Cliff’s out of town for work and we don’t like traveling separately. That might have me in a more introspective mood than usual. It won’t be outright maudlin, though. Pinky swear.
A fellow blogger, Ellie & the German, has a new post up titled Expattery. I’ve tried to reply to it about a dozen times today, but nothing I write seems correct. I’m not a big commenter by nature. Unless I’ve really got something to say, I usually talk myself out of it. Not important enough, not insightful enough, not enough there there. But something about her post really stuck with me and made me want to reach out. So here goes:
We’re approaching 10 years of living abroad, so I feel like I finally have a little perspective. We’re also hitting that stretch of adulthood where our friends all have kids or own property or are hitting that first wave of divorces. I want to say that it’s going to be ok, it’s going to get better, all that happy horseshit. But I’d rather not lie.
Expat experiences are utterly unique. Everyone sets out for different reasons – work, school and love are the big ones – and most decide pretty quickly whether this is a one time thing or a possible way of life. Some people are totally miserable outside of their home culture and reject all adaptation, some are completely enchanted and immediately immerse, but most fall somewhere in-between.
The first thing you adapt to is food. That happens quickly by necessity. Next comes language (not first, because pointing gets you surprisingly far). This takes longer, and often happens in unpredictable stages. The last adaptation is cultural. This one will probably take the remainder of your stay, possibly the rest of your life.
Culture is the hardest adjustment. You learn it just by being in the world and it makes sense because everyone around you is doing it, too. Then you move and everyone around you is doing something different and looking at you like you’re the lunatic. You need someone to explain the rules, but when they are explained, some of them are so weird, so counterintuitive, so very foreign… How do you follow them and remain yourself?
I had an easier time than many. Cliff came over here fluent in German, with a job and he had a chance to find an apartment for us before we ever moved. He did an exchange year in high school outside of Bonn. I was able to spend just under 18 months in German classes, getting a handle on the language; I also have a proclivity for language, so it went fairly well. Plus, we’re both white and pretty much pass as Germans, so nobody gives us any crap until I open my mouth. But on top of that, Cliff had an understanding of our shared, American culture and the German one to which we moved – it was like having my own personal ambassador. We got to learn about Bavaria together, though.
Even with all of my advantages, there have been some difficult adjustments. Getting elbowed in the face at Aldi by an Oma wasn’t fun, but I was doing the line wrong. I went home and complained about it and Cliff said, “You have to be more aggressive.” And then I was mad about it for a couple of years and grumbled and rolled my eyes…and nothing around me changed.
Germany didn’t change.
So I had to decide what was worth the effort of being annoyed all the time. What’s the hill worth dying on?
It sure as shit wasn’t the line at the grocery store.
Determining the battles worth fighting, the hill worth dying on, has been completely freeing. It makes it easier to repel perceived attacks and figure out which pieces of my culture are worth conserving and safeguarding.
I have a suit of armor, forged of the cultures I’ve melted together. It’s not impenetrable – it needs to breathe – but only the important stuff gets through. And only I determine what’s important.