Living the Expat Life
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Expatriate, from the Greek terms “ex” (out of) and “patria” (fatherland). “Expat” for short, the term is defined by Merriam-Webster as someone “living in a foreign land.” “Immigrant” is more specifically defined as someone who “comes to a country to take up permanent residence.”
“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.
This may have been true for the so-called “Lost Generation,” a group of American writers-- Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot and others—who made their way to Europe in the wake of World War I. But these aren’t the kinds of expats I have met.
Thanks to my husband’s job with the United Nations, I’ve lived in Lebanon, Honduras and Ecuador over the past 13 years, allowing me to get to know the people and culture of these places. Fellow expats, hailing from around the world, have become my tribe.
Yes, there are the stereotypical expats who head up banks and oil companies, and the roaming writers like Hemingway (who in today’s world are called “digital nomads”). There are also UN and embassy staff, service industry workers and laborers… whether you call them expats or immigrants, international workers today come in all colors and from a multitude of nations.
As diverse as we expats are, we are also a tribe. We share the experience of straddling places and cultures, and our adventurous spirits are tinged with nostalgia, because no matter where we are, we have left bits and pieces of our heart in other places. We become jacks of many cultures, masters of none. We may return to the same place, but like the proverbial river the waters have changed, and we can never be the same person in the same place again.
Pico Iyer describes this tribe as “nowherians” when he explores the notion of “home” in his memoir The Global Soul. Born in England to Indian parents, raised in America, and at the time of writing his memoir, living in Japan, Iyer is the quintessential “third culture kid,” who has grown up outside his country of passport, navigating between cultures. (Those interested in how this lifestyle shapes children can check out the best-selling Third Culture Kids by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken.) Books like Erin Meyer's The Culture Map guide us through varying cultural norms in global business. But where is the map to navigate the moving waters of emotional life as expats?
There are expats who cling to the self they were in their home country, but many others take life overseas as a chance to examine who they are at their core, and to reinvent themselves as necessary or desired. Janice Y.K. Lee explores some of these reinventions in her novel The Expatriates, about three American women living in Hong Kong.
"Doesn't every city contain some version of yourself that you can finally imagine?"
This is the question posted by Margaret, one of the three protagonists. Different ages and ethnicities, the disparate women bond over their shared expat experience—unique circumstances, but a bonding that is common in expat circles.
While the cliché expat is a white Westerner, Jhumpa Lahiri defies stereotypes and reverses the gaze in Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories about expatriates, immigrants and first-generation citizens in America, who struggle—as many expats do—with the dichotomy of wanting to fit in and embrace a new culture while also wanting to keep old traditions alive. In the final story, Lahiri’s protagonist puts the mystifying magic of life as an expat into words:
“Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”
In another unexpected take on expatriatism, in Jasmine and Fire Salma Abdelnour returns to Beirut, the city of her birth, after an absence of twenty-plus years. As a new expat in Beirut myself at the time of reading it, some of the challenges Abdelnour faced in adapting as a Lebanese-American were hard to relate to, and I thought:
“Salma, you speak the language! You are familiar with the culture! You had family and childhood friends to connect with! You had a family apartment to live in! You had it easy!!!!”
But this book comes back to me now as I prepare to return to the US after my time abroad. How do we find our place again at home when home itself has changed, and we have been changed by the life we have lived elsewhere?
I am headed next to New York, a city where I have lived and loved before, but that was never my hometown. The Mayor’s office has just launched a city-wide book club, with voters selecting Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as its debut pick. Another story of immigration and cultural navigation, Americanah traces the story of a young Nigerian couple who are separated by circumstance, Ifemelu landing on academic scholarship in the U.S., and Obinze living as an undocumented immigrant in the U.K. Are they expats? Are they immigrants? How do race and identity impact their experiences? It seems like the perfect book for me to pick up next.
Do I return to the U.S. a “nowherian” like Iyer describes? Belonging to “nowhere” implies a void, a sense of untethering. I return feeling richer for the experiences I have lived overseas, connected to a global community of friends and places that may not always have been mine, but have indeed become a part of me. I return an “everywherian.”
Top photo, the author in Beiteddine, Lebanon