Sunday, February 15, 2015

What Makes a Successful Expat?

I've been thinking about the people who do the expat thing long-term and how they manage to survive and thrive doing it.

This is one successful expat.
There are lots of expat archetypes out there... the ones who are running from trouble back home, the ones who make a career of drinking, those looking for young girls (or boys) to exploit, those looking for a less-expensive lifestyle -- sometimes so they can simply offer their families the schools and activities they want, other times so they can feel lordly and lord around a place, chests puffed up feeling good about looking down at everyone below. There are the do-gooders who start NGOs, the investors who start enterprises to take advantage of the cheap labor, the sun gods and goddesses who can't deal with winters in Ohio or New York or Pennsatucky, the linguists, the English teachers, the just plain wandering souls who ended up here, after much wandering. There are those who embrace learning the local language and culture, and others who hardly speak a word after decades.

There are plenty of other types, but those are a few. I'm probably a mix of a few of those.

But among those who stay, i often wonder whether they like feeling like strangers. Or even if they do. Are they OK with knowing that they'll never be "one of them," and that's what they like about it?

I think the ideal situation for an expat is to learn the local language -- which should go without saying but doesn't -- and to make friends in the community. At the same time, that successful expat has to be sure in her own skin and to know about her own culture, so she can have an identity that is her own. A lot of travelers i know get down on those expats who only hang out with other expats -- but there's reasons behind it, beyond just not wanting to embrace the local culture.

People need to preserve their original identities -- at least somewhat. They need to be around people who understand who they are and where they came from. So the successful expat, in my mind, has friends on both sides. It's no good to never mix with the locals and to never get to know them, but it's also no good -- at least for me -- to be so immersed that you're disoriented when you do go back home, even if it is for a time. A friend pointed out to me that in U.S. cities, there's often a Chinatown or a Little Italy or other enclaves of recent emigrants who are sticking together. We accept it back home, but then we bag on other expats for doing the same when they go abroad? And don't get me started about the people who loudly proclaim "immigrants better learn English," but then shout loudly in English to their Central American hosts when they come down here.

Being an expat is all about learning to be an insider, while also being an outsider and being OK with that. Sometimes i long for "normalcy" -- which as an American means having good chicken wings  and cheese and India Pale Ale, and every international cuisine at my disposal. It means having a car and a garage i can park it in (if you're the type who's forever losing your keys or your garage door opener -- there's an app for that now! Check out the Garage Beacon) and a list of friends a mile long, ever asking me to this event or that one, where i'll be able to understand all of the conversations around me without straining. My Spanish is getting better every day, but i still have to make an effort to understand things.

"Normal" also means being around people who are activists and thinkers -- which probably happens here too, i just don't have the language skills -- and who hotly debate things like whether vaccines cause autism (btw Laminine is a supplement meant to support kids with autism -- check out the reviews of the product on the site), whether we should condemn this pipeline or that one, or whether this form of energy or that one is better. We talk about scientific approaches to growing tomatoes or racism in our home towns, and then we climb to the top of the nearest local mountain and look out at the beautiful view.

For those reasons i don't know if i'll ever be the long-term expat. I love my country and its people; however over-informed, whiny and demanding they can be, they can also be dreamers, doers and downright friendly folks.  I can see myself being a half-timer there, and a half-timer somewhere like here someday -- so then i guess i'll still have to get good at being a successful expat...


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