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.
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.
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