Now that I am a repat, I have been thinking about what it means to be an expat. I have lived in four countries—Canada, where I was born, the U.S., where my children were born, Japan, and Turkey. I have come to realize that I prefer to live somewhere where I am from somewhere else.
In some ways, being an expat is like university, where you are embarking on an adventure with other like-minded people. Often the friends you make in both situations become deep and life-long relationships. At the same time, people you may become close with drop off your horizon as you move on. There is an excitement that you share with other expats as you learn about the new culture. You can think yourself superior to new expats and some people think themselves superior to the people of the culture they live in. As expats you complain about similar things, the foods you miss, the traffic you don’t miss, the ways of doing things. This partly relates to the age group you fit into, as expats come in all ages. Younger people are more likely to be in the bar and club scene while older expats are often more interested in the culture and history.
Most expats are ready to dive into the various aspects of culture—the food, the music, dance, art. Literature is more difficult, unless it has been translated, but I think even with translation you need the culture to understand it more. I found I resonated more with Turkey than with Japan because we had much more shared history. Japan has traditionally been insular, since after all it is made up of islands. In Turkey, some of the bases of Christianity were determined (the Nicene Creed for example clarifies the nature of the Trinity—Nicea being modern day Iznik in Turkey). The Greeks, the Romans, studied in school, lived in Turkey and in fact for 500 years after the fall of Troy (which is in Turkey) aristocrats in Europe proudly asserted their descent from the patrician families that escaped to Europe.
Language is a major issue with expats. I knew some people in Istanbul who had been there for years and could barely speak Turkish. At the same time, I knew people who had married Turks and managed to get the language down pretty well. I found that even when my Turkish was pretty sparse, Turks appreciated the attempts and were often good at helping the acquisition, if only by speaking more loudly.
In both Japan and Turkey, I was conscious of being the exotic foreigner even while I was being warmly welcomed by the local people. Sometimes locals assumed I was a tourist and indeed sometimes I was. Some ‘travellers’ abhor the designation, but basically when you travel you are skimming the surface. As an expat you can delve deeper, but you will never be totally immersed because you are always other. Sometimes you are actively excluded but mostly you are carefully included.
When I was in grad school studying to become an ESL teacher we were given classes about culture. I remember one diagram, which has since been vilified, indicating how cultures act. One was linear (western cultures, supposedly), one was zigzaggy, one was circular. Although the diagram was rather simplistic, I think we do tend to stereotype various cultures and indeed we often are stereotyped ourselves. It is easier to deal with other culture individuals that way. I think there are cultural personalities that exist because many aspect of culture form personality—geography, religion, history. And perhaps a person who becomes an expat reflects an openness to being in and possibly taking on this intercultural personality, according to the individual’s own character.
One of the new bywords in this smaller world are blended cultures. When two people from two different cultures marry and especially when they have children, the cultures start to blur. In education, there is a new emphasis on third culture children– parents of two different cultures who live in a third country where their children go to school with children from an assortment of cultures.
In the U.S. and Canada, there are hyphenated cultures. Someone is Italian-American or Ukrainian-Canadian, for example. To me, this indicates a sort of inclusive and exclusive blend of culture. The family came to this country from somewhere else, but they are still one of ‘us.’ At the same time, we really do discriminate on various levels according to ethnicity and religion. Certainly in Turkey I was regarded as other because it was assumed I was Christian. For example, several years ago missionaries were handing out Bibles in Turkish on Istiklal Caddesi, the main street of Istanbul. I was new to Galata then and the men who owned one market in particular looked at me askance, assuming I was Christian. They did not like the Bibles being handed out—and neither did I. Often Turks would ask what my religion was and I would tell them I didn’t have one. They immediately assumed then that I was atheist, though I would say I am more agnostic (it is hard to shake off that Anglican upbringing). Agnostic is not a big concept in Turkey. In Japan I don’t remember anyone asking my religion, as there is a very different attitude there about it, especially since WWII.
I think many expats are interested in the history of the place they are living in, especially expats from North America. The history we think about in North America usually does not include the native peoples, so we rely on our sense of history from the time of the European immigrants, because that it usually what is written about and those are the buildings and other artifacts that we can see. To me, it was mind blowing to realize that people had settled in what is now Istanbul 8000 years ago, though most of what we see is ‘only’ one or two thousand years worth of buildings.
Immigrants are not expats. Expats can go back home any time, even if they have lived abroad for decades. Immigrants go to a country for various reasons, mostly though to make a better and safer life for their families. Immigration is a big issue in the western countries, because that is where most immigrants want to go. In this I include refugees, many of whom are stuck in other countries, often desperate to get where they want to go. Once they are there they do work that the entrenched residents do not want to do. For example, some people rail about the Mexicans in the U.S., but those are the poor Mexicans and they are the ones who pick fruit or do construction or other jobs the main population does not want to do. As another example, in Turkey many Syrians work in factories for less than what the local Turks will work for.
It disturbs me to see the anti-immigrant rhetoric that is so widespread especially in the U.S. and Europe. It indicates a fear of other and a lack of empathy and compassion that demeans the people expressing it and the culture as a whole. Being Canadian and not being First Nation, I can claim fewer than 10 generations of settlement in my native land. Many people who immigrate and especially people who are fleeing war have roots going back hundreds and thousands of years. Most refugees would prefer to stay in their homes, but especially in war areas, those homes and communities no longer exist.
Expats are lucky– they are usually welcomed and respected. And then they can leave when the fire is too hot (and of course I am thinking of Turkey for that comment). I am very happy that I have spent most of my life being an expat, though it makes me ‘other’ in a different way. I have learned a lot about the differences and similarities of people in this world and try to share that with more, um, sheltered folks who have never left their country or state or province. I recommend the experience of being other, even for a study abroad program, as it teaches us humility and pride.