Rather than thriving in a local environment alone, Yvonne Salt’s research shows many international couples do better by staying connected to an international lifestyle.
International nationals: where do they fit?
Jessica, Canadian, and Boris, Belgian, were both already quite disposed to international travel; Boris lived in several countries when he was young, and both of them had done exchange programmes at university. Boris had friends from different countries, but his social networks in Brussels were largely made up of local people. When Jessica moved to Brussels, her desire and need to establish friendships of her own led her to meet people from elsewhere. She made friends with people from many different countries and her husband became involved with these networks, too. So for them, creating social networks in Brussels did not just bring Jessica into Boris’s networks, but she also played an important role in creating new opportunities for both her and her husband. In this example, Boris was already quite internationally connected, but a similar thing happened to Frank, who had not much international experience.
When Frank, a young Belgian, met Aranxta, a young Spanish woman, he said it ‘opened his eyes’. He had not travelled a great deal before he met her, and his previous girlfriends were local. Meeting Arantxa exposed him to her culture and way of life. He feels that because of this, his life trajectory changed from what was quite a predictable course. Since he has begun a relationship with Arantxa different options are open to him, and there is less predictability about his future, in part because there is no precedent for this in his immediate family. They have lots of friends now from the international community in Belgium and their relationship has made him feel part of an international lifestyle.
In these examples, these couples created new lifestyles abroad that combined both the local and international lifestyles, allowing them to keep or grow their global outlook.
Not wanting to be local
Couples who have different nationalities, but neither one are Belgian, have talked about needing an international environment because they don’t want to be local. They actively seek out an international community, and living in a country that neither of them is from is one way of doing this.
Sophie, a German woman, mentioned her concerns about moving to London, her partner David’s home. She was worried about having to ‘integrate’ into his world, and about losing access to an international lifestyle. London is a very international city, but Sophie felt that by no longer being on ‘neutral’ ground they would become too easily absorbed into local life. She would be positioned as the foreigner, among a host of locals, which would include her partner, and their nationality would be more salient than in an international context, where it matters much less where you are from. She wanted not to be local above all else.
Similarly, having an international viewpoint is important for Kirsten, a Belgian, who has lived in the US for many years. David, her husband who is American, talked about how he was finding that now they were in Belgium, if he criticises the country, she gets defensive. Kirsten said she doesn’t feel particularly Belgian as she hasn’t lived there for much of her life, but is disappointed that her husband couldn’t adapt easily to their new environment. For cross-cultural couples, sometimes staying on international grounds can help foster understanding.
Embracing the global community
An international community is similar to but subtly different from an expatriate community. A typical expatriate community is mono-national or mono-lingual and tends to live in an isolated niche, avoiding the locals, seeking out home comforts and wanting to return home. The couples I’m interviewing speak a number of languages, enjoy meeting people from all over, often avoid co-nationals, and want to extend this outlook to their children.
For these couples, being an international or ‘world citizen’ is not about rejecting the local, nor is it about one partner becoming an undistinguished part of the other’s world. It seems what it is about is embracing the local and making it part of their own global, cosmopolitan outlook.
Yvonne Salt / Expatica
The Love Migration Project is part of Yvonne Salt’s doctoral research at the University of Sussex, UK. Find out more at www.lovemigration.com or email Yvonne Salt at firstname.lastname@example.org.