Monday, July 26, 2010

The (Ex) Patriate

I didn't know what the word expatriate (expat) meant until I become one. In fact, I may have mistakenly pronounced the word ex-patriot the first dozen or so times I said it. An ex-patriot I am not, but I an expat I am, maybe for life. I'm finding that many of my old friends are becoming expats themselves and most of my new friends, the majority of which are foreigners living in China, are as well. I've decided to write the blog as a tribute to those people and people who like them have moved away from their hometown, if not their home country. I've done a bit of reflection on this during the past couples weeks as several of my friends struggle with their lives away from home or with their transition back to being back home. I sometimes face these struggles myself, especially now that I don't know what “home” really means.

I often wonder what attracts people to living overseas. Some people make an entire life out of it, jumping from country to country with their significant other and small children in tow. That type of lifestyle probably isn't in the cards for me, due more to familial circumstances than a lack of desire to reside in other countries. While I currently hold a deep curiosity for foreign lands and cultures, I wasn't always this way. I could have easily and happily stayed in Wisconsin without much thought of visiting Tibetan monasteries, Bagan, or Angkor Wat. But after going abroad for the first time (a special shout out to Amy Greil and Ireland for this opportunity), I decided I wanted to see more. I also realized traveling isn't as scary as I thought it was. The overachiever in me was reawakened and I felt the need to do something, see something. I think there's a lot of overachievers in China--recent college grads who want to challenge themselves. People who just can't sit still. People who probably don't watch much TV. People who have, at one time or another, labeled themselves as “perfectionists.” But for every Summa Cum Laude who comes to China only to return to America to pursue a degree in Law/Medicine/something-ridiculously-difficult-and-world-changing, there is a social misfit or alcoholic womanizer among their ranks. Foreign countries attract a strange and varied breed of human and I think it's safe to say few of us are anywhere close to being “normal.”

In addition to the types of people that move abroad, I've given some thought to the places to which they go. I believe that certain places are better suited to certain types of people. This is true of both vacationing spots and locations to live. While some people have that special gift of making the best out of whatever circumstances they find themselves in, most of us are creatures of our environment. If we don't feel comfortable or (at the very least) interested in our surroundings, our happiness and attitude suffer. I can't pinpoint specific types of people who enjoy living and traveling in Asia, but I do find that most of the people here are among the more intrepid of travelers. I think a fairly high tolerance for noise, dirt, crowdedness, discomfort, and linguistic misunderstandings will prove helpful. If this sounds unappealing to you, maybe you should try for Europe before booking a flight to Bangkok, Beijing, or Delhi. I do, however, think we can surprise ourselves. I, for one, never would have imagined enjoying Asia as much as I do. For all it's difficulties, I find it a very captivating and rewarding place to live in and explore. My point is basically this: It may be hard to know for certain if we'll like traveling or living somewhere, but I think it's fair to assume we probably won't like everywhere and there's nothing wrong with that.

But now the real meat and potatoes of this, which is me pondering why living abroad can be so damn difficult. Some reasons are quite obvious, others less so. Culture shock has a lot to do with it. This can be felt even within one's own country or state. Moving from the North to the South or from a town to the city can be a drastic change. People may do things differently, talk differently, and think differently. They may have different political and religious leanings or be of different ethnicities or socio-economic standings. If this is true within our own country, it is exponentially true when moving to overseas. Even in countries seemingly similar to our own, you will find many things different. When moving from a place like America to China, you may (on certain days) feel like everything is different. For me, this is the beauty of being in China. I'm not suppose to fit in and it shows, my stocky legs and large green eyes give it away every time. Being a foreigner in China equates to locals having extremely low expectations yet high levels of understanding for me. This phenomenon is not characteristic of most places where fitting in and being accepted are somewhat essential to survival.

Besides the culture shock, I think moving away from home can be very lonely. I am not terribly good at making new friends, but China somehow makes up for what I lack. I easily fall into friendships with other foreigners here. This has nothing to do with my stellar personality, but is a result of us all being in similar situations--we are all looking for friends. We are all looking for people with which we can speak English at a normal pace and even throw in some slang for good measure. Chinese people, no matter how good their English, do not understand what “cankles,” “chillax,” or “fugly” mean. We want someone to get our jokes (and appreciate sarcasm), our fashion (hoodies sporting our homestate or college name paired with jeans), our preference for food (Mexican or anything cheesy) and TV shows (“The Office,” anyone?). And whenever that gets boring, a potential Chinese friend is lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce and practice their English. This isn't the case most places, where local people don't care who you are or where you're from, nor do they need your friendship. Making new friends may mean a lot of effort and when all is said and done, you may just move away. After months of trying to get to know a person, all you may be left with is another casual facebook friend.

Which leads me to the end of the cycle, one which I may never reach. . . re-entry shock. This can be even worse than the initial culture shock. A lot of people have a surprisingly difficult time readjusting when returning home. Life went on and goes on. No one cares that you went to Bali or visited the Great Wall. They may not care to see your scrapbook or hear about your new friends. They don't understand where you've been or what you've done. Things are just suppose to continue on as normal, as if you were never really gone. It's can be hard to get a footing, to fit in again, or to even want to fit in. I honestly don't know how people do it. I tried myself in 2007 and I ended up returning to China.

This entry may have bordered on pessimistic, though I was going for realistic. I think it's important for anyone who moves away from their hometown to realize that it's not always easy. Moving back home can be tough too. Sometimes it is difficult and lonely and maybe even a bit depressing. Don't feel bad if it's not all rainbows, butterflies, and exciting nights filled with friendship and adventure. I've had low points; in fact, I continue to have them. But they get less frequent and easier to manage. Living in China has become less “Living in China” and more just living life. Maybe one day I will even call it home.

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