Like folks everywhere, Americans are often surprised to discover how different things can be when they live abroad. Sometimes the differences are small; sometimes they're hilarious.
In recent years, as the U.S. has started coming after American expats for unpaid taxes and penalties, the surprise for some Americans has come in the form of what one tax expert we know calls "that OMG moment of realization" that hits when you discover what life-long citizenship-based taxation actually means, and will mean for the rest of your life, particularly if you happen to be an American living abroad who has no immediate plans to return to the States...
As Americans around the world pause over the next few days to celebrate Thanksgiving, we thought we'd mark the occasion with a (mostly) humorous look at some of the moments we all have, during our overseas years, especially in the beginning, when "you really know you're an American expat", particularly but not exclusively in connection with taxes and financial matters.
(This was compiled with help from some of our friends, and is an updated version of a list that we published in 2019. If you'd like to contribute, please see the end of the article for details.)
You really know you're an American expat when...
- You’ve spent one or more nights wide awake, worrying about some aspect of your U.S. tax situation (see above)
- You realise that your bill for help with your taxes this year will be greater than what you are budgeting to spend on your summer holiday
- You’ve used the words “gazump” or “gazunder” in a sentence (this would only be Americans living in the UK, where these words apply to when one is in the process of buying or selling a residential property and someone else comes along and offers more, or decides to lower an existing offer just before contracts are about to be exchanged)
- You know exactly how much the U.S. fee for renouncing one’s U.S. citizenship is, even though it’s not a straightforward number (US$2,350). And you probably also know how much it used to be, before the IRS raised it, when renunciations began to soar, and the revenue-raising possibilities became obvious (US$450)
- You find yourself singing along to "God Save the Queen" at an event in the UK, only to discover that you're actually singing "My Country Tis of Thee"
- You realize you’re more nervous about applying for a bank account than you are about going to the dentist for a really painful toothache
- You are always doing taxes. Always. Either gathering information, submitting forms to either the IRS or the HM Treasury, or waiting to hear that you owe nothing to the U.S. after spending £10K+ to your accountant to prove it
- You'll do anything to make sure that your expat Thanksgiving feast is fit for a Norman Rockwell painting – conforming to traditional expectations down to the last cranberry, even though you're living in a country where you'll be lucky to find such ingredients as canned pumpkin puree for the requisite pie, at least without some effort. Back in the States everyone was more relaxed (one year there you even did sauerbraten...)
- You find yourself starting to get used to sharing the sidewalk with a growling motorbike that's hopped the curb to get out of the stationary traffic, something that would never happen back home (in part because you'd be in a car, not on a sidewalk). (Possibly not everywhere in Expatland, but definitely the case in Thailand...And now that many places are beginning to see powered scooters and "mobility scooters" taking to the sidewalks in growing numbers, we figure it can't be long before Vespas begin to join them...)
- Whenever cowboy boots come back into fashion, you already have more than one pair (and they're the real thing)
- You were glad to see sweet potato fries finally made it onto the menu at your local barbeque joint in Expatland
- At any given time of day wherever you are in the world, you know exactly what time it is "back home" (in whichever state you're from, and where your folks probably still are)
- You may still be struggling with the local language wherever you are – France, Spain, Italy, China, even Britain! – but certain local words and expressions are slipping into your speech, as they are part of the local expat dialect. In China, these might include mafan, lihai and laoban; in Thailand, farang; in Hong Kong, gwailo; in Italy, ciao bello, come stai? meno male!; in Singapore, using acronyms for just about everything, such as MBS for Marina Bay Sands; etc. (Additional suggestions welcome here!)
- At the same time, you stubbornly cling to certain Americanisms, such as “all y’all”, “you guys”, “gimme a break” and so on (suggestions on other favorites welcome here!) because only you can get away with them, so you might as well…
- If asked, without even having to give it much thought, you could name at least three famous Americans who have renounced their citizenship. (Typically your list will include UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose name appeared on the Federal Register’s quarterly list in Q1 2017, meaning he had handed back his passport in the fourth quarter of 2016 or earlier)
- Your miss having a refrigerator the size of a closet or a small room, as the one you have now is a small box located somewhere below your kitchen countertop, less than half the size of the one your folks have back home (and that’s not counting the freezer in their garage)
- You find yourself using your balcony and/or window ledges for additional refrigeration and freezer space when the weather permits, because, unlike the locals, you prefer your beer cold
- In some parts of the UK, where you soon learn that the custom for serving cake and ice cream in a single bowl results in a kind of cold and very sweet porridge, you find yourself asking for the cake and ice cream to be served separately
- You find yourself explaining, over and over, where the term "Black Friday" comes from, beginning with the fact that it always takes place the Friday after the U.S. holiday in November (always on a Thursday) known as Thanksgiving.
Initially used by police forces and others in certain U.S. cities to refer to a day known for its unusually heavy pedestrian and traffic congestion, U.S. retailers later adopted as their preferred definition for the term the idea that it marks the beginning of the time of their financial year when they are no longer "in the red," and are able, at last, to begin making the profits that they'll soon be recording for the about-to-end full year. (The idea here is that profits that are traditionally recorded in black ink, rather than the red, in their old-fashioned record-keeping books.)
Today, of course, Black Friday has become a globally-recognized day of sales and promotions that is seen to officially kick off the Christmas shopping season, even though its initial link to the American holiday is rarely explained (except, it often seems, by any American expats who happen to be within earshot...)