Friday, March 15, 2013

Song of the Expatriate

I have heard the term "expatriate" various times over the course of my life, but never stopped to consider what it really meant. I knew the dictionary definition was "to give up residence in one's homeland; to take up residence in a foreign country," but, like most words that people use to identify themselves with, the actual meaning had to be much more loaded than a single, simple sentence. It wasn't until I was reading an older copy of Condé Nast Traveler and got slapped in the face with the word, that I forced myself to truly think about it.

"The Global Bar Hop" CNT July 2012

Although I've noticed that Traveler does reference expats fairly regularly, the article in question was "The Global Bar Hop" in the July 2012 issue. The piece examined some of the trendiest new bars to pop up recently around the world, listing quirky facts and observations about each, like what the atmosphere was like and what kind of people frequented the joint. Three of the bars included, "WTF" in Bangkok, "Ca'D'oro" in Istanbul, and "Malt Fun" in Shanghai, were credited as being expat hot spots. I didn't understand, and was a little frustrated, why this tidbit seemed to be consistently included. The other types of regular barflies were described as hip, beautiful, artsy, intellectual, and cool, among other flattering adjectives. Since when did moving out of your home country automatically make you these things?

Throughout my childhood, I met people every couple years whose family had moved to America to be near friends and family, or to escape war and poverty, or for whatever other reasons. My area of Connecticut is constantly accepting immigrants from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Mexico, and has been for as long as I can remember, but I also gained several new classmates from Bosnia and Albania; two countries my child self hadn't heard of until meeting my Eastern European peers. Were these people to be considered expatriates? They technically fit the dictionary definition, but it didn't sit well in my mind. Plus, my classmates and their parents, with all due respect, certainly did not possess the type of glamour Traveler seemed to imply of them.

Although the words "immigrant" and "expatriate" have similar definitions, they describe extremely different people. I think the best way to understand the difference, is that immigrants move with the absolute intention to stay in their new country, while expats cannot necessarily say the same thing. Many immigrants leave their home country in order to start a new life elsewhere, while it seems many expats go abroad to simply continue their lives in a new location. Though an expat may stay in his or her new country permanently, they are more of a long-term traveler than anything else.

Johnny (right) and his friend Axel, a German expatriate,
in "The People's Park" in Chengdu
A couple years ago, my friend Johnny spent a period of five months living abroad in Chengdu, China. He sublet an apartment, found employment, and joined a recreational soccer team made up predominantly of non-Chinese. With the exception of a few, virtually all people met and friends made were fellow expatriates; not just from America, but across the globe. He said he utilized English-written websites and print publications to network with others and find out about local happenings. Essentially, he relied strongly on the other expats to provide him with the complete experience of living there.

If I were to take a trip overseas, who would be the best person to seek advice from?
Option 1) A native of the country. Certainly they would be most familiar with the land, but would they know what's best for a traveling American?
Option 2) A friend who had traveled there before. They could tell you the hit or miss tourist spots and recommend activities, but what do they know of local flavor?
Option 3) An American living in the country. The best of both worlds. I do believe the expat would be the expert.

Maybe not all expatriates are as chic as the locations they visit, or maybe they are more so, but the places they choose to spend their time are worth taking note of. If you are interested in absorbing culture through the eyes of someone who is simultaneously both an outsider and insider, consider their point of view. Or, become an expat yourself and tell the world what you discover about it.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Dolla dolla bill y'all

It's not hard to imagine that many of the people and companies one works with at a travel magazine are located abroad. Whether they're natives of a country we're writing a story about, or Americans (or Europeans, or Africans, etc.) who get sent on location, business is being conducted in a country different from where we are headquartered.

One of my regular duties at Traveler is to process money wires to vendors overseas. Depending on the contract agreed upon prior to the trip, we will usually pay for/reimburse expenses accrued, such as meals and a hotel, in addition to payment for services. Wiring money simplifies the payment task, as crossing borders (and often times changing currency) can get a little complicated.

Luckily, the internet makes money conversion a lot easier
A few days ago, for example, I had to process the payment of a British photographer who had been sent to Italy. I was supplied with the invoice for his work, as well as his receipts of personal expenses we had agreed to pay for. Because all of the money exchanged in Italy was in Euros, I had to convert the final costs of each receipt into US Dollars, so I knew how much to pay him. (Cond√© Nast uses American banks and American currency, so naturally all of our payments are in USD, regardless of where the money is being deposited.) After I knew the correct amount, I completed a form to have the money wired directly into his account at a bank in London.

While figuring out the conversion wasn't particularly difficult, I did find it a bit of a nuisance and couldn't help thinking how, after all the advances we've made with globalization, we do not have a universal currency. I suppose the USD serves as a somewhat unofficial one, seeing as it is largely accepted around world, but imagine if there was one specific monetary policy for all seven continents.

15 Israeli shekels (~$4 USD)
I am not implying that it would necessarily work (especially considering the current trouble with the Euro), but it would certainly make life easier. I remember traveling to Hawaii in 2005 and being completely marveled that I could use American money there. (Yes, of course I knew Hawaii was a state, but I was so wrapped up in the local Polynesian culture and the vast time change, I would find myself forgetting.) It made all of my purchases, and essentially the entire trip, much less stressful. It's hard enough to control your impulses to buy souvenirs and experiences when visiting a foreign place, but having "Monopoly money" (a currency you're not familiar with) in your pocket makes it all the more easy.

I remember specifically my trip to Israel in 2010; my first time out of the United States without my parents.
Me: Cama ze ole? (How much is this?)
Vendor: 80 shekels.
Me: Uhh, okay... here you go. *hands over foreign money listlessly*

Whether or not the idea of a universal currency will ever gain popularity and come to fruition, I do not doubt that many people will attempt to make it happen. If it does indeed become a reality, I wonder if we would be more prone to globally adopt an already existing currency, or create a new one entirely. Regardless, the United States will probably be the most difficult country to get on board... we have still yet to embrace the metric system, after all.