Friday, October 07, 2005

On being an expatriate

We move to Canada had an interesting post the other day that linked to an ex-pat article written by an American in Australia. The article was well-written and thought provoking on a number of levels, and I highly recommend reading it. In the end, it prompted me to think more about what it is to be an expatriate, beyond simple things like fitting in, language barriers, seeking home comforts, and missing your hometown. I think most ex-pats can joke about these things, these differences in ways of life that you have to get used to as an immigrant in a new culture. We all know the struggles, the homesickness, the loneliness, the wonders and beauty of living abroad.

I speak of these things blithely, from a position of privilege. I moved to another country by choice, because the man I chose to marry is Greek. Most of the other ex-pats I know also moved by choice, whether for a desire to change lifestyles, or marriage, or job opportunities. I wasn’t fleeing tyranny, war, famine, fear or any of a number of things that make desperate immigrants cling to life on a shoddy boat across the murky waters of the sea, headed towards a life of uncertainty and perhaps, if they are lucky, hope. Provided they find asylum in a new country, what are their experiences like? Are they able to laugh about the language differences? Do they joke about the behavior of their new countrymen? Do they find amusement in the products on the grocery store shelves?

These immigrants are the true expatriates. They leave everything behind – friends, family, jobs – never to return again. In many cases they are probably not allowed to return again, or face death or prosecution if they do return. In their eyes, there is no choice. When a sweaty man approaches them, face veiled in shadows, and offers them passage for a fee, they take the opportunity. Most of the time they probably don’t even know where they are going, whether the boat will make it, what dangers they may face on the other side. All they know is that their only hope of a decent life is somewhere else. Anywhere but their home country.

It is pretty easy when you live a comfortable life to pass judgment on these immigrants. It is easy to ignore them, disregard them, discount them as individuals. “They don’t belong here” you might say to yourself, or “they steal our jobs.” You might opine that they cause more crime. Sometimes they do. Yet the nationalists who are so proud of their heritage, their culture, their country and don’t want it “tainted” by unwanted immigrants seem to ignore that the immigrants lack the very thing the nationalists are so proud of: a place to call home.

Expatriates like me are lucky. We have the opportunity to live and experience other cultures, but we can still go “home” when (and if) we want to. Should we travel back to our home countries, once we flash our local passports the customs officers tell us “welcome home.” Yet a constant nightmare of mine is that someday I won’t have a country to go home to.

Some friends and I took a trip to Europe in the summer of 2001, before 9/11. I had nightmares while I was away, horrible portents of something horrid happening at home, of us being unable to return, that the U.S. had turned into a wasteland of war, disease, and decay – and there was nothing left. I’ve heard since that such dreams while traveling abroad are not uncommon, but when I woke up on 9/11 it was if they were coming true. America changed that day, and in the years since has continued to change, until it has become something I almost no longer recognize.

In the year between 9/11 and when I moved to Greece, I became cognizant that I was looking at the world as if from a fishbowl, only seeing a distorted vision of what was beyond the glass. Messages of fear overtook us all. Fear Muslims, fear terror, fear anthrax, fear Bin Laden, fear, fear, fear. It wasn’t as if such a thing was uncommon in American life, the fear campaign started in the McCarthy era and changed to suit the times. Fear communists, fear nukes, fear hippies, fear Russia, fear AIDS. Yet after 9/11 it was the prevailing force driving the government, the media, and the people. We learned that to be safe from our fears, we had to give up certain rights. We were willing to give up our freedoms to our fears, and that is where the thread of the American spirit began to unravel.

I miss my family and my friends. I miss Nashville. I miss the American landscape. Yet, at this point in time, like Steve Solomon said in his article, I don’t intend to go back, not until things change. It is the same reason I have a hard time visiting a sick and suffering loved one, I cannot stand to go back and watch America injured, bleeding, with no way to mend the wounds. And so in this small way I can look at fleeing immigrants and understand, on some level, what it is like for them. Home is not what it was. It may never be again. I just count myself lucky that no one is forced to flee. Not yet.


AT said...

Ah, interesting that I should come across your blog so recently. I am not an expat, but I'm one of those lucky few who have dual citizenship due to circumstances of birth, in my case with Canada. I read We move to Canada from the link on your blog yesterday, and could identify 100% with it. In my case, tho, the bonds of familiarity are too strong (for now) to uproot my family and bring us up north.
You've got me thinkin about it again tho... thanks!

Nicole said...

Great post-

melusina said...

Sorry AT, but I'm good at nudging people!

Thanks Nicole!

Alice in Austria said...

This is a very interesting post! Do you mind if I make a link to my blog? (Am a former expat-now-returned-home & this is one of my favorite topics!)


melusina said...

No, I don't mind at all Sophie. =)

Cynthia Rae said...

This is a very interesting post. I too moved to another country in the name of love. I had a house, friends and family (my new Italian family) already here and waiting for me. You made me think of those less fortunate. Who left home not knowing what was waiting for them. How brave! Do mind if I link this to one of my posts (if I can figure out how to do it)?

melusina said...

Of course I don't mind Cynthia! It is easy to make links with Blogger - you can just click the text you want to link and hit the "link" tool above the post and paste in the link.

Anonymous said...

Yes, and don't you find it curious, that so many are Fleeing To The U.S., rather than from it?


Anonymous said...

Dear Expat,

I kwow of no American that live in fear. We can protest or say anything we want to. There will be no "knocks in the night"

If it wasn't for the USA Europe would be a fascist, jew burning, hell hole.

Stay in Europe-we don't need you back!

An American