with gas on your own dollar, a beautiful house your company is paying the rent for, domestic help if you’re lucky enough to live in a part of the world where it’s affordable, a tax accountant, an elite school for your kids.

What I mean are the small and often overlooked things any expat can enjoy, no matter which circumstance might have landed him abroad. Over the course of writing this blog, I came to think of them as my “Expat Joys” and started tagging certain blog posts with that label.

A few years ago I was asked in an expat interview why we moved to South Africa, and our kids have asked the same question. Prior to our move they probably suspected we just liked to be cruel parents, and after our move back home they were sure that this was true. Because leaving Africa was much harder than arriving on its shores.


So here, for the first time, I’ve put my Expat Joys all together in one list to read at your leisure…Maybe in bits and pieces to savour occasionally with your morning tea, or to pull out on the darkest days when needed most. Or to binge-read them all at once for one giant expat love fest!

1. The Awesome People

No doubt it’s the people in a country who make or break your expat success story, and South Africans are a pretty awesome bunch. But I’d wager that no matter where you go, the people of that country are what give it its special charm. You might have to define charm in very different ways to make it be true, but I promise you that finding delight in your hosts is the best ticket to a joyful expat life.

2. The Head Massage

In this post I prove that enjoying expat life is a matter of perspective. That instead of bemoaning all you’ve lost, you’re much better off looking at all you’ve gained. And the head massage (at a hair salon) is a HUGE gain, trust me. Except what’s a head massage to me in South Africa might be shopping at Amazon.com to you in the USA. The trick is finding as many “head massages” as possible.

3. The Beautiful Artwork

An ode to the beautiful pieces of art you get to amass during most any expat assignment. They will always have special meaning to you (“remember when we haggled over that statue from the street vendor while our car was being towed?”), and they will move on with you to the next assignment no matter where, serving as reminders of the stations of your life even as they reside in new zip codes every few years.

4. The Gas Station Attendant

Forgive me, I realize that title sounds a bit, well, saucy. No, I’m not suggesting an inappropriate affair with your gas station attendant (although, who knows, maybe that has actually been someone’s expat joy before). I’m talking about the rather mundane joy – instead of getting out of your car and manhandling that unwieldy hose – of just sitting there and smiling and having the whole nasty business of filling the tank done for you.

Granted, this might not be true in every country. I personally know that in Germany, for instance, you get the opposite effect, the one at the supermarket checkout where you break out in cold sweats because you can’t pack your own bags fast enough to escape the cashier’s (and other customers’) withering stares… The lesson there is: When in Germany, don’t look for any expat joys at the hands of checkout clerks, or any clerks for that matter. They do have good sausage though…and the bread will make up for any perceived and real expat slights, I promise you!

5. The Netball Perspective

The title of the original post is the much more mundane “Variety and Life Skills” but I changed it here to go with a certain pattern for titles stolen from Robert Ludlum. What I mean with it is the fact that you may be forced to learn a new skill as an expat (here, I give you netball as exhibit 1), and that you may be annoyed at first that you can’t pursue your OLD skill you were much more skillful at, but that in time you will come to appreciate the wisdom of learning new stuff and adapting quickly. Turning expat hassles into expat joys is just a matter of perspective, which kind of takes us right back to the head massage.

6. The Corner Shop

When I was a child, my mother would sometimes send me to the corner shop about 10 minutes from our house to buy a last-minute ingredient for her. All I had to do was cross the street, make my way through a nursery full of adventures (like litters of newborn kittens I could spend hours with), skip down a few stairs, and voila, there was the shop of Herr and Frau Schaal.

I always came home with the cola-flavored gummies from the clear plastic bin at the cash register, purchased at 5 Pfennig a piece with the change my mom let me keep. (Actually, it was mostly my dad who sent me and the change was from purchasing his cigarettes for him.) In Germany, this kind of shop was called a “Tante-Emma-Laden” or “Aunt Emma’s Shop.” Of course I never really appreciated the existence of that shop, in fact looked down my nose a little bit as it was incredibly old-fashioned, including the proprietress with her wizened old face.

But now that I’ve lived in the United States half my life where we have megastores it takes a week to push your cart through and that possess absolutely zero charm, I’ve come to pine for the Aunt Emma’s Shops of my youth. And wouldn’t you know it, a lot of foreign countries have them. 15 minutes in and out, tops, and you can always go back because they’re right next to your house. Heaven!

7. The Prevailing Common Sense

There is a place common sense prevails?, you will ask. Yes, there is. Particularly often in the countries we consider “less developed.” Where you actually get to use your head to make decisions, where you don’t have to ask for permission for every little step you might take, but where you might be eaten by a lion if you do something stupid.

8. The Sun God

Year-round sunshine was my Number One expat joy in South Africa, bar none. I suppose not every country has that going for itself, but the weather definitely plays a huge role in your well-being as an expat. It also helps mitigate other expat factors that might not exactly make the “joy” list.

Trust me, when your internet has been down for a week, and each time you call the provider you get disconnected after listening to horrible on-hold music for an hour after punching in your 10-digit phone number 15 times, it’s so much easier NOT to pull out your hair when you can just go outside and work on your tan while dangling your feet in the pool. If your expat assignment is in Norway – or, you guessed it, Germany! – then strike this entire bullet point.

9. The Juicy Mango

I came to love not just mangoes but also papaya, cape gooseberries, and avocados while in South Africa. There is something about their fruit. I think it has to do with everything pretty much being home grown, meaning it’s always incredibly fresh when in season and then not available at all other times of the year.

This makes the experience so much more intense. It’s like getting out certain toys for your kids only once a year, and they devour them like they’ve never seen them before. Getting to know and savouring the fresh fruit and other delicacies of a certain country certainly ranks right up there in the expat joy department. Although I wouldn’t go as far as calling the Durian we got acquainted with in Singapore a joy, expat or otherwise. If you’ve been to Singapore, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t, just imagine the stinkiest cheese ever and cross that with a little bit of a rotten egg smell, and bingo, you’ve got your Durian.

10. The Unannounced Playdate

This one has to do with people popping by your house unannounced, bringing a brood of children with them to raid your fridge and run around the yard screeching, and yet somehow I’ve managed to construct this into an expat joy, and one of my favorite ones at that – click on the heading to read and see for yourself.

I’d love to hear from you! What are your biggest joys of expat life?