Confronting familiarity in unfamiliar places

On the pros and cons and complexities of the ex-pat community

In my last column, I wondered about the notion of blending the traditions and customs of my “mother” country with those I had picked up in other parts of the world. In fact, I often reflect upon the similarities that can be found in surprising places, rather than the differences. I read a lot of literature and listen to the opinions of friends about working abroad, and it regularly focuses on the weird or zany. If I’m perfectly honest I find a lot of it too sensationalized to be of any use to anyone considering the day-to-day aspects of living in a foreign country.

That being said, I do think that reflecting on what materializes out of cultural differences is warranted as certain aspects of it are often glossed over. Why are there no flashy shows about finding your way in a new country with the help of some people who have been there before? That’s probably not as exciting as anything you watch on travel channels, but worth a look-in surely. What positives come out of finding an ex-pat community? What about the negatives?

New places with familiar faces

Picture yourself, if you will, wandering around a small town in search of a bakery. There are no street signs that you can see, and even if you could see them, they’re written in a language you can’t read or understand. The roads don’t appear to have any order and you swear you’ve walked by that playground at least twice now. Nobody understands what you’re saying and you’re really thinking about just going back to your apartment – that is, if you can remember what street it’s on. Suddenly, like a beacon across a choppy sea you spot someone who looks an awful lot like you. Turns out they know where the bakery is, where the grocery store is, and a faster route to the local bus station. “We’re going for dinner and a game of pool on Thursday. Wanna come?” they ask.

Oh, yes. You want in.

Comfort washes away all the anxiety of trying to find a bakery by playing mini-Pictionary. Everything is going to be so much easier now – you have people around who can explain things, show you places, and translate that mess of sounds you’ve been hearing since you dropped your suitcase. You are finished feeling like an outsider.

Subway station in Seoul, Korea. Photo by Nancy Cater
Subway station in Seoul, Korea. Photo by Nancy Cater

This was the warm embrace of my first ex-pat community. I was more than a little lost and frustrated while wandering around the small town in a county that bordered with North Korea. I hadn’t seen any non-Koreans around for the first couple of weeks, the honeymoon phase of culture shock was wearing off and I was getting bummed out. When I met some other teachers from nearby towns, it was an almost tangible boost. I could feel my spirits lifting. Tackling a menu written in a new language is much easier when you have three heads, two dictionaries, and laughter. My friends proved to be a wealth of knowledge when I had questions about banking, foodstuffs, transportation, and cultural idiosyncrasies. They also made me feel ease and comfort again when socializing. I already knew the social rules of a night out with a bunch of Westerners, but that wasn’t like the nights out with my Korean pals. Those evenings were awkward and confusing (of course, that all changed as time passed and we got to know each other), and I often felt out of place. In that sense, the expat community was as easy as slipping on an old shoe.

Out of touch

So what of the downsides of having a community in your new country of residence? The problems that come out of the expat community are often caused by the very same things that comfort those within it. A few years ago, I was sitting in a classroom with other teachers, studying for a CELTA teaching qualification. The instructor was talking about an expat community in the city and poking fun at how some of them couldn’t order a beer properly despite having lived there for years. All the teachers laughed at how silly a thought it was to live somewhere for over a year and not be able to conduct the most basic conversation. When I remember that conversation, I wonder how many of us in the room had managed a functional level of conversation after living there for a year.

Temple in Hong Kong. Photo by Nancy Cater
Temple in Hong Kong. Photo by Nancy Cater

While living in Korea, I often heard newbie expats explaining to people why they weren’t bothering to learn any Korean. In my experience, those who extolled the many virtues of “back home” and dismissed the importance of having a life outside of the expat community were the same people who really seemed to struggle in their new surroundings. The expat community offered comfort and extremely useful advice, but it was also a complex group of personalities and experience. Some people had lived for years in the small tight-knit group, going to the same restaurants, bars, and telling the same stories to impress the latest influx of “newbies”. Others saw the community as a time-sucking force and stayed far away from it, often in an attempt to follow the path less travelled and all that. The community tends to be in a constant state of flux, as a lot of people come to work for a few years and then move on again. It can be a great place to feel insulated and protected from a lot of things you can’t quite understand. It can be a place to romanticize home and to demonize the place where you currently collect your mail. From a distance, an expat community is easy to criticize, but those habits form without you even noticing sometimes. It is very easy to go from complaining with your friends about your idiot manager to blaming your poor performance review on the fact that This Country Sucks.

Two roads merged

I think I’ve worn all those hats somewhere along the way. I’ve been the one pontificating about how useless it was to learn the language and get settled into a life I was just going to abandon anyway. I’ve been the one avoiding expat communities like the plague because I thought they were all a bunch of whiners. I’ve been the jaded expat who has perhaps worn out her welcome, but knows how to get your toilet fixed. Despite the glaring differences involved in playing each role, some things remained the same. Feeling as though you are part of a community is incredibly useful in any country, foreign or familiar. Having someone around who understands your particular brand of dry humor will make you feel sane under the most infuriating of circumstances. Seeing the other Canadian in the room with a what-the-hell-was-that look on their face can do a surprising amount of good sometimes. We are human, we are social, and we need to feel connected – even if it’s the smallest thing that would otherwise seem trivial.

What has your experience been with an expat community abroad? Did you find it comforting and helpful, or insular and depressing?

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