What’s an expatriate?
“Someone who used to be a patriot,” my son said.
“Someone who pays double the rent,” my landlord said.
“Someone who eats pork,” my Muslim friend said.
“Someone who can get me a visa to the United States,” my English student said.
“Someone we laugh at,” my neighbor said.
Actually, an expatriate is someone who lives outside their passport country.
I’ve picked out a few types (and one surprise):
- Expats who stick out
- Expats who hunker down
- Expats who blend in
The French military uniform wasn’t designed to be culturally sensitive. Muscular, hairy-legged soldiers in short, too-tight shorts. French mothers at the elementary school in white linen shorts with the strap of a yellow thong slipping out over the waistband. Plunging necklines of sheer tops, which flap in the breeze to reveal bare stomachs. Loud, drunk Americans at the bars. Chinese construction workers shouting across supermarkets. (just to generalize and stereotype way too much)
This kind of stick-out-expat might use Islamic prayer rugs as welcome mats by the front door and wears the tusbax, or prayer beads, as decorative necklaces (I don’t!). They love the host country and the host people and enjoy having a variety of new experiences but don’t attempt to integrate.
The stick-out expatriates come for the same reasons as others; military, job transfer, diplomat, aid worker, religious volunteer but they don’t seem to realize they are in a different country. Stick-out expats received the news that they were moving and packed up the life they had at home and brought it with. They want to experience the new location but don’t modify their standards and don’t expect to be changed.
Hunker-down expatriates are harder to find because they, well, hunker down in mansions by the sea, fancy suites at the five star hotel, or the top floor of downtown apartment buildings. They are here because their job or their spouse’s job dictated it and are counting down the days until the assignment is finished and they can return to a ‘civilized’ existence.
Television and internet become life to the hunker-down expat, bringing the news and culture of a more easily understood place. Fear of the unknown, a distrust for the unfamiliar and a distaste for the new, sandy, sweaty life outside make it difficult to leave the confines of the house.
“You go to the market?” a hunker down once asked. “Don’t you get robbed? Or grabbed? Or lost? Or cheated? We brought everything we need, even toilet paper. When I need more, I’ll ship another container.”
Hunker-down expatriates received word of the move to a new country and prepared for a long, lonely existence. Many of them are the stay-at-home mothers or childless wives who moved because of a spouse’s job. Not forced to engage the local culture, they use their children, their cats, or their sewing projects as excuses to stay home and develop creative strategies for finding meaning within the four walls of their kingdom.
Blend-in expatriates arrive in the host country, jump into the nearest taxi or bus and head to the market to purchase local-style clothing. On the way, they stop at a restaurant and order the national dish, observing and then mimicking picking through the pasta or rice with only their right hand. Within weeks, blend-in expatriates know the names of their neighbors, local shopkeepers and the children sleeping on their front steps. Their house is in a neighborhood area and the door is always open.
Blend-in expatriates know they aren’t nationals and don’t pretend to be something they aren’t. But they are keen to adapt in every possible way. Their home becomes an eclectic mixture of local art and their home culture with nomadic milk bags made from goat skin hanging beside a Christmas advent calendar on the wall. They rejoice at local success and weep when the country struggles.
Blend-in expatriates asked to move to a new country. Once accepted into a new position, they read books, studied language, and tried recipes. They knew blending in would take immense sacrifice; they would be required to adjust to different standards of dress, trade their traditional holiday meal for a new one, and relinquish parts of their personality that don’t fit in the new location. But they do this with eager anticipation of personal growth and the challenge of succeeding in the unfamiliar.
There is, however, a fourth type of expatriate: The Chameleon.
This is where I find myself. Sometimes I wear a bikini and I run in capris. So I’m a stick out. I’m a stay-at-home mother who brings peanut butter and brown sugar and Asics from the US. I’m on-line too much. So I’m a hunker down. I speak Somali and French and use local hand gestures to insult bad drivers and sometimes cover my hair. So I’m a blend in.
Lonely yet eager to experience the personal growth of living in a new place. Embracing local culture yet unable to entirely shrug off my own. Following the Djiboutian presidential election as passionately as the American election. Watching American movies by day and attending Djiboutian weddings by night, complete with henna and drenched in perfume.
The Chameleon loves where she came from and loves where she is now. But she realizes that for all the gains in embracing a new culture, she has also lost an intimate belonging in her home culture. For the chameleon, that’s okay, it’s all part of the adventure and in that sense, at least, she’s an ex-patriot.
What kind of expatriate are you?