Friday, 7 November 2014

The Eternal Expat (Series 2, part 5) - There are Expats and then there are Expats....

For the previous parts of this series, click on these links: part 1part 2apart 2bpart 3 and part 4.

The final part of The Eternal Expat! My goodness! 

Those of you who are expats out there might know this phenomenon, or maybe not.... Let's see. 

For me, it is something that tee's me off quite regularly. 

For those who have not guessed, there's a rant coming here, so I recommend, if you're not in the mood, turn off here, the rest: enjoy the ride! 

As most of you have probably noticed, being an Expat and having experience working and living abroad has become the 'in' thing to do at the moment, particularly when you want to advance your career or show off what a well-rounded person you are. No job that isn't easier to get with a stint or two in a foreign country. And all power to you, in my eyes, if you have had the chance to really get to learn what life in another culture is like. 

Having been born into a multi-cultural family and cherishing that background and my hitherto won experiences, I applaud you. 

What I have difficulties with, is the fact that 'expat' seems to cover all manner of staying abroad for those people obviously desperate to tick that box in the resumee list. I recently read a post in a blog - I won't tell you where - by an American who spent a short amount of time - I understood less than a year - in Germany; specifically in one particular part of Germany: Bavaria, which, some might say, is not really part of Germany at all, and hence decided to enlighten the world with what, in her view, Germany is like. 

Now maybe I am a bit defensive here, as we live in Germany, and I consider this one of my home countries, but also because I feel a bit uncomfortable being thrown into the same 'expat' box with someone who has decided, after very little experience of the living culture here, to declare Germany the country of no service, cutlery served in steins at the table, and no cheese. 

My sincere apologies to all Americans out there, but don't throw with stones when you are sat in the glass house, or the land of Monterey Jack and Swiss cheese. No cheese?! Fine, Germany may not have a wide tradition of its own to look back at, but last time I went to the supermarket I found it very easy to find cheese that did not, as this blogger put it 'all taste of Swiss'. Never mind the fact that 'Swiss' cheese does not come from Switzerland, and does not exist outside of the USA. On steins: I can't remember the last time I saw one anywhere I have been in Germany north of the Bavarian border. I have heard a rumour that service is not a top priority in some Bavarian establishments, but, again, it seems a bit unfair to extend that roumour to the rest of the country.

My ranting and annoyance here has nothing, really, to do with this particular blogger, I assure you, but more with the fact that I think it is not really justified to label oneself an Expat if one doesn't bother trying to immerse oneself in the culture of one's new home country. 

One year is already no time at all to get to know a whole country, not even a city really, never mind the people who live there and their culture. Most grown-ups take, once up-rooted, at least one to two years to settle into a new home. If you don't speak the language, then even longer. We had a friend - a diplomat - who lived in Mexico City for three years. Between work and a partner across the ocean, she had so little chance to discover the city that we ended up introducing her to a lovely restaurant around the corner from her home after only a week-long stay.  

We know people here in Hamburg, who have been here for five years, still don't speak more German than to order a 'Currywurst' (a German sausage, served as a snack), and mix only with their countrymen or English-speaking people. In the end they will have discovered more about what it is like to live in any given expat community than what it is like to live in this country.

My mother used to work at the UN in Vienna, and there were many, many people who followed this dubious example, stretching just far enoughto being able to order food; some even started their stays by importing things like toilet paper from the US. Still haven't quite figured out what made them think Austrians had managed to bring forth people like Mozart, but not have access to toilet paper.... 

Anyway, my point here is: I personally think it is really a shame not to make use of this opportunity you or your partner have made possible for yourselves, and to go into a stay in a foreign country with 'blinders on', as it were, not speaking the language, mixing only with countrymen and people speaking one's own language, not bothering to see anything beyond the small corner of land you have landed in. Even more a shame if one then decides that that is what the whole country is like. 

Speaking from personal experience, going to a local Austrian school rather than the international ones grounded me in the Austrian culture. I wouldn't miss that experience, nor working with Germans in Hamburg. 

So my motto for this series: enjoy the opportunities you are given and don't call yourself an expat if you haven't bothered looking an inch over the edge of your plate! :) 

PS: Dies ist der letzte Teil der Serie 'the Eternal Expat', in dem es um das Phänomen 'Expat' geht.  


  1. Bravo, Cary: I agree wholeheartedly!!
    The expat who's lived only within the (invisible) confines of the expat community cannot claim to know the natives and/or the way they live, work, etc. Such an expat has lived as an expat, i.e. next to, not with the locals, altogether a less than authentic experience. Some will know the dif, the others will claim to ....