In Uganda, you can see them every Saturday night at Bubbles Irish Pub—a group paler than the living dead, more opinionated on race relations than Donald Sterling, and drunker than Dudley Moore at Peter O’Toole’s stag party. They are, of course, the lifelong expatriates.
They weren’t born with silver spoons in their mouths, but they probably work for the company that mines the silver. For many, there’s a reason they’re still there, and it’s a reason that has evolved across the years. What started out as a quest for adventure then became a desire to attain a higher relative social status than what was available in their own country, before finally mutating into pure necessity. Lifers are there because they can no longer reintegrate into their countries of origin. Sure, they might be able to pack up and move to Namibia, haul the family off to Tajikistan or retire to Vietnam, but they can never go home again. They’re just not bred that way. Having lived abroad for so long, they are forever stuck between two worlds—the land of their birth and their adopted country.
Expats might be able to pack up and move to Namibia, haul the family off to Tajikistan or retire to Vietnam, but they can never go home again.
After over a decade spent in Africa between us, my wife and I eyed these nationless citizens and realized we only had a few years before we would join their ranks. We figured that 10 years is probably the point of no return. Neither of us wanted smoker’s cough or liver failure, but we also weren’t quite ready to close the expatriate chapter of our lives. Bali would be where we made our last stand.
Bali was every inch of the tropical heaven we expected it to be. We were a motorbike-ride away from one of the world’s top surfing beaches. We ate fresh food for cheap and spent our evenings reading and writing from our perch above the rice fields. We put up Facebook photos of our surroundings in a way that said, “Oh, you mean this old thing? It’s just paradise.”
Yet, sometimes, it doesn’t matter how good you have it—sometimes, it’s time to go home. A few weeks after getting married, we took inventory of our feelings on the future. We both had that “now what?” malaise and realized that neither of us would feel grounded until we returned to our roots. We promptly bought tickets back to the States. That was a year ago.
Unfortunately, instead of making our way to the “home” portion of home—you know, like, where we were actually from—we somehow found ourselves in Florida. That’s right: Florida. The state whose motto is: If you don’t have something nice to say, shout it. The state where fun goes to die. The state most commonly associated with the term “sinkhole”. I’ve lived in many countries, but never did I feel so out of place as I did in Florida. (To be precise, I refer mainly to South Florida.) Surrounded by Americans (who were ostensibly like me), I looked around and asked, “Who are these people?” And then: “Is it too late for me to reintegrate after all?”
You see, expats are part of a vast subculture in search of a host body to latch onto. To illustrate by way of comparison, hipsters are a unique byproduct of the American fear of homogenization; they do not buy into consumer culture, but instead of walking away, they carve out their own niche within it. Hipster subculture is formed in direct response to the host culture—it couldn’t exist without it. Contrast that to the expat, who remains an expat regardless of the location. Expats can be Belgian go-go dancers in Vietnam, Canadian loggers in Congo, or Colombian botanists in Croatia, but they’ll probably find more in common with each other than people from their host countries—because they are all people who don’t quite belong anywhere.
Expats can be Belgian go-go dancers in Vietnam, Canadian loggers in Congo, or Colombian botanists in Croatia, but they’ll probably find more in common with each other than people from their host countries.
I have a good friend who has been to all the most dangerous and/or exotic points on the globe, including North Korea, the Gaza Strip and Afghanistan. On those few occasions when he was actually in the US, he used his foreign travels as credentials at parties and barbecues. He’d sidle up to a stranger and say, “I’ve been to Africa. Aren’t I interesting?” It was three parts self-deprecation and one part pretension, but more than that, it was true. Life abroad felt more interesting.
I battled dysentery, readied myself for a series of anti-American riots and got my legs pecked at by hens as I rode the bus. Plus, there were characters everywhere. There was the aspiring pop star who came up with the cash to shoot her own music video (and the best lyrics involving a baby, Obama and a lizard). There were the pilots seconded to the UN who drank every night until it was time to get up and fly a plane. There were the mercenaries who told of exploits you didn’t quite believe (but kinda did). Every day had the potential for adventure, and every dinner party drew people who sounded like characters from a Roald Dahl book.
To be fair, in the last year I’ve discovered that the US brings its own type of excitement, like:
- using healthcare.gov
- figuring out the correct strip mall to turn into
My point is not to complain about infrastructure and Chipotle, but rather to say that finding roots and becoming grounded—those things I wanted—are tree metaphors. They represent security, not stimulation. And security is definitely a plus. We’ve even relocated to be closer to (most of) our parents, and we are discovering the benefits of being near family. But even as I appreciate home, there are days I miss the freedom that came from standing outside of any culture—because when I was an expat, I didn’t have to worry about integrating at all.