This is the first installment of an I-don’t-really-know-how-many-part series on living abroad. If you’ve recently moved abroad or are contemplating it, I hope to provide you with some very useful information, something to smooth your transition into a foreign culture. If not, I hope to provide you with a field guide’s insight into the species called expats, so you can identify and observe them if you chance upon them in the wild. You needn’t worry – in general expats are a genial and innocuous lot.
We’re expatriates – expats for short. That’s expatriate – people who live temporarily or permanently in a foreign country – not ex-patriots, people who once held a deep devotion to their country but can simply no longer muster that sort of zeal for the motherland.
We’ve been living abroad for nearly 17 years now – in Korea, Mexico, Japan, England, Hungary, and now Spain. There are zany, exasperating, humbling, exalting, exhilarating, and mundane tales we could tell, and perhaps, much to your chagrin, we will. But what I’d like to put forth today is simply a brief exploration of what it means to expatriate.
First let me define a couple of terms. An expat is a different creature than an immigrant.
An immigrant is someone who has willingly – even eagerly – left their home in order to make a new life in a new country, unburdened from the often unfortunate circumstances of their native land (think Irish immigrants during the 1840’s potato blight, Jewish immigrants in the lead-up to WWII, Hungarians after the failed 1956 revolt against the Russians, metro-Detroiters really any time, or Haitians and Cubans after the rise of Papa Doc Duvalier and Fidel Castro, respectively).
Expats, on the other hand, are simply folks who, due to work duties, adventurism, or simple inclination, find themselves living on non-native soil. And while of course expats come in all shapes, sizes, and temperaments, they can be roughly divided into three main categories.
The first, and most lamentable, are people who have been sent by their companies, much against their will, to an assignment in a place where they have no wish to live. The new home, no matter whether it’s Paris or Port-au-Prince, will invariably be described as a ‘shit hole’ by these embittered travelers, and they will forever be drawing disparaging comparisons to the Utopia that was their beloved homeland.
Americans are probably the most prone to this syndrome, since the US is the greatest country on the planet and since not many of its citizens has ever once ventured outside its borders. “No goddamn Oreos in this shit hole,” you might hear them saying. Or, “Nobody in this shit hole speaks English,” perhaps.
These people will make zero effort to learn the language, will rove in disgruntled packs of like-minded compatriots, and may often be found in American chain restaurants (if there even are any in that particular shit hole), crabbing over a plate of curly fries.
On the flip side you may come across the antitheses, the folks who embrace anything and everything in their new country with a passion that blazes with a white light so strong it blinds them to any of the inevitable shortcomings of their adopted home. They will forever be drawing disparaging comparisons between their forsaken former land and the Utopia they have now found. The food is ambrosia. The language more melodious. The people beautiful and friendly and upright, the customs fascinating and infinitely more sensible.
(There’s also a small population of what my good friend Sam would call “casualties,” generally middle-aged men who have ditched home and perhaps family for reasons frequently nefarious, and who may be found in the highest concentrations in the poorer countries of Southeast Asia, cruising the seedier bars for girls fresh in from the countryside who might be willing to overlook a bald head and a bulging paunch in return for a ‘wealthy’ western benefactor. This is a subspecies best avoided.)
Then there’s the rest of us. We’ve been around the block a few times, and are as unlikely to fall into instant rapturous love with a place as we are to loathe it beyond comprehension. Some might call us jaded, but that’s not the right term. Experienced and disillusioned are perhaps better, and I mean the latter in the sense that we have few illusions rather than in the more common sense of being disappointed.
We enjoy living in a foreign country, despite the challenges, in part because we have in insatiable hunger for travel, because we suffer from incurable curiosity, and, for some, because we got fed up with the lifestyle and/or the mindset back home. Some are people who indeed may have been sent abroad for work, but who embrace the opportunity rather than lament the inconvenience. Others, like us, went looking for a life in another country just for the novelty and unfamiliarity of the experience.
This category often hangs out with other expats, but not necessarily those from the same home country, and makes at least an effort to acquire the local lingo and make friends with some of the natives. If your kids are going to international schools you’ll meet a cosmopolitan crowd, and if you’re like us, you’ll find yourself hanging out with a mix of locals and expats from a variety of countries. Over the years we’ve cooked Thanksgiving dinner for friends who were British, Polish, German, Italian, Hungarian, Turkish, Japanese, Korean – or various genetic and cultural cocktails of each – and each time it’s been a different but always marvelous experience.
Expatriates have not renounced their homeland. Many of us, in fact, have an abiding affection for where we come from and, perhaps, will one day return. Many belong to associations that encircle them with the comforting familiarity of home, whether it’s the North American Womens’ Society or Democrats Abroad, and you’ll often bump into them in shops that carry exotic (and painfully expensive) imports like Chex Party Mix, Campbell’s Soup, Carr’s water biscuits, or, lord help us, Marmite. Expats often miss the little things from home, just as they miss family and friends left behind. It’s a price you simply have to pay.
But the upsides are worth it. I’d put up with a thousand bureaucratic snafus for the chance to live a short bus ride from one of the most astonishing pre-Columbian cities in Mexico, to snorkel in a Yucatan cenote or stand atop Mt. Fuji at dawn, looking down on our house and Suruga Bay beyond, to sit in front of a crackling fire in an English pub enjoying a pint, munch on pumpkin pancakes with Korean friends at an ancient temple, or sip Hungarian wine on the banks of the Danube. As I write this I look out the window over the Mediterranean glinting silver-blue in the late-summer sunlight as white sails skim across its surface, and suddenly Oreos seem like something I can live without.