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You are here: Home Life in Lifestyle Being "one of us"
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06/04/2011Being "one of us"

Being "one of us" Expat-spotting is a favourite pastime of writer and anthropologist Sarah Steegar, who has spent years looking at expat identity. So what has she gathered so far about 'expat culture', and does it even exist?

Say you're at a sidewalk café in Amsterdam, Madrid, Moscow, Paris--which city doesn't matter, simply you are an expat. A few of your countrymen pass by on the street. Perhaps they are foreign students; perhaps they are tourists. How might you recognize them? Is it a hairstyle that you don't tend to see on locals? A certain choice of clothes? A demeanour when they speak? Is it something you can't put your finger on, something subtle that ruffles against the local culture?

Now imagine that the passing group were expats. Would you still consider them - in some different way - "one of you"? If so, could you instantly recognize them in the same way? I think the answers are yes and probably not.

I am interested in those answers because, as a writer and an anthropologist, I've spent years looking at expat identity - namely the fact that many social scientists claim it doesn't exist. There's no "real" culture associated with it, they say. I wholeheartedly disagree. But proving the point requires explaining the categorical contrasts between expat culture and its established siblings, like those seen in the allegoric example above. That is a pretty tall order, given how hard those differences are to pin down.

Why is that? Because expat culture collects exceptions to the (traditional culture) rule. It is based in a mindset, not an "origin". Plurality is a defining trait; there's no pithy vocabulary to express that. How does one have a simple discussion about nuance?

Let me explain a bit more. When I speak about expat identity, I conflate it with the concept of Third Culture*, which deniers say is nothing more than an event (of foreigners crossing paths), where members have no land or ethnicity in common - the orthodox markers of a "culture". Expats, they say, are only similar in being strangers in a strange land. They point out that that does not describe a true culture. Agreed.

However, we share much more than that, evidenced by other hallmarks of culture: we tend to gather in certain locales (cities, sometimes specific neighbourhoods); we frequent particular businesses - some of the services being unique to our community; we have dedicated media, strong social networks and political tendencies; we even have certain etiquette, social rules and beliefs we would likely agree on (a topic for another day), all the result of shared experiences distinct to our clique.


The culture even has an under-acknowledged history, telling much about who we are. The Third Culture was identified in the 60's**, when the world of expats was populated by missionaries, diplomats and military personnel. But it would have existed for hundreds of years before that, mostly as communities of colonizers - whom we can consider our unenlightened ancestors.

These days, by contrast, our motivations are many: from pensioners who retire to cheaper, sunnier climes, to corporate-types sent to foreign offices, to foreign grad students, to spouses who've simply followed love, to "serial expats" following mobile jobs and, perhaps, their whimsy.

The major trend is that the one line that used to fit our shape - moving abroad in order to represent a nation or religion - doesn't any longer. The diplomat/missionary is probably a minority now. At the very least, those positions are often a means to the end of moving to the Third Culture, which leads to the other major change: today the Third Culture is a destination, not an accidental result. Those who move abroad can generally depend on a welcoming niche of foreigners and all of the cultural hallmarks mentioned above. Most of us arrive there on purpose, representing our own interests more than anyone else's.

Of course, our history also indicates another group - an outlier class of the super-rich occupying its own space on the international scene. In the days when Lord and Lady So-and-So might sojourn abroad, the trip necessarily took months and involved stays in collegial mansions long enough to be worth the trouble. Result: the length of their stays rivalled those of many expat assignments today. Would they count as one of us?

Do their contemporaries blur the same line? This class still exists - alive and kicking on the pages of tabloids - but they seem to live it up at breakneck speed. On a yacht in one country this week, on a beach in another the next, one can hardly imagine them in any of these places long enough (or ordinarily enough) to read a book, much less to mix with the locals.

But then again, perhaps we modern expats have taken the mantle. While no one would ever confuse me for a yacht-partying Paris Hilton type, on the global scale perhaps I am. Are we - with enough money to buy plane tickets to where ever we want, with the right passports, connections or education to get us through most foreign ports with a blessing - the modern equivalent of aristocracy sojourning abroad?

That sounds silly when you're a foreign language teacher sharing a dingy studio in the city, but considering that only five percent of the world population even owns a computer, there might be something to it. (You can't help but wonder what tiny percentage has ever travelled abroad.)

