Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Eternal Expat (Series 2, part 1) - An Expat in my home town

An expat, or expatriate in the long form, according to the Oxford dictionary is 

"an expatriated person, living abroad" 

Wikipedia elaborates 

"An expatriate (sometimes shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person's upbringing. The word comes from the Latin terms ex ("out of") and patria ("country, fatherland").
In common usage, the term is often used in the context of professionals or skilled workers sent abroad by their companies, rather than for all 'immigrants' or 'migrant workers'. The differentiation found in common usage usually comes down to socio-economic factors, so skilled professionals working in another country are described as expatriates, whereas a manual labourer who has moved to another country to earn more money might be labelled an 'immigrant' or 'migrant worker'."

A very clear description of a class-like distinction in terminology between people who are essentially in the same position: leaving their home country in order to make their lives somewhere else. Do immigrants have any other fears and feelings than expats? One could strongly argue they have different experiences related to level of support and financial means at their disposal. But otherwise? 

The word emigration has a ring of implied lack of choice, uncomfortable travel do ones destination, poverty and suffering. Expatriation, in contrast, reminds of clinking champagne glasses, travelling in comfort, company support, i.e. how one might imagine life as a high-level diplomat.

Putting aside the financial aspect, as it would warrant a whole article of its own, what are we talking about really, at the heart of the thing? We are talking about leaving your home, leaving you friends and familiar environment behind, being different from most people around you, at the very least in language, culture and custom. 

Some people might even argue that one can be expatriated by moving from one city  to another or, as in the US, from one state to another within one country, judging by the differences in language, dialect, culture and custom. These differences don't always follow easily visible borders, although we use them to orientate ourselves along. 'You're German, you must like sausage. You're French, you must like snails.' It is always easier to have little boxes at the ready. 

Having stepped over that line, that ominous border, taken that leap, it is more than likely that you will find that, things are not quite as described in Malvina Reynolds' song,    

and the little boxes don't really apply. 

I should know, I come from a long line of Expats, a big MischMasch family. 

On my Mother's side, my Grandpa came from Vienna, emigrated to the US with his parents in the 1930s and married the daughter of Russian/Polish (the borders changed too often to notice; imagine being an expat and a 'pat' in your home town, depending on who is in charge!) emigrants. 

His eldest daughter, my Mom, didn't learn German (or Austrian) at home, but decided to study it and, during that study, moved to Vienna, where she met and eventually married my Dad, a Viennese. Together my parents were an American, Polish/Russian, Viennese, half-Jewish, half-Roman Catholic bilingual couple. 

They had two daughters and raised us both bilingually, with English in the home and the immediate family and Austrian at kindergarten and, later, school. At this point my Dad had picked up a very strong American accent at work, and my Mother's English was reminiscent of her Dad's, with a slight Austrian twang, making it almost impossible for people to tell who came from where. Out of this combination, my sister and I emerged with what I like to call 'Sesame Street English', our TV viewing when we were young having consisted mostly of the shows my Grandpa taped in the US and sent over, as we were not allowed to watch Austrian TV (not that we missed much; there were a whole two channels at the time). 

Growing up bilingual in Vienna about 30 years ago, we were always different from other kids and a point of attraction to grown-ups. Demands for "Say something in English!" followed all introductions and left me rather transfixed, desperately trying to come up with a phrase I could use. 

My Mom, working at the IAEA, had met other parents raising their children with multiple languages within the diplomatic realms of the UN, but outside of this tight circle, out in what might call 'the real world', we were still very much considered a rarity, maybe even an oddity

This was compounded by our travel to and my young love for the US, and, as I grew older and got more interested in my heritage and the reasons behind Grandpa's emigration, the fact that my family was part-Jewish and I was living in a country still struggling with its recent history. I was, one might say, the Eternal Expat, always different, even in my home town. 

Knowing from my experience that children of expats often end up being expats of their own, in some way or other, I now have a little Irish boy, who will also grow up with English and German in Germany (for now) and I am curious to see him discovering his little Expat world. 

More in part 2 - an American in the UK (one might say: "surrounded by the enemy"!)

P.S: In dieser Serie geht es um mein Leben als Expat; speziell in diesem ersten Teil, meinem Hintergrund und meiner Herkunft. 


  1. Excellent analysis, well told.

  2. Thank you! Glad you enjoyed.

  3. Fascinating insights, and I love that you provided the link to the original composer of Little Boxes: so much cool stuff there that I didn't know!
    Am looking forward to your next in the series: many thanks in advance!

  4. Thank you for your lovely comment! Glad the link is useful! Little boxes is one of our favourite songs.