Pristine gym shoes and undented lunch boxes aren’t the only sign of a new school year. At an international school like the one my kids attend, there is also a sea of new faces, a phalanx of new germs, and, if you put in the effort, the opportunity to make new friends.
Meet and greets are a commonplace enough at the beginning of the year. I always think those suckers are like expat speed dating, but with caffeine in lieu of wine. But don’t be fooled. You can learn a lot more than a just a name to put to the person mainlining coffee across from you.
With any group of a feather that flocks together the conversation usually follows a loose script. When Brits get together they ask about the weather. With new moms the questions are usually about how much sleep you’re getting. Expats are no different. We play our own version of Twenty Questions. Sometimes however, it’s not the question or even the answer, but the between the lines translation where you strike gold.
Q: Where do you come from?
Translation: How am I going to have to adjust my own personal language/speech/topic patterns in this conversation? Alternatively it can mean “help me out because I can’t place your accent”. I have trouble with South African vs. New Zealand. Unless they say “shame” in which case, it’s South Africa for the win every time. But unless I directly ask someone to replay the Cersei/nun showdown on Game of Thrones, that one can be a bit tricky.
Bonus: If the answer to this question is “The US” or “The UK” these days it will be followed by a question designed to determine who you voted for or where you voted on Brexit. Whether or not you mentally walk away from that person when you figure out the answer is up to the individual. You all know where I stand.
Q: Where did you move from? (Note: this is an entirely different than asking where you come from)
Translation: Is this your fist overseas stint? The answer dictates which way the conversation will shift. This question is like the fork in the conversational road. Talk will either shift onto the path of ‘how can I help you?’ or onto the road of ‘let’s compare places we’ve lived’.
Q: How are you finding it here ?
Translation: Are we going to be friends or are you going to be the person I strategically avoid for the rest of the school year? This is not to be confused with genuine concerns. For instance, if someone says “It’s harder than I thought it would be,” longer term expats generally go all mother expat hen and spill their best tips about navigating the supermarket. But if the answer is “Ugh, the Danes are so rude”? Pretty much going to keep the social interactions to a nod and not much more. There are whole pockets of naysayer expat. They will find a place amongst their own tribe and be happy in their own unhappy way.
Q: How long have you been here?
Translation: Are we going to like it here or have we made the mother of all screw ups? When someone asks how long you’ve been somewhere and the answer is a.) more than six months and b.) they have a smile on their face, it’s a good sign. When your answer, like mine, is nearly six years, you can almost hear the exhale. Generally people don’t stay around in a posting for more than a year or two if they hate it. Note: If they’re on a fixed schedule, a la Embassy families, you’ll get that answer in this question too: “Two years, we’ve got one more year before our time is up”. Embassy families have expiration dates. Like milk.
Q: Do you like it here?
Translation: There are either things about this place I’m finding really strange and I’m trying to figure out if it’s me…or them. Or, there are lots of things about this place I really like and I’m trying to figure out if I’m crazy for liking them.
Q: How often do you get home?
Translation: How do you deal with the fact that you are so far away from family, aging/sick parents/or my personal albatross, keeping an ocean between a grandmother and her only grandchildren.
Q: Who do you work for?
Translation: Where do you fall in the expat hierarchy? This is one of those questions which would normally be considered rude, but on the international circuit it’s par for the course. It’s also pretty sneaky. Where someone works generally gives you an idea of the size/type of the expat package they are receiving, and sometimes–though not always–insight into the way they live their lives.
Q: How much longer are you here for?
Translation: Am I going to put a lot of time and effort into a relationship that’s going to be over in three months? Six? A year? Also, can I have your house/apartment/babysitter when you leave?
Q: Where will you go next?
Translation: I’m going to pick you brain to see if you’ve figured out all the niggling, nagging questions that keep me awake at night.
Q: Do you see yourself moving back ‘home’?
Translation: I’m kind of grooving on this expat thing and I’m not sure I want to ever go back home. Am I alone? Alternatively, everyone seems to rave about this lifestyle and yet I’m incredibly homesick. Am I alone? Please, for the love of all that’s holy, tell me I’m not alone in my abject confusion regarding this subject.
Ok, maybe that one is my own projection….
Listen, a new language can be hard enough to figure out. The last thing you need to do is start translating expat speak on top of it. Consider yourself forewarned, and thereby forearmed. Now go forth into the new year and be fruitful. Or at the very least, coffee-full.