After spending several years living abroad, often when I return home for a visit I’ll hear comments like “wow, you’re so lucky” or “I wish I could do that” – often tied directly to the listener’s feelings about my adopted country and what they imagine my life must be like, heartily fueled by images from Hollywood.
But the life of an expat is far from romantic, far from perfect, and far from lucky.
It’s uncomfortable, it’s humbling, and it’s a lot of hard work.
Don’t believe me? Then play for me, if you will, a tiny violin which accompanies this explanation of living abroad (in any country) and why it’s not all cappuccinos and pasta. Note: This post is not specific to Italy nor Italians, nor is it US vs. THEM in any way. Rather, it’s a look at being immersed in any culture and language, from the point of view of an expat.
Are you sure you want to be an expat?
Because here, you’re not smart. Not at the beginning.
Unless you were born speaking the language of your adopted country, you are an infant when you arrive. At first you can’t communicate at all. Then as you get a small vocabulary, you don’t really understand the particulars of each phrase you hear, but only the general sense of it if you’re lucky. You consider it a victory if you follow a normal conversation without having to interrupt the natural flow to ask someone what a particular word means. Every time conversation stops and heads turn your way, waiting for your answer, you realize you weren’t really understanding at all. You try a smile as the default answer for questions you didn’t know were being asked to you, but it only gets you so far. You feel dumb. And frustrated.
Sometimes you feel paranoid about speaking and that you’ll have to stop in the middle of explaining something or will have to ask for help because the word you lack you know so well in your native language and is continually banging at your frontal lobes to be let out, yet the equivalent in the foreign language eludes you completely.
You hope the smiles on others’ faces are because they are interested in you, and not because your accent, no matter how faint it becomes over the years, is a novelty for them. On bad days you decide spacing out is better than trying to follow a conversation whose content you are following akin to a tennis match: she’s speaking, now he is, now she is. If you can’t space out, you must move your head accordingly and match your facial expressions to the others’ lest they find out you’re not really following.
You’re not funny, either.
Most of the jokes in your new country have years of cultural meaning behind them that you haven’t been able to glean from reading Mickey Mouse and the occasional newspaper article in that language when you first arrive. You horde the free newspapers with a plan to read them from cover-to-cover and improve your vocabulary, but you give up halfway through and rely on the pictures and their sub-captions to appease your study drive which has now rolled to a halt. And what you wouldn’t give for a slang dictionary which would just add another step in your comprehension from slang to proper foreign language to your own language. You pat yourself on the back if you learn one new slang word a week.
You want all conversations to slow down, just for once, and perhaps allow you to participate instead of analyzing them as a concerned spectator. The one time you manage to think of a witty reply with the limited vocabulary you have available, the conversation has since continued on without you and your interjection minutes later will just highlight and reinforce your first suspicion about yourself: here, you’re not smart.
The times when you are funny are usually when you don’t want to be: you make people smile at your pronunciation, you accidentally invert vowels or consonants and turn a polite word into a vulgar or inappropriate one, you refer to yourself in third person or address a question to the dog, or you treat a government worker like a teenage girlfriend because slang and colloquial speak seems to be the strongest and most accessible part of your foreign vocabulary. You find out people always have time to teach the foreigner these types of phrases, yet perhaps not the phrases that help you defeat bureaucracy.
That funny, witty person who is able to charm the pants off friends and strangers at home did not make it through customs with you into this new country.
You don’t know who anyone is.
A native friend nudges you after you pass an important politician on the street. The name means nothing to you, the party name even less. Perhaps you’ve heard of it or seen a poster, but you’ve had difficulty distinguishing which posters are political and which are product advertisements. Most of the political parties have similar names dealing with “democratic” or “liberty” or “people” so you aren’t sure how the natives can tell them apart. You start thinking about how many other famous or semi-famous people you’ve been near and haven’t realized it. It’s probably a very large number.
You’re eager to make new friends, but only if they stick around.
At first, you want to meet anyone and everyone, and you’re drawn to those who are in a similar situation as you. You meet friends of friends coming for a short visit, desperate for a slice of your native language and hopefully some smuggled treats or magazines.
Then, later you find that emotionally you do have a limit, and that limit now excludes people passing through for a few months and will probably leave by the time you get to know them. Playing the tourist guide for your neighbor’s husband’s cousin wanes in appeal and you start planning new itineraries which will allow you to drop them off at attractions and come back later.
You see a lot of other expats come and go. At the beginning, it’s easier, because you’re still learning about the country and how to fit in, and haven’t had time to think about the future, leaving, or staying. Each day brings new challenges: bureaucracy, new vocabulary words, new foods you haven’t tried and people you haven’t met.
In time the milestones grow further apart, the newness begins to wane and now the really ugly part starts: some of your friends, including the natives you thought would always live here, will pick up and move. Now it’s they who will start their brand-new lives elsewhere. Soon you start to count the number of those who are remaining and it is far outweighed by those who have left.
You are an oddity and attraction for the natives.
You answer the question “Why did you come here?” so many times that over time, you craft the answer and it morphs into something completely different from the first time you said it. Now you choose the answer based on how much you really want to continue talking about it with the person, and how much they are asking because they want to get to know you or because they just can’t understand you.
Years later, you don’t even remember what that first answer was, and very few people ask you now why you’re here. They’ve accepted the fact you’re here.
Another question you often get asked is “Do you like it here?” At first you permit yourself to express any doubts or concerns about being happy here, as it’s new to you and you’re still adjusting. Years later you realize if you don’t say you’re happy, you’ll have to face the fact you’ve been living here for years, unhappy.
You are your country, you are your countrymen.
Every bad thing that happens in your native country or that your country does will inevitably be brought up in conversations with you. Usually the person’s opinion is clearly expressed well before asking yours, if they ask at all. You may be asked to defend, explain, or criticize a subject or person which you might’ve never talked about had you not moved.
You’ll have to get used to the fact that the people in your current country may know more about your home country and its current news than you do.
You have a new form of kryptonite: bureaucracy.
Not only are you struggling to keep up with conversations, cultural references, slang, and jokes in your new language, but you are faced with understanding the most difficult, legal-speak of all: bureaucracy. Often it’s so difficult even the natives have trouble understanding the documentation and rules which will govern your stay in your new country.
You hope not to mess things up, somehow miss an important detail, or worse yet: never find out about something required until it’s too late. This fear under-rides a lot of your day-to-day dealings and assures you no matter how long you’ve been in the country, you still can’t relax.
But it’s not all growing pains, awkwardness, or feeling out of place.
You can be an example.
You are your country, you are your countrymen, and that means you have a unique opportunity: to enrich people’s perspectives and (hopefully) combat stereotypes by being yourself and adding to their experiences with someone from your country.
You’ll be bi-cultural, and hopefully bi-lingual.
Do I really need to explain the awesomeness of this? Being able to flow from one culture to the other, from one conversation to another, and from one perspective to another is very powerful.
You’ll be more sensitive to others in difficult situations, too.
Nothing heightens awareness to others’ plights than being in a difficult situation yourself. How could you not be sensitive to other difficulty, injustice, or cultural clashes when you’ve gone through a similar situation?
You are different. You are changed by your surroundings.
Your new country will change you whether you like it or not. You will never be the same person that you were before you moved. You’ll spend time trying to figure out if it’s just you getting older or if it’s your surroundings that have impacted you the most.
You’ll unfortunately be unable to separate the two but you know, deep down, that the new country was to be the stage where these changes would occur.