Thursday, April 5, 2012
A to Z: Expatriate
One hears this word tossed around--"I'm an expat", or "expat rulings". One knows what "expatriate" means--a person not living in their home country.
But what does it mean, exactly, to be expatriate?
To some, the idea of leaving their home country and settling somewhere else conjures visions of the Wild West, of endless prairie, of new horizons. To some, this idea is inspiring, a challenge, a dream. To others it's as appealing as a rectal exam--why would you even consider leaving everything behind, your family, your home, your friends? What for?
Barring a cruel dictatorship that issued a death warrant to our families, or economic conditions that made it impossible to make a living in our home countries, most expats emigrated by choice.
Curaçao--and probably the Caribbean in general, especially those islands where offshore legislation make the financial industry thrive--is packed with expats. Dutch, Venezuelan, American, Canadian, Colombian, Indian, Dominican, Argentinian, German, British... You name it, it's here.
Few expats stay long; most move on after a year or two, on to the next new horizon, the next adventure, or simply back home. Very few stay as long as I have, even less as long as my boyfriend has (sixteen years).
The expat life isn't an easy one.
Why? You mean, aside from the general homelessness? Well, there's the foreign language factor, for example. In Curaçao, locals speak four languages: Papiamentu, Dutch, Spanish, and English. That makes life easier--at least you don't have to gesture your way through an order at a restaurant (with potentially disastrous results). But it does mean that conversation around you has a 75% chance of being in a language you don't understand.
Doesn't make for easy integration, right?
Then there's the whole immigration thing. You need papers--all sorts of papers. Most of us came here through a company that arranged those papers, but even so, there's the annual renewal of working permits, for example, or making sure you have your papers with you when you go anywhere, just in case you get stopped. It might sound like a small thing, and it is--a small reminder, every day and everywhere, that you don't belong. It wears on you.
Shopping for groceries is an experience. Very few of the things you're familiar with, the staples you grew up with--stuff as simple as mayonnaise, for instance--is available. Sure, they have Dutch brands, or Venezuelan, but it tastes different. It behaves different when you use it, say, to make a salad dressing. Your favorite brands? They don't even know they exist here. You experiment a few times, find a few adequate substitutes, learn to make do. And, again, you're reminded you don't belong. You didn't grow up here.
One of the most remarkable aspects of being an expat, to me at least, is the social one. Expats, the ones that emigrate because the company they work for asks them to, have a unique circumstance: our social lives revolve around work.
This doesn't happen when you're home because you're still around the people you grew up with, people you went to school with, that perhaps took a different path, went to a different college, ended up in a different profession--but they're still part of your social circle. These friends, along with your family, put you in touch with all sorts of different people, new people, new circles.
But as an expat, you're denied that variety. It takes time to build those connections, and usually people that emigrate for professional reasons have a pretty heavy workload--thus, no time to socialize outside the company. Your employer becomes your alma mater, and your colleagues become everything: your friends, your landlords, your dance partners, your lovers, even your adopted parents.
And your life is reduced to that very small circle of people. You live and breathe the company--in social gatherings, people talk about--taah-daah: work.
Being an expat has its advantages: it certainly is an adventure, and it's not for the faint-hearted. It's a revelation, a challenge of the most personal kind, a road to discovery of yourself, a broadening of the mind. I don't regret it, not for a minute.
But it's not a walk in the park.