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Notes and fears on living an expat life in the digital age

imageSome 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

imageFirst 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.

 

 

img:awindram

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Love Living Overseas: An interview with Michelle Garrett aka The American Resident

Displaced Nation Blog - Michelle Alnwick 2In April’s Alice Awards we featured expat blogger Michelle Garrett (an American who has made a home for herself in Britain). She won an “Alice” for her most recent column in Expat Focus, in which she asked readers whether their experience living abroad has inspired them to write a book.

Michelle’s column certainly struck a chord with us here at The Displaced Nation as well as leaving us intrigued and wanting to know more. Regular readers know that we always like to focus on expat writing and highlight it, whether it be Jack the Hack’s tips or our lists of the best books for, by and about expats.

Michelle revealed in that post that she is working on not one but two expat-related books: the first, a helpful guide for unhappy expats called Love Living Overseas; the second, a novel. Today Michelle has kindly agreed to answer my questions about why so many expats find themselves blogging or attempting to write books, as well as her own writing plans.

We enjoyed reading your article at Expat Focus about whether expats necessarily have to write expat books. Why do you think so many people who live abroad feel like writing a book about the experience?
Humans are storytellers. It’s how we share experiences and how we learn. Blogs and self-publishing have opened up a new way of storytelling and when we experience something life changing, as many expats do, we want to tell the story and many of us do so through these mediums. Our stories may be in the form of autobiography or a fictionalized account of our experiences.

Some books are less about the story and more about tips or self-help. These books are often written by expats who have had a hard time with culture shock and once they move through those difficult months or years they feel compelled to help others.

Do expats have something unique to say?
As with any type of book writing, people need to really research the market before they can know if they have something unique to contribute. I do come across expat books, whether stories or books of tips where the author doesn’t seem to have done their research, and the story or information is nothing new or exceptional. However, the nature of the expat niche means there are a variety of ways to spin a story and many different angles to pitch tips, so there should be a wide variety of expat literature for our shelves!

In my research for Love Living Overseas, a book for unhappy expats, I have tried to read the best examples of books in the expat niche, and then see how I can best contribute to that collection.

What are the best examples in the genre, in your opinion?
This list is by no means complete, but among my favorites are:

Expat Women: Confessions, by Andrea Martins and Victoria Hepworth: a valuable book in that these are real questions people have asked (some quite gritty) and many of them I’ve not seen covered in other places.

Living Your Best Life Abroad, by Jeanne A Heinzer: a wonderful book for those of us who need a bit of step-by-step guidance for learning how to do just that: live our best lives abroad.

The Expert Expat, by Melissa Brayer Hess and Patricia Linderman: a fantastic resource covering almost every aspect of the relocation process, including pets, children, and safety—they even include tips for keeping in touch when you move on again.

Tell us more about the two books you are working on.
Love Living Overseas, a book for unhappy expats to be published this autumn, is intended for accompanying partners as well as those expats who have moved to the home countries of their foreign partners. I was once an unhappy expat and wanted to share what I’ve learned through my experiences and research. It’s a book I wish I’d had in the early days—a shortcut to expat happiness!

The book will contribute to the existing expat literature by taking advantage of the Internet in a new way, really using the strengths and opportunities of the Internet to my and my readers’ advantage.

The other book I’m working on is a novel about an American expat who is tired of feeling worthless. She married a British man to escape her dull life, but it hasn’t worked out and she is left adrift in Britain. She is sure there’s more to life than what she’s experiencing, and is equally sure she doesn’t deserve it. On impulse she accepts an invitation from a friend who is driving across the country and needs a companion for the journey. When she reaches their destination, she takes advantage of her anonymity to start a new life with a new identity, only to realize she is actually discovering her true self. I’m playing with the idea we expats often discuss about moving to a new place and taking advantage of the fresh start.

Would you ever consider writing a memoir or “life map,” as Judy Dunn calls it?
Definitely, but perhaps only for my entertainment, not for public consumption! I LOVE the term “life map” by the way—what a great description.

Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?
I love creating books that help others.

When I first brought my new blended British family (7 of us!) to Minnesota, where I grew up, I realized that they would enjoy the experience more if they knew a bit more about Minnesota so I created a booklet of interesting facts. (Did you know that Minnesota and Great Britain are approximately the same square miles?)

And I am really enjoying writing Love Living Overseas because I truly feel it will be a helpful book.

But I also love inventing stories and playing with allegory and symbolism.

What are the biggest challenges of each genre?
I think the biggest challenge for non-fiction is providing information in a captivating way. Tips and facts can be dull—even helpful tips and facts.

As far as fiction goes, I find it challenging to create a believable story that moves people, but it’s a challenge I love.

We notice you are featuring quite a few writers on your own blog, The American Resident, of late. What lessons have you picked up from them? Take, for instance, your interview with the Aussie novelist Allison Rushby, who’s written a travel memoir: Keep Calm and Carry Vegemite. What was the most interesting thing she had to say?
Allison was lovely to work with and very interesting to correspond with regarding writing and expat life. One of my favorite comments of hers on writing Keep Calm and Carry Vegemite was:

… it’s very rare to write a memoir that is 100% true to what happened. It’s not that you lie to the reader, but sometimes events need to be shifted around in time and so on for the story to work—to be cohesive and to make sense in a story-like format. I was worried about doing this at first, but, in retrospect, I can see how the book just wouldn’t have made sense if I hadn’t done it.

* * *

Thanks, Michelle! Readers, that’s some sound advice from Michelle about not assuming your expat experience is unique and researching the market first. Do you have any follow-up comments or questions for her? (Want to learn more about Michelle? Follow her blog, The American Resident, or on Twitter.)

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!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another installment in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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img: Michelle Garrett

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