The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Is there a common theme — or better yet meme — for the expat life?

After writing, planning, commissioning, and editing posts for this site for just over a year — many of which were centered on the keyword “expat” — I have become rather fixated on that word of late.

Yes, we’re back to that old chestnut, but kindly indulge me while I rake it over the coals again and crack it open to take another look.

Back when I myself could have been considered an expat — first in England and then in Japan — I assiduously avoided describing myself in that way. It made me think of the kinds of people who go into a siege mentality, circle the wagons and say: “Right, it’s just us now.” I’m sure you know the kind of expats I mean, the ones who live in a colony or compound, or socialize as if they do. They hang out at the pool drinking G&Ts, exuding a sense of cultural superiority — along with great pride in having remained unassimilated.

After all, if you’re an expat, it means you come from the richer part of the world; otherwise, you’d be an immigrant.

Nowadays, I’m an American living in America, but I simply tell people that I used to live abroad. If I use the word “expat” at all to refer to myself, it’s in inverted commas: “Yes, I suppose I was an ‘expat’ for all those years. And now I’m a ‘repat.’ Hahaha…”

What about you? If you are reading this, chances are you are (or have been) someone who has ventured across borders to travel and/or live. How do you refer to your predicament? (BTW, my choice of “predicament” is the result of cultivating a British sense of humor over many years of living on that sceptered isle — no, not as an expat, but as an international resident!!!)

Maybe unlike me, you don’t have any hang-ups about calling yourself an expat — and think that people of my sort are inverse snobs for rejecting the label?

As the blogger Tabitha Carvan (The City That Never Sleeps In) has written:

To the Vietnamese who live around me, it’s clear where I fit in here: I don’t. The differences between us are as plain as the enormous nose on my big fat face.

So is it fair to say we’re all “displaced”?

One of the other founders of The Displaced Nation, Kate Allison, is an Englishwoman who has lived in the United States for more than 15 years. I sometimes think of her as an immigrant, except that she tells me she keeps a foot on each side of the Atlantic.

Strangely, I did not wince at all when Kate Allison proposed the word “displaced” as a descriptor for our common situation, when she and I were first chatting about starting up this site.

Well, perhaps I winced just slightly. I know from my studies of international affairs that “displaced” is often used for people who are forcibly removed from their homes by natural disaster, famine, civil wars and other tragedies.

In this narrow sense, “displaced” in no way applies to me, Kate or others of our ilk, who have led privileged lives.

But in a broader sense, I had to agree with Kate that “displaced” seems a good fit. As the Italian poet Cesare Pavese once said:

Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky — all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.

If there is any common theme that applies to all of us, surely it’s that sense of being “constantly off balance,” as Pavese so aptly puts it. By trotting off to investigate — and live in — far-flung corners of the globe, we are casting off the balance of our lives and choosing a life where, for a while, the only things we have in common with anyone else are the basics: air, sea, sky, sleep, dreams — a life of displacement, in other words…

And in some cases — Kate’s would be an example — we are trailing others who have made this choice on our behalf, or on behalf of family and kids. (See her “Libby’s Life” series.)

Always look on the bright side of life!

In an article last month for the FT, Edwin Heathcote had this to say about what he called “a life less ordinary”:

The expat experience combines a cocktail of the thrill of the new and the ennui of global alienation, of displacement and dislocation.

Readers may wonder why the founders of The Displaced Nation have chosen to emphasize the negative ingredients of this cocktail. After all, the meaning of “displaced” is only a shade or two away from “misplaced” or “out of place.”

Why not look at the bright side instead — the allure and the thrill of a life overseas?

Well, the fact is, the founders of The Displaced Nation don’t necessarily see displacement as a negative. As shown in numerous ways on this site over the past 12 months, it’s a necessary first step in making the leap beyond the known to the unknown — to feeding what for many of us is, or soon becomes, an insatiable hunger for new ways to knowledge.

By becoming displaced, we open up our minds to new forms of

Now if that isn’t the bright side, we don’t know what is!

Keep ’em laughing as you go

As far as our site stats go, readers have most enjoyed the series of posts where we’ve explored the good and the bad, the yin and the yang, of the displaced life, with a large helping of humor thrown into the mix.

1. Alice in Wonderland

Top of the charts is the month that we dedicated to the “curious, unreal” aspects of the displaced life with the help of Lewis Carroll’s Alice.

When you stop to think of it, barging into other people’s countries is rather like falling down a rabbit hole: full of adventure but also misadventure, of curious — and sometimes scary (because so incomprehensible) — encounters.

Kate Allison produced two brilliant posts illustrating just how unreal things can sometimes get: “5 lessons Wonderland taught me about the expat life, by Lewis Carroll’s Alice,” and “How many of these 5 expat Alice characters do you recognize?”

Meanwhile, Guest blogger Carole Hallett Mobbs kept us in stitches when describing the scenes of young adults dressed up in furry romper suits, “doormice folk,” and flying potatoes that formed the backdrop to her everyday life in Japan.

