In between: the pain and delight of being and ceasing to be an expat
The feeling of belonging to a place, family, group or nationality is part of our identity. We define and introduce ourselves to the world by telling them our name, family and cultural backgrounds, and quickly they can have an idea of who we are and the way we are. Or can they?
Human balance is not static, it is a changing phenomenon. Although we cling to the safety of a known world around us, the truth is that humanity has always migrated.
We migrate because we want to or because life has wished so. We migrate because of wars, political systems, our jobs, our family, love, but also due to the spirit of adventure, the search for new, unknown and mysterious experiences.
Choosing to move to another country, city, continent, to learn and adapt to another language or culture is not always as easy as it may seem. Adaptation is an exhaustive job, even challenging. We have to get out of our comfort zone, giving up prejudices, to unlearn and let go of some habits that are no longer relevant to the new situation in which we live in.
A simple inadequate compliance can put us in an awkward situation, not knowing some social rules can make us extremely embarrassed. Expressing ourselves in another language requires more than learning vocabulary and conjugating verbs and choose the correct prepositions , it involves learning to think in a different manner. Adaptation to the eating habits of other cultures can be fascinating during the holidays, but it is not always so easy when we have to do this every day for months on end, until we reach the next vacation in our homeland.
The last ten years of my life I have spent between Germany, Switzerland (both the "French" side as the "Swiss German" side), England and Holland. I have coexisted with people from many nationalities and cultural backgrounds, however in social gatherings the topics of conversation were universal: where to find such food or drink, how to help the children to adapt to new schools, how to integrate, what rules of behavior "not said" has passed unnoticed.
Many are fascinated and deny their own origins, others only think about going back and regret leaving their homes. These extreme and unilateral attitudes tend to change over time.
After all, facing the new situation, we need to rely on two certainties: we have made a mistake by moving, or we have made a mistake for taking so long to finally move!
The first phase of adaptation could be one of two things: a defense barrier against the new culture, or the opposite, a radical adaptation of the new culture. Both are natural at first, but the search for balance becomes necessary. When facing such a change, nothing is perfect and beautiful all the time, and nothing is completely horrible too.
I have met so many people who have lived years in a country just thinking about going back, and as they returned to their homeland, the "Lost Paradise" was not as heavenly as they remembered...
Others denied their origins, becoming caricatures of the country that have adopted as a home, denying their own origins.
Some people are always unhappy, no matter what life gives them; others adapt and learn to appreciate what the new life has to offer. Does the responsibility rely only on the circumstances? Of course not!
We all have the ability to change and adapt to a greater or lesser degree, however, adaptation implies being open to change. We will have to adapt, and not the medium or the culture that welcomes us. We need to be open to change, giving the other a chance to know us, but also opening our minds to know each other without prejudice, with curiosity and interest. Easy? No way! Very difficult! However, it can also be stress-free!
I met friends from different cultures and nationalities, people with life stories so different from mine, and they became so close, so dear, heart friends. We become and grow from the experience.
The truth is that after this experience we will never be the same, we are beings "in between", beings who live and move between different cultures, and at the same time are comfortable and "outsiders" in each place. After a few changes, one can get the impression that we could live in any country, and I know many people who actually do, building a network of very interesting relationships. There are also those that are not fixed anywhere, becoming completely 'free' without creating any links with people or places.
Finding the balance is a challenge, but keeping a curious look towards life, places, people and cultures is of great help.
The less we know and accept ourselves, the harder we know and accept each other.
Dealing with the challenge of change requires maturity and balance, and if you do not have those qualities, this is a great learning opportunity.
Solange Bertolotto Schneider
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