Monday, January 08, 2007

What’s it like?

Living in another country is an experience most people never have. A higher proportion of New Zealanders and Australians do it than do Americans, but even in this part of the world, being an expat is an alien concept to the vast majority.

Being an expat isn’t easy to explain. Each person has unique experiences that depend on where they move and who they were to begin with. My experiences, then, are probably totally different from any other American living in New Zealand, and definitely different from Americans living in other countries.

When I first arrived in New Zealand, I was struck by both the similarities and the differences, much as I would when visiting a place as a tourist. The difference is that I wasn’t just looking around, but trying to find my way in a foreign land (though I was the foreigner, of course).

I noticed familiar fast food chains, brands of petrol and cars, items in grocery stores and so on. But I also noticed brands that were unfamiliar to me, which was nothing, at the time, compared with one major difference: Driving on the left side of the road.

In time, I learned about the new products and services, learned my way around and even got used to driving on the other side of the road (it’s second nature, now). Life, in other words, settled into a new normality.

However, it wasn’t an overnight or easy thing. In those early months, there wasn’t a single day that went by that I wasn’t reminded I was in a new, unfamiliar place. All I had to do was walk out the door and see cars driving on the left side of the road, or speak to a Kiwi or just look at shop signs. There were times I ached to be surrounded by the familiar, to feel the sort of comfort and ease I’d left behind. I coped in various ways, like seeking out some American products, but also in some unusual ways.

Many years ago, I had a blocked ear. I put on some stereo headphones, turned the volume up for the affected ear and I could hear normally. I could also feel a kind of pressure easing inside my head. In New Zealand one day early on I boarded a bus and sat in one of the seats facing backwards so I was looking up the right-hand side of the road—just like in America. I felt the same kind of pressure-release those headphones provided many years earlier.

I suppose the fact that I had to look backwards to feel normal is some kind of metaphor, but it didn’t feel that way at the time.

The fact is, all I really needed was time—time to adjust to my new surroundings, to learn local slang (and to be able to understand the accent), to form emotional connections to my new home—in short, to build a new life. As that slowly happened, the need for American comfort and familiarity disappeared because I’d replaced it with a New Zealand life.

So moving to a new country is in many ways like life in general—filled with both joy and pain, requiring hard work and determination to get you where you want to be. For me, the rewards at the end of that effort were huge and well worth it. Others might not find that to be true.

My best advice for anyone who really wants to know what it’s like to be an expat is to try it. Just be sure you know what you’re getting yourself into before you start to pack.

Note: As an experiment, I've created a new tag "Expat / Expatriate" for this post. I have them separate at the moment so they show up in Technorati searches. If this does, too (as separate words) I'll go back and tag all the old posts filed under "Expat" and "Expatriate" with this new tag instead. In the meantime, if you want to read more of my posts on the subject, you'll need to click on either "Expat" or "Expatriate" (they mostly have the same posts listed). If you don't have any idea what I'm on about, don't worry—you don't need to.

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