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The life of an ex-pat

An ex-part: builing a life in a hostile area

What is an expat? Two parts pioneer, one part Gorillas in the Mist, one part extreme sports nut, mix liberally with a bit of insane sense of humor. This is a nice pithy way of summarizing the expat lifestyle.

Pioneer
This is not the realm of the explorer. I’m talking actual western homesteader. This isn’t the glory of being a cowboy, but the hard work of building a log cabin and planting crops. Not to overstate things, I certainly live in a civilized place that has running water and internet. The point here is not the endless excitement of seeing what is over the next hill but the determination to build something in a new place. This life does not preclude seeing amazing things experienced by few others, but it is neither all the comforts of home nor eternal wandering.

The long term expat decides to leave the comforts (and often perceived pains) of his homeland and strike out to make a life for himself. He may end up failing, but is often determined to succeed against all odds. Building a life in a harsh and sometimes unforgiving environment, he finds friends in unlikely places. He makes contact with the locals to trade for necessities and meets other pioneering souls to exchange tips and stories of back home. The first few years are the hardest, getting used to the new surroundings and making his home a comfortable place to live. Likely that first winter was hard, but then he learned where the food was the best and what time to go out. After a few more years, he knows however hard it is, the situation has changed him and he couldn’t go back to the way things once were. His life is here and there is a great attachment to it.

I like the contrast with the explorers. They expect to return or decide to remain on the go. The expat pioneer decides to live and put down roots.

Life among the strangeness
I don’t think I have ever seen the whole movie of Gorillas in the Mist, so maybe some of this is actually imagined. The scenes that I see for this idea are those where she is talking about slowly being accepted by the gorillas. They first are wary of her and eventually just ignore her. She describes them and lives among them almost as one of them, but both sides know that she really doesn’t belong. She is not a gorilla and never really will be, even though they seem to almost accept her as one. To this point, perhaps the first half of the Jungle Book is a better example. Mowgli wants to be a part of the jungle, but is ridiculed by some, feared by a few and accepted by others. There is a sense of outsideness that travelers tend to relish as authenticity. To the expat that is just the smell of manure in the air when the wind blows wrong.

The expat is always an outsider, even after many years there is still a piece of him that is alien. Some of us actually cultivate this alien piece and others endeavor to divorce from their past selves. To be accepted is possible and not too difficult, but you have to remember that you will never be a gorilla. So acceptance is one level, integration another and I guess becoming is the last level that most never really reach. The point to get to is where this idea of otherness doesn’t matter.

Living on the edge is sometimes the name of the game.
Especially that first jump, everything is new and is certain. Think you know how to buy fruit in the grocery store? Think again when the sweet faced lady gestures wildly when you bring a bag of apples that have not been properly weighed and barcoded to the checkout. Enjoy the thrill of sitting in the hallway of a bureaucracy office hoping that the visa you need to stay in your wonderful life will be granted. Expecting to be able to move right into that brand spanking new apartment so you don’t have to live in the hotel anymore? Ha, please wait 4-6 weeks for the forms. And you expect this apartment to have it’s own kitchen? Ha, buy a sink. There are also the “You want me to eat what now?” moments that catch you completely off guard. (Apologies to those down under, but when something smells like death on toast I am not going to eat it.)

So every day is new and frightening and it can be a rush. “How the heck is this going to work out?” I imagine goes through the mind of the snowboarder turning his 360 half mickeywhatever trick above the pipe. I know that feeling. But like the sports freak, once you go through it a few times, you get used to when to be patient and when to convulse your body to one side to avoid breaking your back. We learn after a while how to properly weigh our fruit and which line to stand in to get the archaic forms properly stamped. Eventually you don’t even notice until someone asks. Like the athlete, even basic tricks look impressive to those who can’t do them.

A group unto themselves
Expats are unique to themselves. I have met enough others to realize that I have more in common with a New Zealander who has decided to live here than I have with either my friends back home or any local. There is a state of mind that you get pushed into when you live between the locals and your own culture. This in-betweenness is a common facet of an expat. It comes out in a flexibility and a brand of insanity. I switch languages back and forth without too much thought. I find myself creating jokes that only work if you know both cultures. I whine and moan about the locals to other expats, but would kick and scream if I was forced out.

