So I’ve been plugging along on this book off and on for a year or so now, interrupted by hospital stays, lethargy, and life in general. I’m now on chapter 9 or something like that, but I thought I’d share a bit I wrote some time ago. I’ve already shared Chapter One and Chapter Two, so here’s the next installment. Please let me know what you think.
Chapter 3: Being an Expatriate
A month later I was standing at the edge of a rice paddie in Jeonju Korea, the air thick with the smell of wet earth, rotting vegetation, and burning garbage. EPIK orientation was to begin the next day, and I was embarking on a year of living and working in a foreign country – my first real expat experience. So perhaps now would be a good time to explain exactly what it means to be an expatriate.
First of all, it’s ‘expatriate’ not ‘expatriot’ – not someone who used to be patriotic but, for whatever reason (perhaps his country elected a dangerous orange buffoon to be president, for example), no longer is. The word derives from the Latin ex (out of) and patria (native land), so an expatriate is simply someone who is living outside of their native land. Expatriates differ from immigrants in that the former have – for the most part – not gone to live permanently in another country with the aim of obtaining citizenship. (Although there are whiffs of racism and bias in the terminology here. If I were to move to Honduras for a few years, I would be considered an expatriate. If a Honduran moved to the US for a few years, most Americans, I suspect, would call that person an immigrant. A businessperson whose company moved them around a lot would, again, be called an expatriate, while someone who moved to different countries to pick grapes, for example, would be termed a migrant. Immigrant and migrant, especially in the current political and social climate, often carry negative connotations.)
So now we know, more or less, what an expatriate is. The reasons for expatriating are as varied as expatriates themselves, but there are, as far as I can see, two very broad categories of people who live abroad.
There are the voluntary expatriates, those who decide for themselves that they’d like to check out what life is like in Cambodia, or Nigeria, or Portugal, or wherever, and actively seek employment abroad. These are people who are not only open to new experiences but eagerly pursue them, people with a healthy measure of curiosity and adventurousness. In Hungary I once taught an American kid who was there because his parents had decided that, since the dad had distant Hungarian ancestry, they’d leave their home in New Hampshire and pick up and move to Budapest for a year. They’d considered the why nots of the move – jobs, house, school, etc. – and found them insufficient. We have some good friends who recently moved to Spain for the year. Again, they examined the pros and cons and decided in favor of the pros. These people are voluntary expatriates.
Involuntary expats are people who have been sent by their company or organization to live in a foreign country for a period of time. Of course I’m not talking about the businessperson who is sent for a couple of weeks here, a few weeks there. Those are business travelers, not expatriates. I mean people like our friend Roman, a Pole working for Dannon who was sent to Budapest for a few years to sort out their yogurt factory there.
There are involuntary expats who, like Roman, welcome the opportunity to live and work abroad, even if they have little say in the matter. Then there are the unwilling, the people who get posted to places that they dislike, if not thoroughly despise. A few years back a friend of mine got shipped off to Moscow, a city he loathed in a country didn’t much care for. (He’s from Moldova, after all, which until 1991 was a Soviet SSR.) He was, to say the least, an unwilling expat.
(Saudi Arabia seems to be one place where the voluntary meets the unwilling. English teachers know that they can make an excellent wage there, but few Westerners actually want to live in a place where unrelated men and women cannot speak together in public, where a photograph of a woman in a tank top is considered pornography, or where having a pint of beer can land you in prison. English teachers often refer to teaching in the Kingdom as a ‘tour of duty,’ and most end up there out of financial desperation.)
Needless to say, an unwilling expat is not someone who is likely to embrace the culture, learn the language, or mingle with the locals. All expatriates, though, tend to end up spending a great deal of time with other expats. This can be both good and bad.
All expats feel, for a time anyway, somewhat out of place in their new home. They need to get their bearings, obtain the necessary documents, learn the language, find the best places for sushi – if there are any. If they have children, there are decisions to be made between international and local schools, maybe language tutors to find, school visits to be arranged. Many expats need to find their own housing, set up a bank account, choose a mobile carrier, sort out an internet provider, set up a payment system with local utility companies. All of this, mind you, often carried out in a language that is largely incomprehensible.
It helps if you have a community of other expats to give you guidance, ease the transition, introduce you to local connections. They have valuable local knowledge, and there is a lot to be gained by tapping into it. Sometimes the expat community can provide support simply by being a shoulder to cry on, a group with whom you can commiserate about the Byzantine local bureaucracy or the inscrutable local language. It’s less important where they’re from as it is that they are also not from there. A quick mental rundown of our expat friends here in Spain turns up a pretty international crowd: The US, England, Italy, Germany, Colombia, Slovakia, India, Argentina, Israel, and I’m probably missing some. We hang out together because we like each other, of course, but also because we have a shared language (English), our kids go to many of the same schools, and because our experiences are interwoven and overlap due to being fellow travelers and expats.
On the other hand, these bands of expats can become insular, almost tribal. It’s easy to be around people who speak the same language and understand the same cultural references – who watched the same TV shows growing up, for example – but if you limit yourself to the expat tribe you’re missing out on one of the reasons you left home in the first place – meeting and getting to know the natives. Giles Tremlett, in his marvelous book Ghosts of Spain, relates a revealing anecdote. While the British journalist was driving lost around an upscale urbanización – housing development – in coastal Spain, he saw a man standing in front of his house and stopped to ask – in Spanish – for directions. The man, it turns out, is also British, and Tremlett asks him if there are a lot of foreigners living there. The man replies, “No, no, we’re almost all English.” This man, apparently, didn’t comprehend that as an Englishman living in Spain he was the foreigner.
In some Costa del Sol and Costa Blanca communities the British population is so numerous that expats have elected British mayors. In the town of Rojales, in Alicante, out of a population of about 16,000 over 9000 are British. There is little incentive for aging retirees or summer-home owners to learn the language, especially since they can shop at English supermarkets, join English clubs, and find bangers and mash more easily than tapas. Newcastle-upon-the-Med. While I suppose there’s nothing wrong with these little enclaves, it seems a shame to me that there’s so little integration. These people are voluntary expatriates, but they insist on transplanting their own culture while incorporating almost nothing of that of their host country beyond cheap sangria and sunburns.