When you live in one place for a long time, and are constantly surrounded by people that speak your language and share your culture, it’s easy to fall prey to the sneaking delusion that you’re not an idiot. The longer you stay there, the older and wiser you think you become.
Luckily, moving away immediately reminds you that you’re wrong, clueless, and naive. You’re no longer a master of language, a genius of local geography and an expert on the mating customs of your nearby tribe. No, instead you basically revert back to the status of a four-year-old. A time when everything important had to be done for you by adults. A time when you didn’t know enough advanced vocabulary to express yourself properly. A time when curiosity and ignorance went hand in hand.
If you move away to “reinvent yourself”, you might be surprised to learn that the first way you reinvent yourself is as a complete child.
What do you do? Where are you from?
At home, the first common question of every new conversation is “what do you do?” like its a direct window into your soul. As an expat, this question moves at least four places down the list. Here’s the three questions you’ll get all the time now, and what they really mean:
1) Where are you from? = aka You look lost, are you OK? Where are your parents?
2) How long have you been here? = aka Do you know how to get home yet, or will I need to order you a taxi?
3) Why did you move here? = aka Job or significant other?
This is an important ranking process to figure out your place in the new foreign playground. The locals are like the bigger kids who want to check how integrated you are, and whether you’re cool enough for their gang. Your fellow expats, meanwhile, are like other new kids at school. They haven’t figured out all of the basic dynamics of the playground yet, so are mostly just wandering around, apologising for themselves and trying to figure out who to play with.
A visit from the Ghost of Expats Past
When living far away from your natural habitat, this is when your Darwinian instincts should kick in. After all, it’s a potentially hostile new environment of unknown dangers: social faux-pas, miscommunications, wrong turns, wrong neighbourhoods, unfamiliar laws, and foreign cultural landscapes. You’re alone. You need to join a pack.
In a new city, every potential new friend is not just an additional friend, but an essential survival resource. An advisor, a guide, a teacher, a translator. If you’re very lucky, you might even find someone from your Country of Origin, who has been there a few more years than you have. These people are like guardian angels, sent to you by the Ghost of Expats Past – they can show your future in this new place using the familiar language of your history.
The fastest way to integrate, however, is to mate with a local. In other countries, these might be referred to as Boyfriends or Girlfriends. In foreign lands, they’re more than that, they’re Primary Expat Carers (PECs). Until you are suitably integrated, PECs are like your own personal Mary Poppins, helping to magic away all of the problems and confusions that come through your postbox. To translate confusing bills. To navigate legal letters. To supervise visits to official government buildings. The quick acquisition of a suitable PEC is the single greatest factor influencing whether you’ll a) like your new host country, and, b) stay in your new host country.
It’s unclear exactly what you’ll offer them in return, of course, except perhaps sex and cultural references they don’t understand. Perhaps they’ll see you as a project, a creature to be mothered, a partner-by-numbers to complete over time, or just someone that can explain to them who Mary Poppins is.
IS IT JUST ME, OR IS EVERYTHING AMAAAZING?!
Children are excited by everything. Something as simple as a puddle can give them pure, unrestrained existential delight. There’s no special reason that adults lose this sense of simple joy, other than the specialness of puddles gradually gets bludgeoned out of us by endless repetition.
Now, when I look down at a puddle, it’s not the first time I’ve seen a puddle. In fact, it’s probably about the seven millionth time I’ve seen a puddle. I might have been more excited six-million-nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine-thousand times ago. By now, I don’t even see the puddle. I see the puddle’s affect on my responsibilities. I see wet socks. I see the end of summer. I see old age.
Which is why everyone needs to move abroad. You see, expats get to experience a unique phenomenon, called The Foreigner Bonus. This is like a magic pair of glasses, which we wear each day of our expat existence. Through it’s special lenses, we get to peer out at a more interesting, colourful, exotic world. A foreign world. The law of the Foreigner Bonus dictates that everything you see, do, and experience, is automatically 33 per cent more exciting just because it’s foreign, and so somewhat new to you.
That’s not a puddle, it’s a foreign puddle. Full of special foreign water. Filling an exotic foreign crevice of an interesting foreign street. Stepping in it is not just a mild, soggy inconvenience –it’s an adventure!
Citizens ask for permission, expats ask for forgiveness
As well as the world being slightly more interesting to you from the inside-out, it’s also possible that the world might be a bit more interested in you from the outside-in. Just like children are given special treatment to speak their minds freely, so will you be. After all, you’re no longer just an ordinary Belgian or German or Englishman in a rather cramped pool of millions of others.
No, now you’re “exotic”, like a mango.
Suddenly, your boring family memories as retold to your new friends can become sprawling cultural exposes. Your simple pub stories can become great, enchanting fables from a distant land. Indeed, any mundane, seemingly “everyday” detail from your old life might be exciting to someone who doesn’t know it. Soon, you might find yourself enthusiastically recounting the story of Marmite like it’s The Lord of the Rings.
As well as this, people are also likely to apologise on your behalf, giving you a delightfully childlike freedom from consequences. When you do something wrong, your PEC will explain away your strange behaviour. When the police try to give you a parking ticket, your PEC will have your back. “Sorry, officer, he’s not from here. He doesn’t know about traffic, and laws, and consequences. That’s why he’s trying to pay you with an expired library card.”
Catch me if you can
As a child, you aren’t given enough responsibility to do anything seriously wrong. Sure, you could decide it is a good idea to eat paint, put something shiny up your nose, or occasionally try and fall in a river, but that’s pretty much it. After a brief telling off from your parents, your minor indiscretions are forgotten and life just magically resets to the same joyous, boundless pool of opportunities as before.
Once you become an adult, that all changes. People give you far greater and longer-lasting responsibilities. Spreadsheets. Taxes. Motor Vehicles. Ovens. The stakes raise. If you mess up, you have to live with the consequences. Those institutions, your institutions. That student debt, your student debt. That oven, your oven. If you wrong them, they will always be there, waiting for you to return. Plus everyone knows you. You’re John; you like martial arts. You used to date Sally. Your uncle is Mick. You know Mick, with the limp.
In short, there’s no simple way to make a big mess, and then just run away.
However, being an expat means you’ve always got that one, last special “get out of jail free” card to play, stashed deep within your sleeve. It means, you’re free to try stuff, to mess around, to experiment, and maybe even fail completely miserably. Ultimately, if it all goes wrong, or gets too serious, or too confusing, or too foreign, or there are too many scary parking tickets now attached to your name, you can always just flee back home, where things still make sense and mum will be there with a nice soup.
Bravery and stupidity – a fine line
Some people might react to your relocation to a foreign country as a decision that is mature, brave, or adventurous. However, these people might reconsider that if they had seen you on your first day in your new, local supermarket, holding up a long queue of people, making confused noises at an angry cashier, whose reason for shouting is completely mysterious to you, though seems to involve the jar of pickles she is waving in your face.
Really, becoming an expat is not really a decision of bravery. It’s more like a nice opportunity to live the life of a naive, innocent, and curious creature once more. To get a few more golden years of happy, care-free ignorance in a Disneyland of foreign novelty, as sponsored by other people’s culture.
FOR RELATED POSTS, CHECK OUT:
- The Moderately Indifferent Person’s Guide to Berlin
- The 8 Stages of Learning German
- Idealists, cynics, and the fate of humanity – why we’re so bad at predicting the future