NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches We’re back — four intrepid souls who swap guests posts each month from the far corners of the globe. We are:
- North: Linda in the Netherlands (Adventures in Expatland)
- South: Russell in Australia (In Search of a Life Less Ordinary)
- East: Erica in Japan (Expatria, Baby)
- West: Me, in Canada
The great philosopher Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Let the examinations begin! Our theme this month is self-knowledge, or what expat life has taught us about ourselves.
At Expatria Baby, Russell learned to trust his gut and remain true to his values in his search for a fulfilling expat life.
At In Search of a Life Less Ordinary, Linda learned that the more she actually learns about expat life, the less she knows.
At Adventures in Expatland, I learned that within my timid exterior — deep, deep within — beats the brave heart of a gambler.
Please do read our stories, and share some of your own in our comments sections. We’d love to hear what expat life has taught you about yourself. And now here’s Erica, dishing about her realization that tolerance is much harder in practice than it is in theory.
An Unhappy Truth
by Erica at Expatria Baby
Like most expats, I can say that expatriation taught me about myself. I have learned happy lessons about my capacity for strength in the face of adversity, about realizing that I’m flexible enough to take in stride a 24-hour evacuation from a country. Twice. I’ve become aware of the the rhythm of my settling-in process, and have acquired coping mechanisms for for adjusting to a new, foreign home.
Like I said, though, most expats learn these lessons. This month’s theme is Self Knowledge, and in that spirit, I’m digging deeper. For I have learned something about myself that isn’t much discussed in expat circles. Nor is it something that is tidy or happy, or easy to say out loud: I’ve learned that I’m xenophobic.
I grew up in small town Eastern Ontario, a conservative enclave, in a liberal provence. It was the kind of place where people proudly traced their ancestry back to the farmer who arrived from Northern Ireland in 1741 and broke the rocky, marginal ground. Outsiders were viewed suspiciously. There were, perhaps, four non-caucasian people who went to my high school. In this environment I clung to my liberal roots as a means of defining myself. I was progressive; I embraced those very Canadian ideals of multiculturalism and diversity. I spouted forth the accolades of acceptance and tolerance and equality. I still embrace these ideals wholeheartedly. But in theory. I’m continuing to work on the practice.
France was my first expat home. I lived there on three separate occasions in my teens and early twenties. Arriving in Paris as a starry-eyed big R Romantic 16 year-old, I was enchanted. Standing on top of the Arc de Triomphe I breathed in the city. The streets radiated outward before me, and all I could think was history and beauty and life and this, THIS was a city. I wanted to live here. I wanted to be French.
Later, with my host family in Southern France, the bloom faded slightly. I craved whole-wheat bread, firm pillows, and late afternoon talk shows. Driving home from the grocery store with my host sister one weekend, someone cut her off. “Les arabs!” She said, “Ils sont con!” I was incensed. My progressive, tolerant, multicultural sensibilities were bruised. And so I sulked in my room for the rest of the weekend. “The French!” I told myself, “They’re such racists.”
Ten years later and I was in India and in love anew. Life was vibrant. Noise everywhere. Colours. Smells. Elephants draped with chains of marigolds paraded down the street flanked by white horses and marching bands. I spent my first month riding around the city in rickshaws, wandering alone through the narrow streets of old Delhi, flitting in and out of temples and shrines, marveling at my own tolerant and adventurous spirit.
When it was time to move into our apartment, it was up to me to organize the utilities. I asked our landlady, who lived below us, about setting up the internet. She gave me a vague response and moved her head side to side, halfway between a nod and a bob. I didn’t understand. I called Airtel, and still nothing was clear. I had no indication of when exactly I might get someone out to our house to set up the internet. Tomorrow? Next month? Later, a worker delivered our new washing machine. I then learned that it would take four separate visits from four different people to have it installed. “These people!” I thought. “They’re so unorganized. Why can’t they just give me a clear answer. Why do they make everything so complicated.”
Later, in China, I found myself marveling at the height of the skyscrapers, the speed of the trains, and the spiciness of the peppers. “Life here will be good,” I thought. “THIS is a country I can get behind.” Until someone elbowed me in the ribs as I was scrambling for the train, or I lost my place in line, not nimble or aggressive enough to fend off the encroaching queuers, or I had to dodge a taxi, hellbent on usurping my pedestrian rights. These people! Why don’t they learn some manners!
For a long time, cognitive dissonance allowed me to think these thoughts while still ignoring their significance. I just didn’t like this country or these people. There was obviously something wrong with them, not me. I am a liberal. I am enlightened. I embrace diversity and multiculturalism and tolerance. Until the pattern repeated itself here in Japan, and I finally understood. It wasn’t them at all. It was me.
I was falling prey to the ancient human tendency of defining the world in terms of ingroups and outgroups. My expat friends were my ingroup. Everyone else was an outgroup. I was moving into a foreign country, and expecting it to operate according to the standards and norms of my own home. I bristled at difference, pushed back against what I didn’t understand, against them.
It’s an uncomfortable truth of expats: we all tend towards ingroups and outgroups, regardless of how pure our liberal, multicultural, tolerant credentials are. We all gather together, groups of foreigners, and complain about them. As expats we must acknowledge this tendency and then rail against it with every fiber of our being. We must remember that we are guests. And while we may not relish ALL aspects of our expat homes, the problem most certainly does not lie with them, but rather with us.