People become expats for different reasons.
Many people do it because of a corporate move. Some travel across continents to “find themselves” in pastures new. Others abandon home to live happily ever after (they hope) with the partner of their dreams — who happens to have a different-colored passport.
The few who become expats out of a selfless desire to help the less fortunate appear to be a breed apart from those with less altruistic motives.
Or are they?
While investigating this month’s theme of global philanthropy, we came across the wonderful site “Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like” (hereafter referred to as SEAWL) and discovered that the difference is not as great as one might suppose.
1. All expats compare sparrows with jubjub birds. Because they can.
In his SEAWL post “Making Trivial Comparisons” Brian K (who also blogs at Brian’s Fellowship Musings) says
“One of the favorite pastimes of Expat Aid Workers is making comparisons. The more things you have done or seen, the more things you can compare.”
Not just any old comparisons, but trivial ones that can’t possibly have any meaningful point of reference for your average Joe back home:
Comparing airports that the average traveler has not been to, and probably will not go to. Specifically you should point out some obscure and meaningless aspect of that airport.
While most of us cannot compare the floor tiles at Heathrow Terminal 5 with those at, say, Bentota Airport in Sri Lanka, that doesn’t stop us trying to compare the gratifying welcome at the BA Business Class arrivals lounge in T5 with the unsmiling greeting from Immigration at New York JFK (but only if your audience has never been to one, or preferably either, airport.)
“If the average person would care about, or be able to extract any tangible value from the comparison being made, chances are it is inadequate.”
Of course, another word for these “comparisons” is less flattering. Normal people know it as “name-dropping.”
So you have to do it carefully, and watch out for your audience’s eyes glazing over. As a rule of thumb, assume you’ve overdone it when someone says, “You used to live in Kuala Lumpur/Sydney/Hong Kong? I didn’t know. You should have said.”
If you are the glazed-eyed person on the receiving end of these comparisons, you could do worse than to paraphrase Buzz Lightyear and say:
“Yes. But we’re not on your planet. Are we?”
2. All expats love house parties.
Well, who doesn’t?
Gatherings of like-minded people from similar backgrounds, parties in private houses
“offer a certain amount of privacy to allow the EAW [expat aid worker] to act freely and without consideration for the local culture”
– says V Stanski (Waves of Transition) in a SEAWL post on September 14.
In non-EAW parties, you can make lots of noise, drink more alcohol than is deemed seemly (glossing over the problem of what to do in a ‘dry’ country) and talk about Home while comparing it and previous places where you have lived — favorably, through boozy rose-tinted glasses — with wherever you are at present.
When you move to the next country, your previous location will join the others behind the rose-tints. This is how the serial expat system works.
The more countries you’ve lived in, the more national holidays you’ve experienced, and therefore the more excuses you have to party. Thanksgiving in Shanghai? Christmas in Abu Dhabi? Diwali in Greenland?
Bring them on. And BYOB.
3. All expats love in-flight movies.
Not the actual process of watching the movie, you understand, The experience is invariably spoiled by faceless exhortations to fasten your seatbelt, or your neighbor hiking over your knees to get to the bathroom, or the flight attendant offering you a refreshing beverage of three fluid ounces of Coke in a plastic cup.
No. The pleasure lies in the badge of honor. It’s in the ability to say, when you’re back home with the family and trying to decide which film to watch on Netflix, “Oh, I saw that when I was coming back from [insert country. It’s very important to insert country]. But no, go ahead and watch it. I don’t mind seeing it again.”
Then you can spend the next two hours laughing in anticipation of funny bits, saying, “Watch this!” and “Don’t miss this part, it’s really crucial to the plot” before leaving the room fifteen minutes before the ending while pleading jet lag exhaustion.
4. All expats either enjoy or receive a bit of one-upmanship.
It doesn’t matter how many countries you’ve lived in, or for how long; there will always be someone who has lived in more and for longer.
In the post “Putting You in Your Place” SEAWL call this character “Bob” and say of him:
“This is the bad-ass EAW who’s been there, done that. And he makes sure you know it, subtly of course.”
In corporate expat world, this character is likely to be female. We’ve come across her before in TDN, as the Red Queen during our Alice In Wonderland month:
“She reigns supreme over the expat coffee morning posse and send out Tupperware party invitations which no one dares refuse.”
While cynicism may be Bob’s weapon, the Red Queen uses the less subtle threat of excommunication from the International School’s PTA.
5. All expats love high-frequency swearing.
It’s what we call it in our house: the ability to curse in public and not have people fall over in offended shock, because you’re using words that aren’t considered rude in your present location. It’s the swearing equivalent of those silent dog-whistles.
For EAWs, it’s a bit more complicated.
On October 13, Ryan posted at SEAWL:
“Nothing makes the EAW who is trying too hard feel like he or she as ‘been around’ more than swearing in front of other EAWs in a language which is neither their native tongue nor the language of the country they are in at that time.”
Why is it more complicated for them? Because newbie EAWs are likely to be one-upped (see #4) by more experienced EAWs who can cuss at a greater depth.
But whatever your expat status, new swear words must be used with caution, especially when you’re not sure of the meaning. This is illustrated in an English friend’s story of when she was passing through a large international airport in the USA.
“British, huh?” asked the immigration official. “I got a buddy from England.” He brightened, and screwed his face up in concentration. “What is it they say over there…Oh yeah, I remember.’All right, you wanker?'”
My friend didn’t know where to put herself, or whether to explain to the official that while it can be a term of affection between two buddies at the end of a long drinking session, this exclusively British word is more usually an epithet hurled after the driver of a car that’s just cut you up.
It isn’t generally, though, a greeting given by the immigration bloke at Heathrow.
With cursing, as with most things in an expat life, context is key.
STAY TUNED for another Random Nomad interview in our global philanthropy series
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TOO, too, too funny. that reminds me of….
I can’t stop giggling!
While I TRY to refrain from one-upmanship – I definitely have witnessed this. And I do love house parties. And in flight movies.
Thank you for sharing this site!
Yes, it’s a bit worrying when we all recognise these stereotypes and situations, isn’t it!
Great list. Expats definitely share most of these tendencies. Even when not meant in a ‘one upmanship’ sort of way, sharing about your experiences (which is what people everywhere do) tends to be viewed in that manner. No wonder people look for their ‘people’, their ‘tribe’.
You are so right. People who haven’t moved around much often assume we are showing off or namedropping or something by recalling our experiences, but it isn’t the case (well, not all the time, anyway!) It’s just that these experiences make up who we are. If someone has spent the last ten years in Johannesburg, he/she can hardly be expected to recall a decade of experiences back home in Chicago — yet the folks who stayed home in Chicago often seem to resent this different pattern of memories.
Wonderful post! Brought back vivid memories of a house-party in Kosovo in which all the UN-, media- and aid-worker-types present displayed most of the characteristics present.
…. oh wait…. did I just… oops…
Such a fun post! And so true… 🙂