Expat Gatekeeping: Are You A Real Expat?
Whenever I think of living abroad I remember this scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:
The scene, at least in my mind, is the perfect metaphor of expat expectations (represented by Indiana Jones) and expat reality (represented by Marcus Brody). There are many reasons why people move to a different country and perhaps in the minds of prospective expats, Jones’s description of blending in and effectively disappearing is appealing. The colonial language of “going native” was once an insult, and in the field of science, it suggests an inability to correctly observe due to having too much influence on the result. Yet, as expats, the full immersion into an adopted culture is often projected as the overall goal, the perfect scenario.
The Brody approach on the other hand is to be avoided. Ask any expat, in any country and they will reel out story after story of times when they have felt exactly like Brody, wandering around a Turkish train station, hoping that someone spoke their native tongue. No one wants to feel separate from the group, excluded by language and culture. Thus, expats must learn the language, study the culture and eventually become more like Jones than Brody.
Of course, these two poles are the extreme. In reality, expats sit on a continuum between the two. Depending on the expat, they will either progress somewhere close to Jones or muddle around in the middle. Very few expats remain a Brody, whereas many, with some time and effort, become a Jones.
All things being equal, there is no defined time limit placed on when someone should be expected to be a Jones, expats are essentially free to choose how much or how little of a culture they take on board. It is strictly subjective. There are some factors that might speed the process along, such as finding a job, or the expectations of visas and residency permits. In these instances, learning the language or reading up on the work culture of a country are vital to success. For those who are already employed or are not working, language and culture can be the only way to find friends in their new country.
Even still, given the nature of globalised work and international languages, speaking fluently in a non-native language is not always of vital importance. The same is true for making friends. Adults will often make friends through work and if the job is dominated by an expat’s native language, building a solid group of friends may only be a question of time and personality. Language is still vital to navigate the environment, make appointments and survive bureaucratic mishaps, but that doesn’t require a PHD in the culture of a country nor a fluent level of language, it does require an understanding of the processes and at least a utilitarian approach to language learning.
As expats work their way through the Jones/Brody continuum, they are often met with some level of resistance. This may come from the native population, which is generally to be expected in any country. I have been made to feel unwelcome by those who see me only as a foreigner, but although those interactions are tense and unrewarding, it happens so infrequently as to be of little importance to my own day to day. Equally, there are demands placed on foreigners to integrate at some level, which is again the expectation of any national government when it comes to foreign born residents. What I have become more angry with is the emergence of the “Expat Gatekeeper”.
The “Expat Gatekeeper” comes in many flavours, but they often have the same basic outlook: you’re doing it wrong. The gatekeeping can be insignificant, such as when I was told recently by a fellow British expat, that I wouldn’t last in Germany if I didn’t like Knödel. When I questioned the significance of the German side dish, I was met by derision. Others can be more upsetting, such as when I was told by a different expat, that I was a simply an “English native” because I answered a question put to me in German, with an English answer. It was a form of humiliation, a way to highlight my foreignness in comparison to their fully realised process of blending in. My approach to being an expat was not considered valid, because it didn’t meet the expectations of other expats.
I can accept that there is a collectivist element in being an expat, if British people cause trouble at Oktoberfest it can have a butterfly effect on how I might be treated in the future. Last year, English tourists rampaged around Nürnberg over the span of four days and it is only recently that my English-speaking group of friends have not been eyed with suspicion when entering bars or clubs in the local area. Nevertheless, I can hardly control how the British or the English are observed by other countries, I have little control over diplomatic policy or the behaviour of my countrymen and women. I can attempt to explain that not all of them are drunken louts, but all it takes is some lazy journalism about British New Year celebrations and the accompanying images of passed out people on pavements and women puking in dustbins for all my arguments to seem ridiculous.
In the same vein, I can only control how I choose to live as an expat. For example, I have a friend who, for all intents and purposes, is a Marcus Brody. They neither speak the language, nor do they spend much time interacting with German people. In spite of these “failings” they have managed to live very successfully in the country for almost 15 years. They enjoy many of the hobbies available in Germany and have an exhaustive knowledge of German food and cooking, but aside from these aspects, they don’t take much interest in Germany. We have said many times how much easier life might be, if they only learned some basic language or how awareness of German current events might help them to understand more about their adopted home. Despite these attempts, I fully expect that they will live very much the same life in the next fifteen years. The moral of the story? This type of expat life is OK.
Sure, they will miss out on certain aspects of German life and they may not have the opportunities that more immersed members of the expat community may have, but in the end, that’s a personal choice. What is not required is a cadre of self-appointed gatekeepers, proscribing subjective targets that all expats must hit in order to be considered a real expat. We can offer advice based on personal experience, we can support progression along the continuum, but we cannot demand conformity.