As this is my first column for Expat Focus, I wanted to say “Hey!” to all my fellow expatriates around the globe. You might have read the review from my recent memoir The Devil Wears Clogs posted here. If you have, you are already aware that I don’t sugarcoat the truth of life overseas. In all its exciting glory, living on a continent far from home can be confusing.
Navigating the culture gap takes time, experience, and skill. I’ve been trying to do it right for fourteen years, yet new situations arise constantly to show me I still have room to grow. If you haven’t read the review, get ready for an injection of honesty and I apologize in advance for not contributing to the illusion that this life is all glam all the time.Two weeks ago, I returned from my longest stay in my home country since moving to Germany in 2001. I was there to promote my book and to do so, I needed an extended presence across the U.S. in cities I don’t normally have the chance to visit on shorter stays. Doing so gave me a much broader experience and exposure to people and places than I have had for many years. I stayed with friends and had the opportunity to meet their friends, which was probably the happiest surprise of the trip.
What I discovered in driving those four thousand miles, however, is that though I looked and sounded like I belonged there, I didn’t. Simple things confused me. Beer now comes in chocolate and pomegranate flavors. There are no longer two types of my favorite cracker, but ten. Uber and AirBNB are commonplace, yet they present a new set of etiquette challenges for the uninitiated. It’s now expected that you will text someone prior to calling them. I could go on and on, but you get the drill. My culture moved on while I was figuring out others. The secret code of social interaction that, once learned, can be taken for granted is written in invisible ink. Finding out that my friends have met fascinating new people in my absence was great news. Learning that it is next to impossible to watch anything other than reality television was not.
Those things are hardly earth-shattering in the world of cultural discovery, but others waited in the wings that have proven less simple to shake off. Take this observation: It is easy to give someone the impression that you care about them when you rarely meet face to face. People I once trusted, seeing them as recently as within the past four years, were willing and able to carry on the illusion of friendship over email and social media. When those same people failed to turn up at an event they were invited to and professed interest in, the jig−so to speak−was up. They didn’t make it. They made no attempt to socialize. As it turns out, even a expecting a phone call can be asking too much. Perhaps I should have asked for a text instead.
What?! People can be false online? Yes, I am aware that many people perpetuate identities and personalities online which are very different from their own, but these are generally strangers. The distinction here is that these were people who were once friends. Without the casual bumping into people here and there, you don’t get the brush off or polite chit-chat that tells you something is amiss. You simply go on believing that you are on the same page until suddenly, and very obviously, you are not.
Don’t lose hope, fair traveler, there is a silver lining. There are most likely many others you might have lost touch with in your adventures who do want your friendship. In my case, a childhood friend who I haven’t had contact with for nearly thirty years came to my rescue during a very stressful time in the States. Not only that, we had great fun careening down memory lane. Several others that I haven’t seen for ten to fifteen years arrived on the scene as well, full of a level of enthusiasm and support that I never saw coming.
In my early years overseas, I tried to share my experiences with certain “friends” whose eyes glazed over with boredom. I assumed it was too difficult to relate. Now I understand that I was simply talking to the wrong people.
Perhaps they did me a favor, those friends around whom the world revolves, because I learned to channel my experiences into written words instead. Life overseas sometimes leaves you feeling like you’re frozen in time at the point when you left your home country. Now I understand how important it is to melt once in a while.
As a certified IT project manager, Jennifer Burge has traveled to over 40 countries. Currently, she lives in Brisbane, Australia and works as a full-time travel memoirist and public speaker on the challenges and rewards of international living. Her ‘How Not To Live Abroad’ guide, The Devil Wears Clogs (available on Amazon.com) chronicles her early expat mistakes as an American in Germany and Holland. Follow Jennifer’s adventures worldwide on her blog at www.WorldwisePublications.com.