Expatriots - Who are They?


Expatriot is an interesting word. If you look at its etymology, it means one who leaves his/her country. Not to be confused with someone who is unpatriotic! It is, in effect, simply someone who is living abroad. There are many types of "expats". Professionals working abroad, retirees, government workers, volunteers, or people who simply don't want to live in their native country anymore. Retirees are a growing segment of the expatriot community. The British have long been retiring to warmer, sunnier climates - the south of Spain or the south of France are favorites. Americans, in recent years have been attracted by lower costs in Mexico, Costa Rica, and more recently Nicaragua and Ecuador. Cuenca, Ecuador has really caught on lately (read about it). There are cities and towns like Cuenca, Malaga (Spain), San Miguel de Allende (Mexico), where expats can live almost as if they were home, spending their time with fellow expats, learning a minimal amount of the local language, but enjoying the local culture when they feel like it. Of course, it is now possible almost anywhere on earth to get cable or satellite television and watch shows from home, and with the internet and amazingly cheap telecommunications, keeping in touch is never an issue. 30 years ago, if you wanted to phone from Europe to the US, you'd be spending $10 a minute. Now, with Skype and Google voice, you can make calls for $.01 or $.02 per minute, or for free if it's from computer to computer.

With it becoming so easy to live abroad and not abandon your culture, it's no surprise that many people you wouldn't expect to live abroad are choosing to do so. They are not necessarily the interesting, adventurous people you'd imagine. In fact, they may not be as worldly as their circumstances would seem to dictate.

What about those who choose to live abroad for the adventure of it or because they feel alienated in their own country. My blog posts frequently come out of something only marginally related to the subject. This post came about when I was thinking of a French word that I've always loved: dépaysement. Literally dis-country-ment, or stripped of one's country. Le dépaysement has a number of meanings, but I particularly like the meaning being out of one's element, or not feeling at home. This can be felt without traveling. Have you ever heard someone say "I guess I just wasn't meant for these times" (there's an old Beach Boys song with that title)? Baudelaire wrote a poem "N'importe où hors du monde"(Anywhere out of the world) expressing his feeling of dépaysement on earth.

I have a friend who felt this way in the U.S. So at the age of 30 he left for Kyoto, Japan, where he has spent the last 30 years, only making rare, unsatifying trips back to the U.S. Most of us aren't subject to this extreme reaction to our home, but many of us experience a letdown when we return home from a long trip. Our feeling of alienation may not be an emotional predisposition, but rather a consequence of our travels. I wrote about this in an earlier post: "Reverse Culture Shock." Eventually we are "repatriated", but the initial feeling of not belonging can be quite strong, and sometimes quite depressing. It has nothing to do with our home country, but more to do with the joy we had abroad, where everything was new and exciting. I once returned from a trip and left the next day on another, just because I wasn't ready for my travels to end.

By Kevin O'Neill


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