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.
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.
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