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What Did You Learn From Being Overseas?


Everyone has a story to tell or few thoughts to share about life overseas. It will be interesting to hear yours and exchange views on the various topics pertaining to this vast subject. Personally, I feel that it would take me a long trip back in time to really assess what I have learned from the expatriate School of Life and grasp the difference between today and yesterday. The mission being impossible, I just throw in few odds and bits about some funny experiences and few ideas.

A. When you go abroad your senses and general taste show you some surprises along the way.
Apples and bananas were a luxury in my early youth in Algeria. Instead, we were liberally fed with the metallic phraseology of the Soviet style propaganda. Today I don’t feel particularly fond of apples and bananas but I developed a taste, actually an addiction, for a pungent shrimp paste you find in South East Asia, a region where I lived 15 years. One can eat it with almost anything. I love Couscous, our national dish, but I would prefer a Me Goreng to it any time. When I eat Malay food it is the whole magic of that country and my carefree 20s that emerge and envelop the senses.

B. I come from a culture where tea and coffee are served very sweet but I take my usual espresso without sugar, an acquired taste that I am happy with. I lost few Algerian eating habits such as having pasta with bread or an excess sugar consumption but cannot live without a nice plate of Shakshuka once a week. While living in Thailand my taste buds ran wild. I got even used to eat Green Papaya Salad. I am not talking about the one you get at restaurants but the Isan version that you find in popular markets. Amongst other exotic things, this salad comes with a whole crab crushed in it. You witness the brutal end of the live crustacean inside the mortar. So, be a gentle soul in this life less you get reincarnated as a rice field crab somewhere.
My nose behaves erratically since it got a bit of foreign education as well. It doesn’t mind the smell of Durian fruit, Stinky Tofu, Kimchi or Fish Sauce but feels quite uncomfortable with mutton, the meat I grew up eating. You are very familiar with the word Westernized, well my nose got Far-Easternized. For an average North African nose, it had been quite a stretch.
My ears are another story. I got hooked into what they call today World Music after I saw a live performance of Ali Farka Toure in Timbuktu back in Protected content . My Ipod might have songs in 30 different languages, that is how my ears like it best. I care mostly about the melody not the lyrics except with French music where I mostly stick to the old chansons à textes.

C. When A Foreign Influence Emerges Most Unexpectedly
In real life I don’t like being the center of attention and one day I got that on my full face. I was rowing past a campsite in Germany when people started approaching to watch me and commenting. The children got all excited and followed me along the river. These vacationers see all kinds of boats, canoes and kayaks pass by but something else had caught their attention: my unusual rowing style.
The first time in my life I used a rowing boat was in the Deadong River in Pyongyang, North Korea. There, I learned to row like the North Koreans do: one paddle goes into the water and the other out. I got so used to paddling like this that it became an automatic reflex. Protected content

D. Where Do You Come From?
I have long ceased to pay attention to people’s nationalities and religious beliefs. The only thing that matters to me is how honest the person is. Sincerity is not the exclusive apanage of any given race, culture, nation or gender and it is one of the most noble human qualities. There are no big and small countries but just minds flying at different altitudes within each country and across the planet. When getting to know people, the clichés that abound about them are a hindrance. The truth that always comes back to the surface is very simple: people are different. An old Arab proverb stresses this fact with a striking metaphor: the fingers of the same hand are not similar. Isbaa yad wahda mishi kif kif. This means that even within the same family people are different.
It is quite interesting to see that the circle of foreign friends you end up having overseas is different from the one you had imagined from home. People do create agreeable surprises when the arms are open to receive them.

E. Time, The Perennial Travel Vehicle
Moving from country to country gives me the chance to start anew and the sweet illusion of lasting youth. Time is passing but I don’t feel old. Today, the names of some music bands sound like volatile chemical components. I am sticking to the music of the 70s and 80s but don’t feel old. Shyness is seen as a handicap by the throng of “winners” but I find it charming. I might be behind the times, but I don’t mind.
I keep a ludicrous outdated image about my country. My former Algerian friends are now in their 40s and 50s but I still picture them in their 20s. I still haven’t looked them up on Facebook out of fear of finding them dejected and dispirited at the callousness of our times. Some of my adult relatives have died while I was busy making a living on the other side of the planet.Shade, as the Germans say, I didn’t had the chance to say goodbye properly. The small children I knew in the 80s are now grown-ups and they don’t know me. My Algerian past resembles a toy box that has been forgotten in the attic for decades. The dust of time covers it. Partir, c’est mourrir un peu.
Ulysses of Ithaca had been received with open arms upon his return home. Many years passed and many changes occurred since my departure from Algeria in Protected content . The child within feels like Ulysses but my return may not stir a decent wave of Mediterranean emotions. People’s minds are filled with the nitty-gritty details of their own lives made harsh by skyrocketing prices, pervasive corruption, and slippery stairs of absurdity they have to climb up à la Sisyphus. My relatives and former friends may not have enough space in their lives for the stranger that I became..

F. Identity.
I left for good, shaped an outlook on life made out of the fertile soil of the different cultures I came across but there are certain things in me that remain the same. Whether I am in Kiev, Ulan Bator, Pretoria or Tegucigalpa, the core of my personality doesn’t change. I am an introvert and feel drawn to introverts, my global tribe. I do enjoy watching the life of the party type but an invisible border separates us. Part of the human communication remains shrouded with mystery.
Beside the core me, there are certain moral values that I hold dear and few stubborn quirks that make my distinct self.
I flirted with Buddhism for quite a while but I never understood the rationale behind negating the notion of self. For me identity is the vibrant heart of one’s life and its most eloquent form of expression and manifestation. Taking it away leaves nothing but the void of death. Oscar Wilde makes more sense to me on this issue than the illustrious Siddhartha.

G. The Crux Of The Matter
If on a snowy day you find a dead cat in your garden, you cannot just cover it with snow and consider the problem solved. The snow will melt and the problem will be worse. Sorry for the image but if you have a problem in your home country, you won’t necessarily solve it by running overseas. You will come back one day and the problem could be worse. Going overseas is not a panacea for personal problems. Wherever you go, reality is there. You can’t escape it. Some of the people who need to hear this are my compatriots. Running overseas is now like a national sport, a mystery for a country that rich and that big.
Visiting a country as a tourist and working there are obviously two different things. Looking with the eyes of a tourist at a country where you want to work is unwise. The reality of expatriate life cannot be grasped from a tour bus or the colorful literature of the tourist industry. Life overseas is not exactly a bed of roses. It does come with challenges that need to be faced with a cool head.
Once you start living overseas, you are pretty much on your own. Your relatives are not there to provide immediate assistance in case of trouble. You cannot afford losing your job, your health or your reputation. Friendship with other expatriates is important but not often strong enough to deal with serious problems that might occur. You have to be vigilant especially with the kind of problems that go unnoticed. Something like bone decalcification followed by a bad fall might end up your overseas dream abruptly. Traffic accidents and alcoholism remain a serious problem but we mostly hear about the occasional kidnappings. Traffic accidents and alcoholism remain a serious problem but we mostly hear about the occasional kidnappings.

H. Bucket List
Strange as it may seem, being far away from my native Algeria allowed me to see it better. While living there, I was too close to focus. Having been to Sub-Saharan Africa, the Far East and the West helped me look at it with different eyes. Now, I appreciate better what it has and notice more what it lacks. It is unfortunate that with today’s perspective I cannot travel back in time and throw a bucket of fresh common sense on my past illusions to correct their subsequent blunders that still haunt me to this very day.

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

Kiev, August 08, Protected content