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.


  1. Really cool post, Jenny. I remember always hearing the word expat, but never knowing what it meant either. Then not only did I marry one (or someone who grew up as one, rather), but then I became one!

    I have a few thoughts on the whole ask the other expats perspective ...

    Living in another country is very different than traveling to another country. People often say they want to live overseas because it will give them a chance to travel. Although this is true, it might not give them a chance to "travel" in the way they would if they just took a two week trip to the country.

    When you're living overseas, you're seeking to do more than travel ... you want to actually "live!" As much as you may be open to trying to do things or eat things that the locals do, you will want to settle in and make the place your home. This will involve surrounding yourself with people who speak your own language, share your beliefs (or close enough!), and eat the same types of food. It just brings a sense of normalcy to what is otherwise a very chaotic situation. If you have children, you want them to learn about life for children in your host country, yes, but you also want them to have a similar childhood to what they would have in the US ... like you want them to play baseball and do all the things that American kids get to do. So expats form their own sport leagues, etc. It definitely couldn't be further than an authentic cultural experience of the country you live in, but it's an important part of your own culture that is worth going out of your way to preserve.

    But if you're "traveling," then I actually think it's best to avoid the "expat" hot-spots. Don't go to an expat bar in Istanbul ... go drink where and what the locals drink!

    So yes, expats can be experts and in the way it is the best of both worlds, I would say that the definition of expert can change depending on the type of travel you are doing ... and what type of experience you are looking to have.

    Great reflections, and thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks Ellen! I agree, there are definitely a lot of factors that go into it, and ultimately it depends on the individual. I've never lived in a foreign country, but when traveling short term, personally I've found that I tend to be more comfortable around other visitors than I am the locals, for several reasons; language/cultural barriers, overall trustworthiness, etc. Long term I imagine wanting a proper mixture of both experiences, but the specifics would depend on where I was and who I was with.