These are questions too vast and nuanced to answer simply, but asking them goes some way towards understanding who we are and what internationalism does to ourselves and our lives. Admittedly we share no single homeland, no ethnicity, no childhood or religion. That flies in the face of all we (think we) know about cultural identity. But still, I can't help feeling that we share something unique. Something I can never "unknow" that my homeland/ethnic fellows would not understand. That's not something you can spot walking by, but it's there nonetheless.  

 
Sarah writes on a mixture of travel, humor and pop anthropology. She is currently working on a humor book about dating foreigners and welcomes commentary (on the article or the book!) @ S.Steegar@gmail.com

* As a refresher, "First" Culture refers that of one's homeland; the "Second" Culture is that of a host country. The "Third" Culture is that ambiguous dimension where the first two intersect.
** The original concept, developed by C.P. Snow, had nothing to do with expats. John and Ruth Useem co-opted the concept when they applied it to children of the expat community in their work on "Third Culture Kids".




8 reactions to this article

Maria posted: 2011-04-06 12:01:03

[Edited by moderator] Expats also speak more quietly than tourists. Tourists (all nationalities) tend to yell when they travel. They talk very loudly. Last but not least, it's just an attitude. I would dare to say that expats are less judgmental. They're more understanding of cultural differences, and they are welcoming of people who are different. They don't just hang out with people of their own kind. The crowd they hang with is usually very international and ecclectic.

Ingeborg posted: 2011-04-06 14:37:26

What I think us expats have in common is that once you leave your home country to live abroad it is like you open your eyes to the world in a totally different way. You will never view your home country like you did when you were still living there and we definitely are more open minded towards other cultures and that goes for expat children as well. I feel this third culture exists, I am living it.

Margarita posted: 2011-04-06 19:57:18

I think what most expats have in common is the thirst for change, adventure, learning and transformation. I am not saying all expats have that, but the vast majority does. Add curiosity to that mix and you are talking a special brand of people who have the courage to take on change (something that humans don't really like). :) My 2 cents...

Actually, I just wrote something on a similar subject: Expats — choosing not to belong or choosing transformation? here -- http://globalcoachcenter.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/expats-choosing-not-to-belong-or-choosing-transformation/

patrick posted: 2011-04-09 21:47:39

enjoyed reading your thoughts on the matter. if i may, you make no differentiation between expatriation and immigration and long and shorttimers. the sojourners who are merely passing through and the peripatetic expats that cluster together wherever they may find each other [edited by moderator] may share a unique 'bufferred' sense of community but would hesitate to call it a culture with its transient nature. would argue your model [edited] leaves out persons you would call expats but eschew any semblance of expat culture and get on with living wherever they are ...

Sarah posted: 2011-04-10 20:02:37

Patrick - You bring up perfect points which - I think - touch on exactly what I'm trying to say. We share "something", but our situations and descriptive boundaries are so varied that its pretty hard to put everyone into one big, agreed descriptor (like ethnicity or land origin)...so that we can proceed to clearly talk about what we're trying to talk about! It's always..."what about this type...or this situation....or that assignment...?" [etc] The lines of our "culture" (or whatever one would personally call it) are quite messy indeed. Thanks for your thoughts.

Mark posted: 2011-04-13 18:01:23

Very interesting article Sarah.
It reminds me of a phrase that I heard about moving and settling in a new country. "At first you love everything about the new country, then you go through a stage of hating everything in the new country and finally you come through and see the good and the bad elements of your new country." i experienced this, am wondering if others did as well.

I enjoy people watching for sure and I would agree that it is always easy to spot tourists in a city from a long way off. Usually the way they are dressed but often also their mannerisms or even just the way that they walk down the street.
But the question of the 3rd culture is definitly open to debate. Do we share anything with other expats except for choosing to be outsiders in the same place.
I would feel that the communities build from this shared experience of being outsiders, and from there (most of mankind need to feel part of some commnity) joining and sharing with other expats is the most accesible way to enter a community in a new place.

Patrice posted: 2011-04-15 23:59:38

Sarah, your article really resonated with me. After 8 years as an expat, I often now get that feeling of a "connection" with any other expat in any other country. I chat all the time now with a previously not so close friend that started an expat assignment in a completely different continent from me, but yet, we have so much in common in now. There is definitely something to it, but you are right; it's hard to define.

