If you’ve ever asked, “What does it all mean?” or “Why are we here?” you’ve asked an existential question. If you’re reading this there’s also a good chance you’re an expat. Existentialist thought shies away from one-size-fits-all solutions and therein lies its appeal to the global nomad who is only too familiar with the complex nuances contained in seemingly innocuous words like ‘home’, ‘belonging’ and ‘edible’ (deep-fried grasshopper, anyone?)
Below are four principles of existentialism adapted for the peculiarities of the expat existence – because we all need a philosophy to cling to when life gets choppy, expats especially…1. Individuality: You’re a person not a stereotype
When I move to a new country I’m hyper-conscious people see where I’m from instead of me. That sidelong glance and casual query, “You’re British, aren’t you?” is pregnant with inference.
The voice of my old headmistress rings in my ears, “Girls, when you are beyond the bounds of school property in uniform you are ambassadors for the school. Make sure you act accordingly” and I find myself talking like Mary Poppins (or some days Del Boy, depends…) and fleshing out my role of English Eccentric.
But you can’t spend your whole life playing a part. Yes, it’s important to behave with dignity and conscientiousness wherever you are, but there’s no need to carry the extra baggage of other people’s expectations.
It takes time to adjust, drop our expat armor and just be ourselves, but the sooner we forget where we’re from, the easier it is for people to take us at face value and discard their own cultural presumptions.
2. Responsibility: Create your own set of values
Wherever you go there are different perceptions and ways of doing things. If you’ve managed to achieve no.1 you’ll more easily overcome any sense of misplaced cultural loyalty and combine the best of what each new experience has to offer.
My husband was aghast when I recently declared my preference for Canadian baked beans over his beloved Heinz from home. But a week or two later he did admit they’re more flavorsome. That’s a big emotional step for an expat!
Being flexible and open to new ideas helps you grow as a person and enjoy a smoother transition than someone who gripes every step of the way.
For new expats, expressing frustration/confusion at differences we don’t understand helps us adjust – nowhere is perfect and fooling ourselves it is just adds unnecessary pressure, but beware of getting stuck in a judgmental rut. In my post Another Canadian Christmas I shared the need for “adopting new traditions and welcoming the sense of difference instead of holding it before us like a leper’s bell.”
3. Absurdity: There’s no meaning in the world beyond the meaning we give to it
The world is a confusing, confounding place. Good things happen to bad people and vice versa so that making sense of life seems impossible. This is something expats can immediately relate to; just when you think you have a place all figured out something happens to show you there’s still more to learn. Opinions change, governments come and go, visionaries and villains pass away – as they’re fond of saying in Canada, “It is what it is.”
Familiarity is an illusion we cling to that can be ripped away in an instant by natural disaster, loss, violence and ill-health. Interacting across borders and cultures reminds us of our limited experience in the enormity of human existence. A quote that helps me keep this in mind sits at the top of the 'About Page' on my website:
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
4. Alienation: You’re not from round here are you?
Becoming an expat is similar to becoming a parent – it changes you in ways you couldn’t comprehend (and likely dismissed) before the event, and once you’ve begun the journey there’s no going back.
You commit yourself to a singular life unconfined by the borders of the society you inhabit – yes, you’re a foreigner when you’re abroad, but you also become a foreigner to those at home, your perception forever altered.
Although this can seem like a solitary experience it helps to remember that most people have flashes of feeling like a stranger in their own lives, even those who’ve never left the town they were born in. The ability to see things with fresh eyes is essential to change and the evolution of ideas, it’s insecurity that colours how those around you receive it.
Keeping these four ideas in mind can help us find a greater appreciation for living. Expats may have to overcome more challenges because of their decisions, but correspondingly, there’s the potential to enjoy more opportunities than most ever get to experience.
What are your tips for keeping things in perspective?
by Aisha Ashraf.
Aisha Isabel Ashraf is a freelance writer and author of the popular blog EXPATLOG – a collection of irreverent observations from her experiences as a "cultural chameleon". It's where you'll find her, strung out on caffeine, humorously dissecting the peculiarities of expat life for her own amusement and the benefit of future generations."
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