Some loose thoughts on expat life in the digital life, partly inspired by a Frank Bruni article in The New York Times:
Note 1: The late night scribblings on a post-it note of a random neurosis
That being away from my home country for a prolonged period only serves to make me an oddity there, and that as time moves forward the image that I have of home is from when I emigrated. Everyone and everything else has moved on. Me: obsolete, anachronistic, no longer conversant in the local idiom, a visitor from 2007. I’m still operating Britain iOS 6 when everyone else have updated to Britain iOS 7.
Note 2: Recent Article I read
“Traveling Without Seeing” by Frank Bruni. Published in The New York Times on September 2, 2013. In it Bruni laments the digital world we live in, how it alters our ability to experience travel in a foreign country. What does this say about expat living? What is it to be an expat in a digital world? How dangerous can the “cocoon” Bruni writes about be?
“Before I left New York, I downloaded a season of “The Wire,” in case I wanted to binge, in case I needed the comfort. It’s on my iPad with a slew of books I’m sure to find gripping, a bunch of the music I like best, issues of favorite magazines: a portable trove of the tried and true, guaranteed to insulate me from the strange and new.
I force myself to quit “The Wire” after about 20 minutes and I venture into the streets, because Baltimore’s drug dealers will wait and Shanghai’s soup dumplings won’t. But I’m haunted by how tempting it was to stay put, by how easily a person these days can travel the globe, and travel through life, in a thoroughly customized cocoon. . .
I’m talking about our hard drives, our wired ways, “the cloud” and all of that. I’m talking about our unprecedented ability to tote around and dwell in a snugly tailored reality of our own creation, a monochromatic gallery of our own curation.”
Note 3: Availability of media: finding the Test score
Bruni downloads The Wire. Expat living need not be terrifying in the digital world, you need not let go. My apartment and digital habit is a curation of my own making, one that ties me to a notion of Britishness that I wouldn’t, other than a PBS viewing habit, have been able to maintain with as much ease twenty years ago. With only a cursory knowledge of technology it is possible to keep watching British television. British newspapers are easily available. In The Lady Vanishes there is a running joke about a buffoonish double-act on a train across Europe who in vain try to find out what the Test Match score is. I watch highlights on YouTube. If I don’t let go, am I actually an expat? Am I no better than those British expats that sit in the Spanish sun drinking McEwans and eating eggs and chips? My media diet remains resolutely British in a way that wouldn’t formerly have been possible.
Note 4: Recollection of a joke heard on a podcast
The current England football manager, Roy Hodgson, has had a long (and varied) career managing abroad. When he returned to the UK to manage in the Premiership I remember a joke being made on Football Weekly, a Guardian newspaper podcast that is a regular feature in my digital cocoon, that Hodgson’s voice was that of an old cockney gent, the sort of voice you never encounter in London anymore but that was ubiquitous in the 50s and 60s. The inference was that the UK had moved on and in returning Hodgson was like a time traveller coming from Britain’s recent past. Is that the lot of the expat? You move somewhere exotic, but also find yourself stuck in aspic at that moment you left? Does that digital “cocoon” help or does it make it worse? This is that random neurosis again (see Note 1).
Note 5: Breakfast, Southern California, August 2013
Staying in a hotel in LA. Pleasant chat with some British tourists over the hotel’s breakfast buffet. Alarmingly they don’t believe me when I say I’m British, too. I’ve never had this before. They mention some pop culture references I do not get and talk about the Olympics. Realize they are talking about a shared experience I didn’t share in. Maybe they were right to be disbelieving about my nationality. After all, I’ve politely engaged tourists in conversation – how un-British can you get? Digital cocoon breaking?
Note 6: 30,000 feet above Greenland, September 2013
Embarking on what will be the first trip home in nearly three years. Wonder if anyone else, like the tourists, will not think me British.
Note 7: Passport control, Heathrow, September 2013
I carry my baby daughter through passport control. I hand over her UK passport.
Note 8: Kings Cross, September 2013
First trip “home” in nearly three years. Struggling with suitcases into lift (writing that rather than elevator feels more a grumpy affectation than a reflex now) at King’s Cross. Press button for . . . “mezzanine level”. Mezzanine level? King’s Cross has a mezzanine now? Walk out of lift onto this mezzanine. wanting to discover more This is not my grimy King’s Cross. All that digital curation and this passed me by. The station has been poncified.. Wonder where the prostitutes hang out now.
Note 9: Gregg’s
When did all the Gregg’s bakeries appear? There seems to be one on every street corner now. I know they’ve been around a while, but they seem to have been multiplying like rabbits.
Note 10: Coffee shop, London, September 14, 2013
I’m waiting for my order to be taken. It’s one of those moments where the term “inordinate” seems to be appropriate. An actual look at my phone (one of those devices that allows my curation and that had been tricking me into thinking I was still au fait with home) reveals that it’s only been three minutes, but that feels inordinate when you’re at the counter, the only customer, waiting to be served and two servers chat amongst themselves and do other tasks rather than make eye contact and acknowledge me. Not even a “sorry about the wait, we’ll be with you in a moment.” This is that British customer service foreigners used to tell me about and I thought they were exaggerating about. God, I’ve never felt so American as at this moment.
Note 11: Rhythm is a dancer . . . you can feel it everywhere
You notice that you are out-of-step, not in line with the rhythm of your home. You’re off the pace, don’t know the right moves. Of course, that would come in time. This is a dance you can relearn, but, for the moment, does it make you feel foreign.
Note 12: Living without seeing
Bruni’s piece (Note 2) is concerned with the traveler – “traveling without seeing”. My worry is living without seeing. A willful effort to cocoon myself away from the culture I find myself in, and attempting to curate that which I’m from. It leaves me an outsider to both.
Note 13: Passport control, SFO, September 2013
I carry my baby daughter through passport control. I hand over her US passport.