Expat Speak

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 ?

So, how do feel about that Referendum???

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.

 

Come from? Well…how long you got?

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.

 

Advertisements

A Migrant By Any Other Name is an Expat

ellis-islandMy family and I are migrants.

More commonly we are referred to as expats. This is despite the fact that upon closer inspection, we actually meet the criteria of migrant workers more closely. Yet expat is how we identify ourselves as well as those we know. I suspect it has a lot to do with the color of our skin, our education levels, and our very bland middle-class-ness.

The fact is, we are foreigners living in a foreign land. Legally we’re allowed to be here until my husband’s contract expires. Prior to June, he and my children would have had EU rights to stay past that time, but well…then Brexit went and happened and overnight my kids lost the right to live, work, and reside in 27 different countries. I’m sure my children’s thank you note for that is in the mail….

For all intents and purposes, we are immigrants. Though it’s likely we’ll return to the United States one day, we have no immediate plans to do so. But because we are white and prosperous we’re generally not considered that kind of immigrant. If we brought up to those in the UK who voted Leave or those in the US who voted Trump that we are the very immigrants they voted against, I suspect many would be horrified.

We are not who they were voting against.

I guess we’re the good kind of immigrant.

I’m not sure why. The jobs my husband gets or any other ‘expat’ gets are jobs that could be given to citizens of whatever country we are in. The job my British husband did in America could have been filled by an American. In fact, from an economic standpoint I would argue that a farm laborer is far more important to the day to day lives of most Americans and Britons.

I would also argue that most won’t see or appreciate that. They only see different. They see other. 

Anti-immigration rhetoric is nothing new. The idea of someone ‘else’ swooping in and taking what, by some imagined right, belongs to you. It’s the same rhetoric that led to the rise of the KKK in the US–spread a few whispers that the big, black man is coming for your pretty white wife. It’s the same rhetoric which led to the rise of Hitler– the Jews are coming for your money. And it’s the same rhetoric that is gaining volume not only in the US, but all over Europe–you would have so much more if it weren’t for the dirty immigrants coming in and taking your jobs.

travel-visa

We are those immigrants coming in to take those jobs. So is the family of every ‘expat’ I know. We can convince ourselves that it is because there isn’t a deep enough pool of local talent, but at the end of the day, that’s all a lot of hooey. Countries could invest in education in order to increase that pool of local talent, but they don’t. It’s easier and more economical in the short-term to hire foreigners.

Farm owners could hire locals to pick and harvest fruit. But they don’t. Because they’d have to pay them higher wages and their profit margins would decrease. Food prices would increase. It’s easier and more economical to hire migrant workers.

No one blames the companies. No one blames the corporations. We blame the folks doing the jobs–but the truth is, some folks shoulder more than their fair share of that blame. Part of it is race, part socio-economic, and a big part is perception.

Why should my white husband be considered an expat and a Romanian care worker in the UK an immigrant? Why is a Mexican laborer called a migrant and an oil executive an expat? I’m guessing that your average British couple who retire to the Algarve to soak up the sun in their golden years don’t refer to themselves as immigrants. Though that’s exactly what they are.

Immigrant is a term reserved for everyone other than us, everyone who may not look like us or act like us or have the same value system or identity.

At the end of the day, if you are working for an Embassy in another country, you are a migrant worker. If you are a CEO of working overseas, you are a migrant worker. If you think your income level, the importance of your job, or color of you skin makes you any different from the Romanian woman caring for your granny, the Polish builder who gives you a better deal on your decorating or the Mexican waitress taking your order, then you are part of the problem.

My family’s migrant journey is approved. We reside here legally by the grace of the Danish government. And the harsh truth is that it is pretty damn easy for us to get that approval. Our multi-layers of privilege makes it easy for us to travel from country to country, job to job. And yet many, many of the folks who are being targeted in the US, in the UK, in Europe are there legally as well.

But because they don’t look like they should be there, they have a bulls-eye on their back.

