Thursday, December 27, 2007

Reverse ExPatriate-ism

Amanda published a very nice summary of the perils of Reverse Culture Shock at Vagabondish over the holiday. She writes about the types of disconnections that open between expatriates and their friends back home, and makes some good recommendations for how to adapt (and, yes, it still falls on us to do the adapting...).

It's a bit like Gauguin living in Tahiti: Gauguin - Street in Tahiti his family and friends never really understood why he moved or what he was experiencing or creating. Trips home to Denmark were invariably difficult for him.

Amanda's good advice includes:

* Don’t take it personally when people have no idea what you’ve been doing.

* Until someone asks, keep your experiences to yourself.

* Don't lose patience with everyday life.

* Don't assume that others share or want to hear your new opinions.

* Don't drop your travel tales into too many conversations.

* Anticipate that getting away to see something different became much more difficult, and a whole lot more expensive.

Taking it to dinner

I was reflecting on this advice last night when I went to dinner with some good friends at a local Italian restaurant. There is a conscious effort involved in fitting in, because I see everything through a different lens. It's tempting to pick the Montepulciano wine off the list because I've been there and know it (and can tell a little story about the town). The faux sculptures and hangings scattered around to resemble Italy have a tissue-paper feel. caprese3 I opted for Caprese for an appetizer, and was given tablespoon-sized mozzarella balls on halves of caprese2cherry tomatoes (left): not as hearty as the slices I'm used to (right). The tiramisu was, by sad consensus, terrible (but the domestic berry cobbler was excellent). Conversation focused on skiing in the Cascade mountains, the difficulties of their kids college applicaitons, and speculation on what their upcoming "empty-nest" life will be like.

These are good friends and I enjoyed our evening together thoroughly. But Amanda is right, that there are things that I have to suppress, and an effort that I have to make to engage locally. But, hey, isn't that the same rule I follow in the Netherlands?

The gaps that I've experienced:

  • The 9 hour time difference is huge. I'm never at my best when making phone calls at (their) reasonable hours. 'Nor participating in evening activities when it feels like 6 am.
  • Distances are different. Since European countries are the size of US states, it's easy to drive a few hours to Paris, Berlin, or to hop an hour's flight to England or Italy. People don't understand that Brussels is no further than Portland, and think I'm showing off if I say I drove down for the weekend.
  • My sense of navigation has changed. Living in a country with no wide open spaces and many twisted lanes, I've come to rely on the TomTom and to use a different set of navigational cues than I used to. As a result, my instincts for driving American cars across straight-line US grids has deteriorated.
  • My ear is warped by trying to speak and understand Dutch. This has three effects. First, I am used to not understanding people, so it's always a bit of a shock when I do understand what a waitress is saying. Second, I do tend to accidentally chirp "dank u wel" or "goedemorgen" without thinking. Third, I've found that I have a new role as after-dinner entertainment: when conversation lags, people can always ask me to "say something in Dutch" .
  • I pull out the wrong ID. There's nothing like a baby-girl pink driver's license to re-assure store clerks, banks, and Homeland Security that I am who I say I am.
  • I'm off the Amazing Race. If I live outside the US, I'm no longer eligible.
  • Everyday life in Europe is different. I've been conditioned to have cappuccino in the morning and espresso in the evening. I have to go the bakery and the fish store for bread and meats because they don't sell it at the Albert Heijn. I start work at 8:30 and I take vacations because everyone else is gone too. It all sounds very exotic and pretentious even when it's not.
  • I'm used to taking city breaks. But my casual weekend trip is someone's else's lifetime dream: they plan for a year for something I am lucky enough to have at my doorstep, and I agree that can raise some jealousy.
  • I'm not used to Political Provincialism. I've been told that I've abandoned my country and that I've lost the right to criticize US policies because I live in Europe. At the same time, I have experiences and perspectives that convince me that the Bush administration and his right-wing minions are destructively wrong. I see a continuing erosion of civil liberty, privacy, free speech, humanistic vision, and critical thought in the US. But it's become harder to participate in the debate because I'm not part of the society.


TextualHealing said...

What on Earth is the Amazing Race??

Enjoy your culture shock.

Dave Hampton said...

"Twelve Teams, One lap around the world, One Million Dollars..."

It's an American reality TV show where they put pairs of people on a cross-country race to find destinations and complete tasks. Last pair to complete each leg is eliminated.

It always looked like fun (even though the couples seem to suffer "I hate you with a passion" breakdowns regularly), and my days running through airports and scrambling through unfamiliar cities sometimes feels too similar (but without the million dollar payoff).

I'm on the plane from Seattle today - it's been a good week, but I'm ready to be back.