V-grrrl is in philosophical mood as she arrives at a positive definition of that much-maligned word ‘expat’.
It’s been two years since I boarded a plane in Washington, D.C., took off in the midst of a thunderstorm, and landed about seven hours later in Brussels on the first day of spring. Today I’m pondering what it means to be an expat.
The moment the plane’s wheels touched the tarmac at Zaventem, I became a member of the “third culture,” one that is neither fully here nor there. To be an expat is to be someone who makes a home in the space between where you’re from and where you are. It’s to live both inside and outside the world beyond your door.
What are the characteristics of an expat?
Expats are both bold and careful. They go where they’ve never gone before, but they watch their steps. They observe quietly. They glance over their shoulders. They substitute smiles for words. They imitate and participate. They try to be good guests on their way to being good citizens. They are more than tourists but less than natives.
Like sci-fi space travellers, expats experience life in multiple dimensions at once, building bridges between familiar and unfamiliar customs, native and foreign terrain. It’s hard to feel fully yourself when the context for all your interactions has changed.
An expat has multiple dimensions
This is why expats spend so much time exploring their inner geography. To live abroad, you have to be willing to rewrite your story, envision alternate plots and endings, and yet know what’s unchangeable in the shape of your character.
Expats are like hardy plants with shallow roots. Plucked from native soil and transplanted in new digs, expat lives are thoroughly topped and pruned in the relocation process. After the initial shock, we manage to grow back greener and fuller. Sure, we may occasionally wilt, but ultimately we thrive in all sorts of conditions. Expats are people who bloom where they are planted—and I’m happy to be blossoming in Belgium another spring.