What do all expats have in common?

When I use the word “expats” I mean it to refer to English-speaking people living in a foreign land, not knowing many people, and forging an artificial sense of community with other people in similar circumstances. Expats may have moved to Berlin or Budapest for a job relocation, or as I read in the expat-read magazine “Funzine” a common reason is they chase love–literally. An American will move across the world because his sweetheart is Hungarian only to have his heart broken within a few months–but he finds himself a consolation prize: a forced but proud new love of his city. His love is thus accidental but he embraces his surprising change of plans anyways and tries to find a job teaching English under the table and perhaps applies to some English language graduate program to keep himself occupied until he figures out what he really wants to do with his life. Or–he decides to become a techno DJ, and uses that as a vehicle to tour and see Europe. In this book that was published around 10 years ago, Prague by Arthur Phillips, tells the story about a group of expats living in Budapest in the early 90’s who “settle” for the city but long for the “better” city to live in–the title city, Prague.

It is not easy to summarize an expat-type. But one thing I have noticed is that the expat is a searcher, a dreamer, a socially/environmentally conscious college graduate, and and as this blog points out: often white. Some expats seem to run away from something personal.
In my recent attempt of being a Human Rights student, most of my fellow colleagues had traveled and volunteered in developing countries in Africa, South America, and Asia. This arsenal of experiences came in handy for them to refer to and support their credibility of being concerned and socially conscientious individuals. While one might call these types “bleeding hearts;” another apt description or label can be either “activist” or “community organizer.” One of my friends, who is not a Human Rights student, but rather in a more traditional field of law that is more hard-nosed and “realist” even criticizes me for my “idealistic views.” In a conversation I had with her, she did not agree with my notion that bribery was totally corrupt and should be outlawed. Coming from a post-Soviet republic, she gave me a reality check by saying if she wanted better service in the hospital–such as more pillows or more attentiveness from nurses–she had to pay a “tip” of sorts to the nurses. It is easy, coming from the States, to have a world-view that everything is black or white, and to believe that all Soviet Russian cities had informants, and that people there were really socially conscious etc. In conversing with my Russian friends, who are history-buffs but also come from cities in Siberia and beyond–not every Russian family was afraid of informants. “It was the bigger cities, more centralized, that were famous for having the fear-inducing informers” explained a Siberian to me the other day. He also came from a mixed family in that one side were Party members and as a result benefitted from that, and were leading figures in his town. His other side descended from the merchant-class, and although they were outspoken anti-communists–nothing happened to them.
When I lived in Berlin, I lived in a series of different flats. I chose to do this for the first few weeks to get a better idea and taste of each neighborhood of Berlin before I made my final decision. I lived in Schoenberg in the West, which was not terribly interesting and quite dark at night. My more interesting experiences came from house and ferret-sitting for a couple on holiday, and following that three-week gig, living with a techno DJ and a jolly good-natured Brit. The DJ had moved to Berlin because he had absolutely loathed living in the States and the jolly Brit moved because he had fallen in love with the city during his study-abroad year in the city. Following that time, I then lived in a flat that was occupied by modern interpretive dancers who would occasionally get drunk and have dress-up parties. The reason I know this is that a couple of Sundays, I would walk through the living room on my way out in the morning to find glittery masks and various theatrical props strewn across the floor.

Many college graduates choose to teach English overseas for a year. I think this is a great idea, opportunity and I have been contemplating this possibility myself. In some instances, an expat will be matched up with a home-stay family which probably helps ease the transition into the new culture. One aspect I see lacking among expats is a strong sense of community. Expats come and go every 6 to 12 months. While I have made some of my dearest friends living overseas; I seem to lack a community that is physically stable and that I can always return to. For me, Los Angeles is home–a place I can return to because I have my family there more or less but the great majority of my friends are anywhere but there.
One of my favorite cafes in Berlin on Danziger Strasse was basically owned by an early-retired guy for the sole purpose of having a place to relax with his friends over coffee. It was a cozy cheery locale where the manager would often give me a dozen croissants at the end of the day because there would be new ones the next day. I noticed unlike some of the more popular cafes and establishments, this was a local-frequented place that might as well be renamed “Community Cafe.” I would see the same people, sitting and arguing over politics while leisurely sipping frothy lattes. Sometimes they would try to lure me into their discussions, sometimes repeatedly even though my German is “sehr schlimm.” One of my favorite features of this cafe was: there were seldom any expats or tourists–except for my then fellow expat friend whom I brought to this cafe on occasion.

Although I had the word Community and suggested importance of it, drilled into my head throughout Sunday School and summer camp, -I now can appreciate it after having lived on my own for the past five years. I was bullied and teased as a child and this motivated to embrace being by myself early on. Initially, I would hide in bathroom stalls but I wised up and thought I could do something better to pass the time during my recesses and lunch breaks. I thus decided to make my budding loner-hood more productive and have been a bookworm ever since. I remember the first book I read in the library was a young adult’s version of Daniel in the Lions’ Den. I somehow identified myself with Daniel and the “Lions” as most of my classmates. I would only bother hanging around the lions’ den when I had to–for class etc. My yearning for travel as a means of escape was born around then.

Someone asked me, the other day “What are you running away from?” This could be construed as the same as “Why are you here?” or “What are you doing in this country/city?” Not all expats are running away–it could very well be the opposite–they are chasing or pursuing something and thus might seem lost because they don’t know what they’re pursuing yet. Time will tell and their deck of hands will reveal themselves.


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