Traditional culture experts would have you think that the only thing expats have in common is being foreigners in a foreign country. One expert believes it’s time to look again.
Expat culture seems to have always slipped through the cracks of cultural study. While there is no shortage of mention about expat life in relevant media, it remains shallow and dismissive of the idea that there is a real cultural texture to be found surrounding the practice of expatriotism.
That may have been valid four or five decades ago, when expat culture was first considered by David and Ruth Hill Useem, the parents of the ‘Third Culture’ concept. Undeniably, we are a third culture—the experience of our lives being made up of neither completely the home (or ‘first’) culture that we come from, nor the host (‘second’) culture where we reside, but rather in some intersection of them.
While this concept remains inseparable from the idea of an expat culture, ‘Third Culture’ theory underestimates its subject. At the very least, it has failed to recognise the revolution that expatriotism has undergone in the last 20-30 years, and its effects.
Gone are the days when ‘expat’ usually meant ‘military, diplomatic or missionary family moving in the line of duty’. Now is the day of the self-initiated and/or serial expat.
We start young, we’re in any number of professions (or other activities that serve as an excuse to move somewhere), and we will live in several countries before we settle, if ever we do. We’re not necessarily the result of mobility in developmental years; a substantial percentage of us never lived abroad before the age of 18 or 20. Surely within the forces that make these things true there are a host of things that we modern expats have in common to bind us together.
Yet, ‘third culture’ is technically considered an event; merely the intersection of cultures and a ‘non-culture’ itself since it is considered to be void of the necessary ingredients for the weaving of a true culture.
This is because the stale theory holds that the only thing expats have in common is the fact that we are ‘foreigners living in a foreign land’. This is simply no longer true, if it ever was. Toss me in a room full of expats and I am just as sure, if not more so, to find things in common with them than if I were in a room full of random people from my home country.
For example, choosing an international life requires not only an active tolerance of human difference, but a certain affinity for it. A majority of us also hold similar political leanings – to a greater extent perhaps than we can say for our home cultures.
We also have particular networks and certain places we tend to gather in a given city. Certainly most of the experiences of living in a foreign culture can be categorised into events with which we uniquely identify. Do these things not speak for shared values and experiences?
After years of observation, as an anthropologist-in-training, this became the subject of my thesis research. Over two years, I surveyed and interviewed 100 expats of varying experience, including current or recent international students, as it was my suspicion that study abroad is a common link to the development of today’s expat culture.
While the subject is certainly too rich for just one study, or one article, this much was obvious: even though expats come from a million different directions (both figuratively and literally), our lives are remarkably similar in the most personal of ways.
Along with obvious answer patterns over 27 subjective questions, the results even went so far as to profile an expat ‘life cycle’ that seemed to emerge from their stories.
Namely, there is a stage where one comes into adult contact with the expat lifestyle and chooses to pursue it on a long-term or reoccurring basis. Then, these ‘novice’ expats begin to feel that it is among other internationals that they most fit in, as they have now been exposed to a plethora of influences that their peers at home have not.
Most significantly, the concept of ‘home’ blurs; it and identity are perhaps even realised as somewhat of a choice. This is a very special kind of freedom. This stage may last for quite a long time, but the outcome, which seems to strike the most resonant cord with experienced expats, is that eventually this freedom can become a sort of burden.
The feeling of having found ‘home’ abroad wavers; an array of doubts circle and indecisive thoughts of moving back to the home culture enter the mind. The expat is no longer sure where home is, or where it should be.
Once we consider these things a choice, it means we have to decide, and indecision over long term choices becomes an ongoing theme. At some point we are no longer sure whether we fit in more ‘here’ or ‘there’, or where we want to stay indefinitely.
We’re tired of making choices but we don’t want to have them taken away. No matter where we start from, seasoned expats end up with the feeling that we belong everywhere. Eventually that can feel the same as belonging nowhere.
Certainly our common experiences are non-traditional, but so is the world we live in. If these same life patterns, decisions, problems, intimate feelings, and complex beliefs about ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ are not an ingredient list for ‘culture’, than I don’t know what is.
Sarah Steegar is a project/advising consultant in international education based in Brussels.