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Why Expats Need Expats

A million years ago, before my husband and I had children, we lived in Canada. We’re Australians, by the way. At the time, young and carefree, we were blissfully unaware of all the ramifications and inter-cultural subtleties of the term expat.

You say 'to-may-to', I say 'to-mah-to'

— Fred Astaire

It never occurred to us that we were expatriates – we all laughed at the same jokes, we all drank copious amounts of beer. Sure they had a funny accent and ate cheese out of a jar, but the cultural similarities between the two countries far outweighed any culture shock we must have experienced. We travelled so much for fun and for work — it all seemed like such a great adventure.

But two years ago, with three kids in tow, we were about to change our life in ways we could never imagine. We became, by anyone’s definition, expatriates. We moved from a fabulous beachside city in Australia, pulled our kids out of a wonderful primary school, gave away our beloved dogs to friends, and moved to West Africa. Let’s just say the learning curve has been steep.

You're an expatriate. You've lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed with sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.

— Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

The definition of expat is a person living outside of their passport country. But is this too simplistic? What about people married to nationals of their adopted country, but who live on a residential visa? At what point does one become an immigrant, regardless of their passport status? Does the term expat imply a degree of impermanence? Whether the intended length of stay is one year or five, for me, an expat is someone who does not intend to make their new country their permanent home. On a basic level there is a sense of impermanence about their living arrangements. And this is one of the compelling aspects of expat life, we make our lives and our homes…knowing it is not forever, no option of living in the same house, in the same suburb for 40 years. There’s a sense of excitement and adventure that accompanies every move. And while people become expatriates for a number of reasons, we don’t intend to have a permanent link to the country. No matter how integrated we become, no matter how much we may grow to love our new country, this impermanence makes us outsiders. We are not the immigrants, we are the foreigners.

When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.

Clifton Fadiman

Between the excitement and the adventure of any move is the tedious packing, homesickness and a sense of rootlessness. Lost in a new city, country and culture, far removed from family and old friends, those first few weeks or months can be a lonely time indeed. We need to find friends, and fast. This is particularly true when moving to a culture far removed from your own. As we try and navigate our way through both the obvious and the maddeningly subtle differences in culture, we need a sounding board to try and make sense of it all. Sometimes you just need to say: ”This country really stinks and the food is horrible!” or “Why is everyone in this country so freaking uptight?” but this isn’t going to go down too well with a local.

The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.

— Rudyard Kipling.

And when we find friends, they can quickly become a second family and a debriefing self-help group. Who will be the emergency contact at your child’s school? Who to ask for advice about doctors, dentists, childcare, and whose shoulders can you lean on when the culture shock hits hard? Who can you be honest with, without the chance of insulting? If we are really lucky, expat friendships can grow exponentially, from a shy hello in the supermarket, to ‘I-can’t-imagine-life-here-without-you’ friendship. Is it the impermanence of our lives that can make these friendships so close so quickly? Or is it the camaraderie built on shared experience from an outsider’s perspective? Either way, expat friendships can make life seem ‘normal’ again. 

Those heady days prior to our move to West Africa were, quite literally, punctuated with trips to the doctor for another round of vaccinations and excited, nervous chatter about the new life that awaited us in Africa. Being fairly laid-back Australians, we felt sure we would make friends with local people and assimilate into society. But there is nothing like experience to highlight naivety, and naïve is exactly what we were. We were not moving to the capital city, but to a rural town, outside of a regional capital, where there are more cow pats than expats. The cultural divide between the local people and us, no matter how hard we tried to cross it, was wide and at times, insurmountable. We have close acquaintances (usually through work), but they are not true friendships. The disappointment of not creating the social life we had expected was profound. We realized to have the life we craved we would need other expats.

We started to venture into the regional capital, and while not great in number, we started to meet other expats. And now, nearly two years on, we feel fairly settled. Our local friends are limited to those who have travelled extensively overseas, and/or are married to… you guessed it… expats.

I’ve given a lot of thought as to why we couldn’t cross this cultural divide. Why do expats need other expats? I initially thought it was due to the terrible history of Europeans in Africa. But that doesn’t explain our friendships with expats from other African countries. Perhaps part of it is based on economics and the relative wealth of an expat versus many of the local people. But that doesn’t explain why we aren’t friends with locals we have met who are far wealthier than us.

Is it more to do with our impermanence, our transience, which prevents friendships developing with local people? We don’t have those years to let friendships develop like locals. Our time frame is just that much shorter.

Maybe it’s in our differences that we find our similarities. We are all foreigners and we have all felt like strangers in a strange land. Every expat has to cross a cultural divide. Sometimes this divide is a chasm, with vastly differing attitudes to behavior, time, social norms, religion, gender differences… the list goes on. For a foreigner, this can impart a real sense of adversity, and friendships can develop out of this. And while we won’t be friends with every expat we meet, if we can find a shared laugh, a shared sympathy, some common ground, despite our differences, it makes the journey that much easier, and that much more fun.

There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Silverado Squatters.

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