When my husband first came to the US, he did so on a tourist visa. We followed the rules. He never over stayed his visa, he got a job which offered him a working visa, something that many in the upcoming US administration are against. After we were married in 2001, we were advised by immigration officials not to apply for green card status. Right now he is still entitled to a green-card, but who knows how those regulations will change in the upcoming years? I guess nowadays it’s just your bad luck if you fall in love with someone who doesn’t come from the same country, right?

migrantWho am I kidding? We’re white, and we have money. My husband is the good kind of immigrant. Another layer of privilege.

How we identify ourselves and others plays a major part in our perceptions. Those perceptions inform our decisions, our actions. It’s always harder to look closely at our own reflections than it  is to look at those around us. But when we don’t, we fail, rather spectacularly at times, to recognize that for the most part, there aren’t as many differences as we think.

 

 

 

Four and a Pizza Pie

ladies pizzaAmong expats ’tis the season, not for tidings and joy, but for leaving parties and gifts, frantic last-minute quests and excuses for daytime drinking. Well, more excuses anyway. June is a tough month for expats. June is packing and wrapping and scrambling and crying and toasting and second-guessing and trying to suck in giant gulps of air to keep you upright.

June is a month full of goodbyes.

Not too long ago my husband and I sat down to confront the eventuality of leaving ourselves. Though we are still firmly on the hosting and attending side of the fence, if I’ve learned anything in the last eight years, it’s that mental preparation is half the battle. At some point the eventualities turn into possibilities and the possibilities morph into certainties, usually the day after you book a long-haul flight or fork over half a year’s tuition. But in the throes of hashing out the pros and cons of staying vs. going, conversing about how hard it will be to set up camp somewhere else and say goodbye to a damn good life, a life which gets harder to leave every additional year we stay, we boiled it down to this:

As long as the four of us are together and there’s decent pizza, we’ll make it work.

Because at the end of the day, what more do you really need?

It’s not easy. Several good friends have been struggling with repatriation or new country postings. Several more are already anxious at how they’ll handle it in a few weeks themselves. But as they make the list of pros and cons, of fears and anxieties, I say the same.

As long as you have your family and a deep-dish, it will be ok.

pizza pieYou’ll be ok. You’ll make it work.

It may take a while. It will probably take a while. In fact, I’d be surprised if it didn’t–it should. Settling into a new place or re-settling into an old place, which can be just as foreign and intimidating as a new one, isn’t easy. There will probably be a lot of tears. Some resentment. An argument or twenty. A lot of second-guessing. That old bugger hindsight will come into sharp focus.

But have faith that as long as you’re together, you’ll figure out how to make it work.

You’ve slogged this road before. You’ve thought it out. You’ve run the numbers, listed the pros, calculated the cons. You’ve looked at it from every different angle and sideways. You’ll be ok.

Maybe you underestimated how different it would be, or how difficult. Maybe it’s not going to be the best country you ever lived in or the nicest house. Maybe you’ll need to hire a tutor for you kids to catch up or maybe your kids will be ahead and lose some of their momentum in the place you’re going. Maybe you won’t have the same friends you had before you left to go away. Maybe you’re going to miss the place and people you left behind.

You’ll be ok.

Because as long as you’re together and you can get a decent slice of pepperoni, it means there’s something normal and right in the world. And sometimes that’s all you need, just a little, tiny bit of normal and right to hang on to.

Maybe this move isn’t going to be the one that pays off the mortgage or sends your career into the stratosphere. Maybe the commute’s going to suck. Maybe the school will suck or the weather or the driving or the lack of decent black beans. But you’ll be ok. Because, pizza.

You’ll make it work. You’ll find a school. Maybe it won’t be a perfect fit. Maybe your kids will be behind or be ahead. But it’s ok, because they’re there with you. You’ll find a house. Maybe the bedrooms will be too small or your landlord will be a dick. But the roof will cover all of you. You’ll make friends. They may not be as good as the ones you made in the last place, but that just means you made some great ones that will always be there. You’ll be able to drive from your house to Ikea and back again without consulting the GPS. And rest assured, Ikea has the same stuff wherever you are.

pizza placeIt might not be pretty and neat, but you’ll figure it out. You’ll figure out what the important things are, like the thickness of the pie crust and the sauce to cheese ratio.

