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On being a permanent expatriate

on July 22, 2009

I’ve been an expat for almost as long as I can remember. There was a brief lull after my sister was born when we moved back to the UK for about 3 years, but then we were off again. Oh, and I returned to the UK to study, meet and marry my husband. No I didn’t study my husband. I studied languages. Perhaps not surprising, when you’ve grown up in several of them.

Less than two years after our wedding, we were leaving the UK for good (well, probably). That was 6 years ago. So for 22 years of my life I have lived in places that were not only abroad, but were not even English-speaking.

There’s something incredibly odd about not being at home in your own country. To many people there’s something pretty odd about not feeling patriotic towards your own country – although as I’ve said before, Brits aren’t as patriotic as other nationalities. And there’s something quite strange about turning up at university to find that although you speak English perfectly, with a perfect RP accent, and understand the correct use of shall/will, everyone else appears to have learnt something rather different. My husband once told me that I sound like a character out of an Enid Blyton book. Well yes. I’ve never read any of the books he grew up with – if I hadn’t returned to the UK when I did, I might have missed out on Harry Potter – but Enid Blyton was readily available on my librarian-mothers shelves.

As a child I rather liked being an expat. I liked attending the local school, learning to speak fluent French but being able to switch back into English for any secrets I wanted to share with my sister. I’m sorry to say I rather looked down on people who “couldn’t be bothered” to learn the local language and try to fit in, who spoke of “going home” for Christmas, as if they were not living long-term in this country. As I and my 3 siblings were quick learners, we were always perfectly contented and at home where we were.

But now, as an adult, in a country where the local tongue is more dialect than language, spoken rather than written, and as such very nearly unlearnable without tremendous effort, I find a whole new aspect of being a permanent expat. Loneliness. I realise why it mattered so much to my mother when her friends moved back “home”, as they invariably did. There is something special about being with another native speaker of your own tongue, that almost no non-native speaker, however good, can quite attain. (I wonder if my friends felt this when I was a teenager – or perhaps it doesn’t apply if you grew up somewhere and are effectively a native). That certainty of understanding as much as anyone can understand, of being understood in the same way. No need to watch the face of your interlocutor carefully to detect the slightest hint of “you just lost me”. Out here, such moments are rare. Or if not rare, then at least infrequent enough that you appreciate them when they come.

Not that we have no friends. We have lovely, wonderful friends. Many, if not most, are expats themselves. (Some are even reading this!) But here’s where the second special aspect of expatriate-dom comes in. Distance. Live in a country that speaks your language, or where you speak its, and friends can be just round the corner, in the house across the road, at church which is only a ten minute walk away. Some will be acquaintances and others will be kindred spirits. But live abroad and suddenly your options are limited. It’s hard to be a kindred spirit when you’re not sure you understand each other all the time. Perhaps no one speaks your language in your neighbourhood. The kindred spirits you stumble across might live nearly two hours drive away. Or they might rely on public transport, making a ten-minute car drive an hour-long trek. Your church might meet in the next city, because it’s hard to worship in a language you command imperfectly even on your best day. (Church becomes study!) And that wouldn’t matter elsewhere, because you wouldn’t rely on those people, the ones so far away. You would have your network close by, as well. Here, distance becomes important.

And then of course, just living becomes hard work. If you want to go out, you need a babysitter – your friends network is too spread out to help much, and of course, the grandparents are elsewhere. Nearly all your sons little friends at playgroup speak dialect. (Your son comes home and speaks dialect to you, and gets frustrated when you don’t understand!) Shopping becomes tricky. The Engineer bewilders people when, on business trips to the US or the UK, he starts excitedly chattering away to a shop assistant. It doesn’t happen here – it would if we spoke fluently, no doubt. The toilets desperately need the attention of a plumber but just the thought of having to try to explain over the phone is daunting.

It’s amazing what we take for granted as children. The ability to easily understand and be understood, to learn quickly and fit in, to call the place you live home and be fully settled and content there. I’m grateful for those things, grateful that my parents settled when I was still young enough to cope, that I was exposed to enough languages as a child to cope now, even when it is hard work.

Who knows, in 25 years time Froglet may be writing something like the above. Perhaps to him, born and bred in Switzerland, living in England would be expatriation.


4 responses to “On being a permanent expatriate

  1. I had to chuckle a little when you wrote about telling secrets in another language. My sister and I grew up speaking both German and English and loved that we could say things and not have anyone else understand.

  2. mub says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Even though I've only been an expat for a couple of years I an relate with the things that you've mentioned. I suspect I'm lucky that I have a husband who IS native and understands what the heck is going on (usually).

  3. Petra says:

    tell me about it! i am with you on all of your points above!

  4. yoongz says:

    i'm commenting really late as u know the move took all of my time, plus we lost connection for 5 days – so now catching up – agreed on all points – i can tell u it was a big shock to me when i finally (after a year or so – talk about slow on the uptake) realised that i lost my network – i was pretty much content with having just friends, never best friends or even close friends – but since moving here – friends back home have become close friends esp those who have shared an expat experience. Friendships built here i treasure dearly.

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