2. Pocahontas

Readers also appreciated the month when we recruited the legendary Pocahontas to help us understand, from a native’s point of view, what it’s like to be bombarded with clueless nomads.

In particular, we focused on the cases when displaced types befriend, or even marry, the natives, causing them to lead displaced lives (sometimes to tragic effect — I’m thinking not so much of Pocahontas, but of her tribe!).

I weighed in with a post that was partly based on my own experiences: “Cross-cultural marriage: Four good reasons not to rush into it.” Somewhat to my bemusement, the post proved extremely popular — that is, until it was surpassed by new TDN writer Tony James Slater’s hilarious (but with a hard kernel of truth) “Does love conquer all, even language barriers?”

Counterbalancing Tony’s and my cautious take on such matters was a two-part interview series with two cross-cultural couples — all of whom seemed to find their situation “no big deal.”

That blasé sentiment would later be echoed by Wendy Williams, author of the new work, The Globalisation of Love. In a guest post in honor of Valentine’s Day, she pointed out that in an era of increased international travel, multicultural unions are an inevitability — and even deserve their own label: “GloLo.”

3. Global philanthropy

Another monthly theme that earned high marks from readers was “global philanthropy” — the idea of displacing oneself on behalf of the forcibly displaced.

Readers responded with high praise for Kate Allison’s interview of Robin Wiszowaty, who immersed herself in Maasai culture and now runs development programs in Kenya on behalf of the Canada-based charity Free the Children.

Also popular was a feature on international aid worker and consultant Jennifer Lentfer. (Lentfer has received the most hits of any of the 40 Random Nomads who’ve been featured in the site’s first year.)

But even when covering this seemingly sacrosanct topic, we were hard pressed to prevent a note of skepticism, verging on irreverence, from creeping into the site. Guest blogger Lawrence Hunt stirred things up with his well-received post making fun of gap-year students who think they can save the world in just six months. And I wasn’t far behind with this one, still getting many hits: “7 extraordinary women travelers with a passion to save souls.” (Hey, the current generation isn’t the first to perform good works on behalf of those less fortunate!)

But is it a meme?

First, what is a meme exactly? My dictionary tells me it’s an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.

Memes are the cultural analogues to genes that get selected and then self-replicate.

Is the kind of “displacement” we talk about on this site a meme? Not in the Internet sense — it hasn’t spread like wild fire throughout social media.

But has it been a meme within our community? You tell us — does “displaced” work for you, or is there some other organizing principle we should be using on this site? Expat, perhaps? (Groan…)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a roundup of recent displaced reads by Kate Allison.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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16 responses to “Is there a common theme — or better yet meme — for the expat life?

  1. Belinda April 23, 2012 at 9:27 pm

    Interesting perspective. I totally like it. I consider myself as global citizen, for most people though I am an Expat. The truth is that I am an immigrant by choice, I left my country, my home, my job to open my mind and discover other cultures. I live my true purpose: assisting people to enjoy who they truly are and open their minds to others.

    • ML Awanohara April 24, 2012 at 12:55 am

      Hi, Belinda! I like how you put things, too: “I left my country, my home, my job to open my mind and discover other cultures.” But do you also feel displaced at times — as in not in your proper place, the one you were born to occupy? As we tried to explore with the Alice in Wonderland series, it’s normal to experience moments of discomfiture — but that’s for the good, it’s how you grow (though hopefully not too large or too small!).

  2. Miss Footloose April 24, 2012 at 4:52 am

    I’ve been an serial-expat most of my adult life, but never called myself an expat until I became aware of the term ten years ago or so. I was just living abroad. Until recently, I didn’t at all associate the term with living in gated communities; there weren’t many in the poor countries where I lived and the expats I knew were not of the diplomatic, big business or retiree variety. Now, with so many American and European retirees moving south to warmer climes and cheaper living, the term is taking on a new flavor. I guess I most associate myself with the term global citizen now.

    • ML Awanohara April 24, 2012 at 12:32 pm

      @Miss Footloose
      Interesting. For me, the term “expat” has imperial overtones. It conjures up the Victorians who went to India or other colonial outposts and lorded it over everyone else. Maybe because of living in England, I was sensitive to that sort of thing when I went to my next country, Japan, to live.

      Even if expats don’t live in gated communities, they do tend to stick to particular areas of cities, and have their own bars, restaurants, grocery stories, doctors, churches, etc. That was certainly true in Tokyo, and I participated in some of it while being loathe to identify with that group!

      Also, I think you’re on to something with the increase in retirees who change countries. I was reading the other day that companies wishing to sell services to expats have had to break them down into micro-categories (“expat” itself being too broad) — one of them being “silver expat” (a retiree living abroad) and another, “snow bird” (someone who winters abroad in the sun and spends summers at home).

