The Foreignness Index: A Tool For Figuring Out Where You Want to Live

In a comment on a recent post, Mark asked about how we choose where to live:

How do you go about choosing locations, and what other locations you have on the list? I imagine you look for cheaper places that still have decent internet, along with easy access to lots of culture and sights. Are there any sites you use to find out about the net or apartments?

Any thoughts on Buenos Aires, Cinque Terre (Italy), or Cyprus?

I described my rationale for choosing Malta a year ago, but I figured I’d revisit my philosophy and try to extend it to a generalized, goofy theory of choosing foreign homes. I call it the Foreignness Index.

The Foreignness Index is a value of 1 to 100 which describes how foreign a new home is to you. Using the Index is personal–the value you ascribe a place is particular to you, today. For me, living in an apartment in Vancouver might be a 1, while living in a cave in Afghanistan might be a 100. Obviously those numbers would be very different for, say, an Afghan.

What factors contribute to rating a place? Here’s what I can think of, in vague order from more important to less important. When I use ‘new home’ in this list, I mean to refer to a variety of scales–the destination country, city, neighbourhood and your actual dwelling:

  • Do locals speak the same language as you? If not, how much of your language are locals able to speak?
  • How safe–in terms of crime, war, disease, and so forth–is your potential new home?
  • What religion are most of the locals?
  • How open and welcoming is the culture? This speaks to how important is it that you meet and befriend locals.
  • How different will the weather be?
  • How different will your actual dwelling be from what you’re used to. If you’ve always lived in modern apartments, how weird will it be to live in a mud hut?
  • How different are the environs from what you’re used to? Are you an urbanite moving to the countryside, or vice versa? Will your new home’s population density differ from what you’re accustomed to?
  • How difficult will it be to obtain the products and services that are really important to you. For me it’s reliable web access and Coca Cola. For you it might be Neiman Marcus and caramel lattes.
  • Is the locals’ relationship to time different? Are shop hours more fluid? Is timeliness important?
  • How different is the food? This one’s a bit tricky to objectively measure, but you can, both figuratively and literally, just trust your gut.
  • Does the alphabet use the same character set as yours?

The list could be much longer, and each person will have different criteria, but that’s a good start.

The Foreignness Index in Action

Now, let’s apply that list and arrive at some values for places I’ve lived, and might go.

  • Dublin, Ireland – 20 – Same language, similar social structures, similar weather, lived in somewhat different environs.
  • Gharb, Malta – 35 – Plenty of English spoken, North African and Arabic influences, radically different location and environment, significantly different weather, limited access to usual products and services.
  • Essaouira, Morocco – 55 – French is a second language here, radically different culture and religion, different weather (I walked on the beach wearing only a t-shirt yesterday) easier access to stuff than on Gozo, but not as good as the West.

Let’s put those and a few other values on a map (you’ll want to click for the big version):

The Foreignness Index

A Dearth of Data on Living Abroad

To answer Mark’s specific questions: I like to find a couple of country-specific forums, particularly those frequented by ex-pats, to ask dumb questions. Here’s one I used in Malta.

There’s actually a real dearth of centralized information about living in foreign countries. I guess that it’s a hard data set to assemble, but the only book we found was Getting Out: Your Guide to Leaving America. It wasn’t bad, but it was US-centric, and focussed on permanent relocations instead of temporary time abroad.

Buenos Aires was actually on our short list, along with Malta and Panama. To select a country, I printed out the Wikipedia list of all the nations in the world. Julie and I then went for burgers and milkshakes and eliminated all the countries we definitely wouldn’t consider. That got us down to about 40, and we winnowed it down from there.

Argentina felt a little too foreign for our first time moving the business, and it’s a long way from Canada. Plus, we knew that if things went south business-wise while living in Malta, we could always scare up local business or make a quick trip to Europe. I didn’t fancy trying to make a solid living earning Argentinian pesos.

Italy is my dopplenation–it’s beautiful, but I’ve never cared for it. Cyprus might have been nice, but it seems like it wouldn’t have been that different from Malta.

Presumably the next time we live abroad we’ll choose somewhere more adventurous–a higher number on the Foreignness Index. Or maybe not. Who knows?

What about you, dear reader? What nation would you rate at, say, 50?


  1. I need to have access to English language books and fresh fruit.

    I think one of the hardest places for me to live would be in an igloo in the Artic. I hate cold, and am not fond of meat, and need fruits and vegetables. The long hours of darkness would also be difficult for me. SInce I now live on the 55th parallel, I’ve realized that living further north would probably be very difficult for me.

    I prefer travelling and living in developing countries, because I love to experience cultures that are extremely different from mine. Europe has never interested me as some of the other parts of the world.
    Asian countries have always intrigued me.
    As a small dark haired person, with olive skin, I blend into most cultures incredibly well. You and I would probably get treated differently in the same places just because of how we look, regardless of our gender differences. In Southeast Asia, most people think that I’m a mixed race southeast asian person until I open my mouth. Either that, or they think I’m French.

  2. I’d put medical care into the algorithm somewhere. As someone who’s both diabetic and now being treated for cancer, healthcare puts bigger constraints on me than some other factors.

  3. Very interesting, thanks for the detailed post!

    You two are certainly an adventurous pair. Its one thing to go to these countries with the safety net of an organization (through work, school, volunteer) and quite another to just set out on your own. Bravo 🙂

    Personally, I don’t think I could cut it anywhere above 50. I did travel to Seoul, which I would rate at 50. Although the food and culture are quite different, it is very organized and safe. Also, there is a foreigners district where it is easy to meet other English-speaking people. I imagine Tokyo would be similar.

  4. Alexis: Yeah, pretty much the only countries I blend in are ones filled with tallish white guys. I’m thinking Sweden would be a good fit, and the Netherlands.

    Derek: Good point. There is a fair bit of Maslowian thinking here, I guess.

    Mark: Well, like I say, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. One man’s adventure is another man’s walk in the park, etc.

  5. As another Vancouverite living abroad, I’ve been reading your blog for a while. Yours is one of the most interesting and informative blogs on my blogroll. Thanks.

    I like your foreignness index – I might show it to my boyfriend when we’re deciding where to live next. Right now we’re in Seoul, which I’d say is around a 50 from Vancouver. He’s from Manila, though, which is probably also a 50 from Vancouver but a different 50, if you will. Seoul and Manila are probably at least 45 apart, too. I wouldn’t have put the Asian countries as high on the index as you did, personally, but that’s just me. I’ve also been to Thailand (60), Cambodia (75) and Japan (55 for me, but others rate it lower).

    Great post. Thanks.

  6. You ‘walked on the beach wearing only a t-shirt yesterday’? That is a different culture. How did the locals take your stroll?

  7. James: Haven’t you heard? They’re all nudists here.

    Heh, that’s an oversight there. I was also wearing jeans. And shoes.

  8. Having lived all out lives in the UK, like you we decided it was time to try living in a different country with a different culture, language, climate, environment, food, politics, time-zone, etc.

    We ended up living in an apartment in downtown Vancouver….!

    Not a huge score on the Foreignness Index but it’s definitely not the same as where we used to call home.

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