Thanks for some very interesting food for thought. Keep up the research!

Joe posted: 2012-01-25 15:38:39

I am an Englishman in Kiev.

The only difference I think between the indigineous crowd here and myself is my greater propensity to polish my shoes coupled with a gift for tying a good double windsor in my tie.

Take off the shoes and the tie and I would say we all very much the same.

8 reactions to this article

Maria posted: 2011-04-06 12:01:03

[Edited by moderator] Expats also speak more quietly than tourists. Tourists (all nationalities) tend to yell when they travel. They talk very loudly. Last but not least, it's just an attitude. I would dare to say that expats are less judgmental. They're more understanding of cultural differences, and they are welcoming of people who are different. They don't just hang out with people of their own kind. The crowd they hang with is usually very international and ecclectic.

Ingeborg posted: 2011-04-06 14:37:26

What I think us expats have in common is that once you leave your home country to live abroad it is like you open your eyes to the world in a totally different way. You will never view your home country like you did when you were still living there and we definitely are more open minded towards other cultures and that goes for expat children as well. I feel this third culture exists, I am living it.

Margarita posted: 2011-04-06 19:57:18

I think what most expats have in common is the thirst for change, adventure, learning and transformation. I am not saying all expats have that, but the vast majority does. Add curiosity to that mix and you are talking a special brand of people who have the courage to take on change (something that humans don't really like). :) My 2 cents...

Actually, I just wrote something on a similar subject: Expats — choosing not to belong or choosing transformation? here -- http://globalcoachcenter.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/expats-choosing-not-to-belong-or-choosing-transformation/

patrick posted: 2011-04-09 21:47:39

enjoyed reading your thoughts on the matter. if i may, you make no differentiation between expatriation and immigration and long and shorttimers. the sojourners who are merely passing through and the peripatetic expats that cluster together wherever they may find each other [edited by moderator] may share a unique 'bufferred' sense of community but would hesitate to call it a culture with its transient nature. would argue your model [edited] leaves out persons you would call expats but eschew any semblance of expat culture and get on with living wherever they are ...

Sarah posted: 2011-04-10 20:02:37

Patrick - You bring up perfect points which - I think - touch on exactly what I'm trying to say. We share "something", but our situations and descriptive boundaries are so varied that its pretty hard to put everyone into one big, agreed descriptor (like ethnicity or land origin)...so that we can proceed to clearly talk about what we're trying to talk about! It's always..."what about this type...or this situation....or that assignment...?" [etc] The lines of our "culture" (or whatever one would personally call it) are quite messy indeed. Thanks for your thoughts.

Mark posted: 2011-04-13 18:01:23

Very interesting article Sarah.
It reminds me of a phrase that I heard about moving and settling in a new country. "At first you love everything about the new country, then you go through a stage of hating everything in the new country and finally you come through and see the good and the bad elements of your new country." i experienced this, am wondering if others did as well.

I enjoy people watching for sure and I would agree that it is always easy to spot tourists in a city from a long way off. Usually the way they are dressed but often also their mannerisms or even just the way that they walk down the street.
But the question of the 3rd culture is definitly open to debate. Do we share anything with other expats except for choosing to be outsiders in the same place.
I would feel that the communities build from this shared experience of being outsiders, and from there (most of mankind need to feel part of some commnity) joining and sharing with other expats is the most accesible way to enter a community in a new place.

Patrice posted: 2011-04-15 23:59:38

Sarah, your article really resonated with me. After 8 years as an expat, I often now get that feeling of a "connection" with any other expat in any other country. I chat all the time now with a previously not so close friend that started an expat assignment in a completely different continent from me, but yet, we have so much in common in now. There is definitely something to it, but you are right; it's hard to define.

Thanks for some very interesting food for thought. Keep up the research!

Joe posted: 2012-01-25 15:38:39

I am an Englishman in Kiev.

The only difference I think between the indigineous crowd here and myself is my greater propensity to polish my shoes coupled with a gift for tying a good double windsor in my tie.

Take off the shoes and the tie and I would say we all very much the same.

 
 
 
 
 
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