  3. Michi April 24, 2012 at 9:24 am

    “Displaced” is a good term to use, I think. As an American living in Spain for 5 years now, my circle of friends not only include other foreigners, but plenty of locals as well. Heck, I married a local. Which gives you the opportunity (or forces you) to integrate in different ways. I go through a lot of the same struggles that the locals do, and I have emotional ties to the country. Yet I still feel and call myself American… which is where the feeling of displacement comes in. And I think that displacement, for the most part, comes from the experience of having gone through the motions of integration. An “expat” living within expat community walls doesn’t really have to integrate if his/her community is consistently made up of his/her own people. There’s no need [groan], as the language is the same, and gastronomy and life perceptions are similar. So yes, I would say that in regards to my own personal experience, I’d definitely prefer “displaced” over “expat”.

    • ML Awanohara April 24, 2012 at 12:41 pm

      I have to agree, I always thought you could draw a line between expats with partners who are also foreigners and those who marry into the culture. The latter feel much more displaced as they’re forced to make a choice about the extent to which they wish to integrate. When I lived in the UK with a British husband, I never went the full hog to become a British citizen. I always thought of myself as an American, even though it was becoming increasingly hard for Americans to see me as one of them (because of my accent, vocabulary, clothing, communication style, all of which had changed to be more British).

      That said, I think I was also able to integrate pretty fully into Japanese culture not by marrying into it (that came later) but by working in an all-Japanese office for four years. After a while, my walls of resistance broke down and I became Japanized. To this day, I often see things through a Japanese lens — which, to be honest, can work to my detriment in the good ol’ USA!

      • Michi April 24, 2012 at 3:04 pm

        It’s always comforting to know there’s someone out there who has been through (or is going through) similar experiences.
        Did you used to write at “Seen The Elephant”? I think I remember reading your blog long ago. Do you have a current one at the moment? I’ve been reading through a few of your articles (thank you for referring back to your Cross-Cultural Marriage one) and I would love to read more.
        By the way, Japan sounds terrific. I would love to make my way over to that side of the world one day.

        • Michi April 24, 2012 at 3:16 pm

          Never mind, found it! You’re on Blogspot, had you bookmarked. 😉

          • ML Awanohara April 24, 2012 at 6:58 pm

            Michi, that’s very kind of you to mention my blog, “Seeing the Elephant.” I was having some nostalgia for it while composing this post. (I actually went back into one of the posts, on the topic of whether or not Seeing the Elephant was an “expat blog.”)

            The one-year birthday of the Displaced Nation also means it’s been a year since I’ve posted on Seeing the Elephant: something is gained, but something is also lost!

            Yes, you must try Japan one day! Like me, you may find it less daunting than many Americans because of already having lived in Europe. Also, Spanish is the closest Romance language to Japanese, so if you’ll have an advantage there as well… 🙂

  4. Anastasia M. Ashman (@AnastasiaAshman) April 24, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    The very inability to put a finger on what this sensation/predicament/affliction/persuasion is that we all share might go a long way to explaining why even though so many others share it with us, we aren’t yet connected to them — and we aren’t yet the force we might be.

    I meet lots of people who don’t recognize in their own lives all the things Displaced Nation and other related entities (including and before it, expat+HAREM!) have been talking about for quite some time.

    I like “displacement” as a meme but the fact that it hasn’t “spread like wild fire” does indicate there may be something else that would resonate more. Did you happen to see that post I tweeted a while back about the equation for idea-impact? It’s Q (for quality of an idea) x A (acceptance) = E (effect). Even if your idea is high quality, if you don’t communicate it in a way that ensures a high level of acceptance, its effect will suffer. Seems obvious, yet, not easy to do.

    Thanks for the post, and continuing to push the envelope on this very important issue.

    • ML Awanohara April 24, 2012 at 7:25 pm

      You were of course one of the people I had in mind when composing this post — what would Anastasia say? And thanks to your comment, I at least have an inkling…

      You are right, there is something odd about more of us not being in touch despite vehicles like (formerly expat+HAREM) or the Displaced Nation, to make that happen. Do we need to break it down further, into micro-categories, as commercial interests have done, to find our global soul mates? (See my response to Miss Footloose above.)

      On the “displacement” theme/meme: about a year ago, I met the people who started up the site New York International — in fact, I wrote one of their first articles (on my experience of attending a driving academy in the Bronx, to get my American license back).

      NYI has consciously chosen to use “international” rather than “expat.” And if you look at their site, you see they have a tagline: “For the local global citizen” — “LoGlo” rather than Wendy Williams’s “GloLo”! Presumably it’s that way around because they’re targeting internationals who live in NYC, though to be honest, I don’t think the order of the two words makes that much difference, do you? And “GloLo” is easier to say…

      Hmmm…what if we’d started up “The GloLo Nation” instead?!?! My first thought is a nation of glow worms… Still, it does make you think!

  5. Emily Cannell April 24, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    ML- Where is the share button on this thang? I feel the need to TWEET!

    • ML Awanohara April 24, 2012 at 7:26 pm

      Hey, Emily. I’m not at all sure what has happened to it. Just a sec and I’ll go check! Would love to have some tweets, so hope I can fix it soon!!!!!

      • ML Awanohara April 24, 2012 at 7:36 pm

        Good news — I think I was able to reinstate it. (That said, you have to go back to the Home Page and scroll down to the end of the post to see — I don’t think it shows up in “comment” mode, which is strange!)

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