It can be a difficult life. It involves a fair number of barriers and road blocks. Like the pioneer you have to want to be here, as the easy path of just going home is almost always there. Like the sociological research and daredevil the expat has to be comfortable in the uncomfortable and get used to things that others call crazy. There are great rewards as well. By knowing what you want and surviving the barriers and overcoming the obstacles, the goal takes on a different sheen. Some people thrive on this, these are the true long term expats. We strike out to do what others don’t and find the flexibility to create the life we decide we want. We just have to be able to live with it.

Striking out on an untrampled path means letting go and at the same time learning what to grab onto. It is a way, like traveling, of stripping away the old life and building a new one. Figure out what you want and go there, be disciplined in your choice, avoid distractions and overcome barriers. Just once you get there take time to live the life that you have worked for.

A guest post by Andrew Couch

Andrew Couch is an ex-pat now living in Germany.  A self described artist, techie, traveler, expat, homebody, conversationalist, philosopher, beer drinker, friend, you can follow his adventures and story on Grounded Traveler.  Follow him on Twitter at @groundedtravelr.

Check out these other guest post and interviews as well.

Adventure travel – Ted Nelson (Part I Adventure travel, Part II Interview)

Family travel – Jenna Francisco (Part I Family travel, Part II Interview)

Budget travel and Mexico – Mark Mendiola Guerra (Part I Mexico and Budget Travel, Part II Interview)

From humble beginnings to travel entrepreneur – Andy Hayes

Traveling Young and Free – Andy Hayes

Travel with your five sense – Keith Jenkins

Sharing your travel experiences – Melvin Boecher

Travel, technology, and social media – Anil Polat

From Scotland to Europe..a la CarteKaren Bryan

Fiery redhead with a passion to travel – Suzy Guese

Social media, travel industry, and tourism – April Mescher (Part I, Part II, Part III)

Art, Italy, and a love for travel – Angela Nickerson (Part I, Part II)

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  1. Ayngelina says:

    I really like this post, it removes the fantasy of it while maintaining the reality that it can be a great option for people. I did it for a while but in the end I think I prefer familiarity.

  2. Great post! I’m an ex-pat of sorts – I’m a Canadian but my home base is the UK. Although it is exciting in a lot of ways, it is also difficult and people rarely talk about that. The reaction I usually get is – you’re so lucky to be living in a city like London! And yes, I am lucky but I also often struggle with those subtle differences and with missing the comforts that just don’t exist or are different in the UK. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to not expect things to be like they are at home and to kind of let things go. I do love my new home and increasingly, I’m feeling more and more like it’s a place I inhabit – not just somewhere I’m visiting.

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks for the comment.
      I like that line about feeling like you inhabit not just visit a place. It is a sense of belonging that is nice and a feeling that we all strive for even those that never leave the hometown. Being able to let the annoyances go is a real big part of things; and a great lesson to learn just in general. Note:I’m not always so good at that lesson and stress over the differences sometimes too.

  3. Jade says:

    Andrew- Great post! I think your last sentence sums up a lot of my feelings lately about life, my current job situation and travel lust after returning from my RTW. You have to have that moment when you take a deep breath and enjoy the hard work you’ve put into something and enjoy the life you’ve always wanted. perfect!

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks for the compliment.
      Yeah, I have a magnet from a friend of mine on my fridge that talks about happiness being the journey and not the destination. I can imagine this gets taken too literally, and people once they reach the goal (whatever it was) the feeling of the “journey” is gone and they can’t stop. I guess then stopping is also part of the journey in this sense. Building a life becomes living a life.

  4. I can definitely relate to this post, I just moved from the U.S. to Kyrgyzstan a couple months ago and I’m completely immersed in all of those frightening and frustrating experiences of being a new expat!

  5. LeslieTravel says:

    Great guest post! I can relate to the photo of the decrepit bathroom– we say a lot of those on our RTW trip. ..

    • Andrew says:

      Ack…no. The bathroom is actually fine. That is the kitchen of the apartment I moved into. Germans take everything when they move, including the kitchen. So I had to get a sink and stove and evrything.

  6. unbravegirl says:

    I am actually working on a similar piece about how I’m a natural settler. From the past 8 months of travel, I’ve learned that I’m not good at the vagabond lifestyle (even if I do it exceptionally slower than everyone else). But, at the same time, I have no desire to return to the States to live. I guess some people are born to roam, while others are born to be expats!

  7. mukuba2002 says:

    i love it when you say”The point to get to is where this idea of otherness doesn’t matter.” that is one thing that is hard to get but it is essential. you have brought the reality of being an expat

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks. Yeah, that is a bit of a mental twist to get to; but it is also the thing that makes successful expats bond well together. We are all twisted in the same way.

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