Monday, December 08, 2008

We’re Not Expats – We’re American!

I’ve heard that said. In a shop once somebody asked an American couple if they were expats and they replied, “No, we’re American.”

I’ve also had a similar experience with a British couple who, when I asked if they were expats also replied “No, we’re British just living here”.

This is thought-provoking stuff in its way. Ok, in both cases they may just not have been familiar with the term ‘expat’ but it also begs some questions such as - where is this country called Expatria? Who is in charge? What flag does it have? Is it in NATO? I think we should be told!

Joking apart, does any tangible ‘thing’ called an expat exist? Does a foreigner living in Spain have much in common with one living in Australia or Belgium? Are the issues and interests of a US expat living in the Middle East on a lucrative 2-year corporate relocation deal even remotely connected with those of the British family that has just purchased a tiny sardine fishing business on one of the wilder parts of the Portuguese coast?

It would be easy to say ‘no’. Clearly walking into a social services department in Norway to seek help and then demonstrating to them your encyclopaedic knowledge of how the system works in Greece is, well, not likely to get you much other than a warm handshake as they show you quickly to the door marked ‘exit’. Trying to get a will made out in Sydney isn’t going to be made easier by the fact a fellow expat has just briefed you extensively by phone on how things work in Croatia.

There’s no substitute for local expertise and local help. Your special Expatrian salute (a blank, wide-eyed and terrified expression with hands held aloft in the universal gesture of “I haven’t a clue what’s going on”) won’t in itself achieve much locally – other than laughter.

Yet expats do have many themes in common, and there is real value in sharing experiences even across national boundaries. Few expats have made the transition entirely without the odd trauma or two and recognising that the odd problem is not the same thing as ‘game over’ can be useful. Some lessons are also universal, such as the need to integrate with the local society you’ve joined and the perils of becoming subsumed into, and dependent upon, a local expat micro-society and culture.

Not only that, but we can all be inspired by the stories of expats elsewhere who have made a success of their new lives in foreign lands, sometimes overcoming huge obstacles en-route. OK perhaps we’re not planning to start that cricket farm in the middle of Amazonia, but reading that someone has and has been successful can be inspirational. It’s easy to forget that the majority of expats have success stories as to how they have transformed their lives for the better. If they can be persuaded to share these stories, then new or potential expats would do well to listen.

So, maybe Expatria does exist after all and is the world’s first cyber-country. I’m off now to draft up a constitution and whistle up a quick national anthem. By teatime we should be ready for our first revolution followed by civil war.

Long live Expatria!

1 comment:

Dee said...

Expatria does possibly exist anywhere one finds a need to connect with someone who seems familiar with that look of "I'm not sure how they do that here..", or "Where do I find this"...or the millions of other out of sync feelings one might feel when moving out of the comfort zone of home, friends & family. Expatria is that place where we connect to a whole new group of persons who become those other friends & family. Good blog post. Always something to give us food for thought.