On Expats

The incident occurred not long after we moved here. I was visiting a new friend’s home, another expat, and she was preparing a meal. My friend poured something—sauce, maybe?—out of a glass jar, and then as I watched

she threw the jar in the regular trash.

This moment might sound tiny and mundane, but for me it was a “there-is-no-Santa”-caliber revelation. I was shocked.

I had just realized that all American expats are not like me.

It takes time to figure out the ideas you have in your own head that aren’t quite right. One of the false assumptions I unconsciously brought overseas with me was that other expats, especially American expats, would resemble me in personality, interests, and spirit.

This idea should have gone out the window quickly. One of the first expats I became friends with was a woman who thought I was bold for walking all around my new town. I’ve visited homes where people hoard American products (soda, Kraft, Betty Crocker mixes, whatever) and are still wary of “international” cuisine. I have been asked more times than I can count if I am homesick and lonely because my husband dragged me here for his work. (ha.) And I know couples who tackled integration much faster than us, devoting spare time to learning Dutch with homemade flashcards and making sure to meet all their neighbors.

Recently I was riding in a car (!!) with three friends, one Dutch and two expat. One of them commented that Tim and I were unusual in our group: Neither of us grew up overseas or had a jet-setting travel lifestyle in our youth. Neither of us married a Dutch person, or even a person from another culture. We’re just American and we’re here. And we like it.

In some ways, expats go through the same things: noticing the same cultural differences; going through the same processes and paperwork and rituals. There are always easy conversation points when you meet new people. But beyond that, every person or couple or family’s situation is unique.

The work or school situation dictates how much paperwork and legal slogging you must do yourself (versus your employer taking care of all that). The employment situation may also dictate if a person’s stay here is a year, a few years, or indefinite. What a person’s interests or character traits are will influence if he interacts with mainly other expats, mainly with coworkers, etc.

These kind of thoughts (plus the fascinating international friends we’ve made) led me to the idea of doing some expat profiles on this blog (sorry, I’m into boldface today), so you can hear other people’s stories besides ours. If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised by the diversity.

You know me a bit if you read this, but in a few points, Tim and I are:

  • earthy recycling types (no glass in the trash here)
  • doing 90% of our own paperwork/legal slogging. It can be time-consuming and sometimes so, so frustrating.
  • on a stint initially determined as three years, but subject to future plans
  • eager to explore and travel
  • eager to make friends from other cultures
  • attending an international church in den Haag, which gives us an instant venue beyond work for meeting new people
  • lacking a second fluent language, although our Dutch conversation group is going really well! I actually reached a point this week—in Dutch—with another student where we were discussing how he makes art out of discarded objects. And I started telling him how in my old neighborhood (in Cambridge) I used to pull old window frames from the trash. And then our teacher glanced over, curious as to how we could possibly have reached a conversational point where I was using the words “old windows” and the other student was asking for a translation of “found objects.” But I digress.

Sadly, the international community is a bit transient, and one day we’ll be no exception. We’re saying goodbye this month to two separate families we’ve been close to here, and I’m going to miss both of them. I’ll sign off on that note, and go investigate the Carnival bands passing by our house. I think I am too American to fully appreciate Carnival!

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2 Comments

Filed under Our Dutch Adventure

2 responses to “On Expats

  1. mathieu

    There are indeed a huge range of expats and their comfort level being a “fish out of water”. I’ve seen many ostensibly great hires fall apart because of culture clashes. One couple’s apartment was so fully decked out with Americana, it almost felt like Cracker Barrel.

    I sometimes wonder, at what point are you no longer an expat with indefinite plans and become an immigrant instead? (besides taking Dutch citizenship, of course). I know people who’ve lived here for almost 20 years, have no plans to move and still call themselves expats.

    The transient social nature is a terrible byproduct of the expat life. If not kept in check, the desire to avoid seeing yet another friend move away can remove the enjoyment of making new friends.

    Our profile is

    – long-term expats, here already for 10 years and contracted for another four.
    – work dominates our lives, including having the same employer. Music dominates the remaining chunk.
    – normal guys who drink beer, watch TV and eat too much junk food.
    – watch Al Jazeera more than CNN.
    – I had a fairly international upbringing; born in Belgium but raised in the US, spent at least a couple of weeks every year in Europe. Was an exchange student in Germany, so spoke French and German fluently by age 19. (Dutch also for both of us in the meantime).
    – Rand has a much tighter extended family, with almost everyone living in the Pittsburgh area. His first trip to Europe was our first vacation together as a couple.
    – we consider ourselves well-integrated, with a lot of local friends and hobbies.
    – love travel; most trips are work-related, best trips are vacation.
    – most paperwork handled by employer, but the remaining bits have become much easier thanks to experience.
    – out of touch with many contemporary US pop culture references. Last night I had to have a Mad TV reference explained to me.
    – most “must-have” items from the US are, ironically, Mexican.

    • unquiettime

      Thanks, Mathieu! I was going to ask you if you wanted to do a profile. 🙂 Perhaps you can round this out more sometime, if you’re interested.

      I appreciated your comment about the (fuzzy?) distinction between expats with no definite plans vs. immigrants. I wonder if even after 20 years you would still feel somewhat on the outside, or if you would feel completely at home. (Perhaps you can speak to that after 10!)

      I think my “must-have” items from the US are perishable, which makes the situation a bit grim.

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