To those of you leaving, those of you who recently left, you’ll be fine, I promise. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow or even next week or next month, but you will: because you’ve already got 95% of what you need to make it work right there with you.

You just need to find the pizza place.

 

 

The Little Expat That Could

2014-11-16-HowtounpackproperlyDear New Expat,

Right about now you’re probably sitting in a brand new house in a brand new country, surrounded by a room full of  boxes. You’re probably feeling a little overwhelmed, wondering how you’re going to manage. And by ‘how am I going to manage‘ I really mean “have we made huge effing mistake???”

Maybe you did a lot of reading or research or maybe you’re just winging it, figuring it out as you go along. Either way, it’s hard to know what moving your life and family to a different country, continent, or currency zone is going to feel like until you’ve hit the ground. For all your plans to hit that foreign ground running, sometimes you fall flat on your face.

Making the decision to move to another country is right up there with adding a child to your life. It is one of those life changes that affects every aspect of how you live, of how you go about your day. Just like bringing a kid into the mix means you have to adjust the choices you make, make changes to the way you do things, the decision to become an expat does too. Everything changes.

And it’s hard.

It’s hard in a put your head in your hands and cry kind of way. It’s hard in a you doubt yourself and your choices and your strength kind of way. It’s hard in a constant second guessing yourself kind of way. It’s just really, really…hard.

Not all the time and not every day, but the first year? The first year abroad is a doozy.

Getty

The first year of any international move is littered with little landmines. It’s 365 days or so of treading water just to keep your head above the surface. The first year  is usually spent finding your footing, trying to remember names and directions, securing a place for yourself on a new social scene, wading carefully into already established groups. You’re lonely. You’re overwhelmed. You don’t know what the hell kind of meat they sell at the supermarket but it’s not one you recognize. You’re worried the kids won’t make friends. You’re worried you won’t make friends. It’s true for any move, but when it’s your first move abroad it’s magnified a hundred fold.

It gets easier. I promise.

There are a few things you can do to help. First? Say yes to everything. Go to every social event, every coffee morning, every meet and greet. Join as many clubs as you can. Book clubs, tennis clubs, walk and talk, stitch and bitch. Join the PTA. Volunteer in school. Accept every invitation to coffee, to lunch, to help. Don’t be afraid to talk to more experienced expats about what you’re feeling, because you know what? We’ve all felt it too. Usually more than once.

You’ll make friends. Your kids will make friends. The friends you start off with probably won’t be the same ones you’ve listed as your emergency contact by the end, but that’s ok. Sometimes when you’re set adrift, you cling on to the first scrap of wood that comes your way. If it buoys you up, hang on to that piece of wood for dear life. You may lose your grip on the next bend and that’s ok too. You’ll pick up a few more along the way and suddenly you’ll have enough to build a raft. After that? It’s smooth(er) sailing.

Out of all the expats I’ve met in that last seven and a half years, I can count on one hand the number of folks who have regretted their decision. Even if that first year was the hardest year they could imagine. Even if they had their bags packed and ready to go for months on end. Even if they never thought they’d be able to do it.

You’re not imagining it. You’re not making things up. You’re not weak or unsuited for expat life or doing things wrong or struggling where others have succeeded. It’s hard.

vintage-photo-of-an-exhasted-mother-and-child-in-a-cluttered-roomBut you? You’re the little engine that could. You’ll chug up that mountain, pulling all your questions and concerns and worries and fears behind you, unsure if you’ll be able to do it. Listen to the little voice in the back of your head saying, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

Before you know it, you’ll have a year under your belt. You won’t be the new guy or gal anymore. You’ll be sitting pretty at the top of that mountain which by now looks more like a hill, thinking to yourself, “I knew I could, I knew I could, I knew I could.”

When you do? Enjoy the ride down.

Love,

Me