The Expat Life

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  • When people learn that my family relocated from Queens Village, New York to Dallas, Texas when I was 16, the first question is usually, “Why did you leave New York?”

    Now take those feelings of shock, confusion, and curiosity and amplify them by 50 and then you’ll begin to understand what it’s like for expatriates, people who temporarily or permanently take up residence in a country and culture outside of their upbringing.

    The feelings towards expats vary from excitement and wonder to dismay and assumptions of selfishness. Why would someone (other than a member of the military) choose to live so far away from friends, family and everything so familiar to them? Well, for the five people who chose to share their stories with me, the question wasn’t “why,” it was “why not?”

    Keith Swingle, an educator from Poughkeepsie, New York, accepted an English as a second language (ESL) teaching job in Antofagasta, Chile only four days after learning about the opportunity from a friend who was already working there.

    “Dropping the bomb on family was met with largely positive feedback. Some cousins of mine couldn't understand why I'd want to be so far from my family for so long,” he said. “It is important to note that they are very close, not living more than 45 minutes from any one member of their family. My sense of adventure, love of travel and desire to teach weren't enough to make sense to them.”

    An ESL teaching opportunity is also what sent Kamara Coaxum of New York City and Nicole Brewer of Detroit to the Eastern Hemisphere. Nicole was laid off from her job and Kamara was unsatisfied with her life as a teacher in Tampa, Florida.

    “I made no money and felt that my life was just blah,” Kamara said. I wanted to combine teaching with traveling but wasn’t sure how.”

    She shared her frustrations with colleagues and was directed to a job fair that would yield a teaching job in Asia within two months. Her family showed happiness and excitement (and a touch of concealed worry), but they were fully supportive. Although her friends seemed happy, the idea seemed completely alien to them.

    While searching for work, Nicole spotted an ad recruiting ESL teachers. She quickly landed the job, packed her bags and headed for South Korea.

    The language barrier is usually front of mind when people scrutinize the decision to live abroad. However, a combination of study, immersion, and most nations’ knowledge of English has helped each of these expats make their way. Unlike Keith who studied Spanish in high school and in his post-graduate studies, Nicole did not speak Korean.

    “I know a little to get by, basic directions and commands. Nonetheless, for the most part most [Koreans] understand English to some degree. There is always the nifty body language as well,” she shared.

    Kamara spent time in Abu Dhabi, UAE and Beijing China. And while English is readily spoken in Abu Dhabi, she completely immersed herself into the language in Beijing, surrounding herself with native speakers and carrying a taxi book with phrases and directions.

    Rhonda Tankerson, a musician and freelance writer originally from Dallas, spent time in Paris and Osaka, Japan. She studied French in high school and minored in the language in college so her semester abroad offered a welcome opportunity to speak the language of a nation she became enamored with in sixth grade. While in Osaka, she worked as a performer at Universal Studios Japan, and by chance didn’t have to speak much Japanese at all.

    “I tried to learn as much as I could before going, then took the language courses offered by the company once there,” she explained.  “But living in a house full of Americans, Canadians and Australians, and working with young Japanese people who'd either studied in English-speaking countries or who'd learned English as part of their schooling in Japan made it too easy not to speak the language.”

    Damon Jones, a software expert in the hotel industry, relocated from a small town in Louisiana to the Middle East with his family when he was just nine years old. He was a quick study in Arabic and although English was spoken, he felt a greater level of acceptance when natives learned he could speak the language.

    Damon’s experience offers a bit of an inverse experience from Kamara, Keith and Nicole. While they traveled across the globe to teach English, he learned Arabic as a schoolboy and gained a genuine appreciation for an international education.

    “School as a child was great. We were able to attend great schools with well-paid teachers so we had access to any supplies needed to help students learn,” he shared.

    Though the experience of living outside of your home country is indeed exciting, many expats struggle—some longer than others—to find a sense of normalcy in their new lives once the adrenaline rush wears off.

    Rhonda explains, “In Paris, I had my friends, but it was an extremely lonely time for me. I spent hours at the internet café emailing friends and family back home. My two best friends from high school and I exchanged letters frequently, and I ran up our long distance bill calling my [family]. When not in school, I'd spend hours trying to get lost in the city, or browsing through all the bookstores and music stores. I devoured books [and] did a lot of songwriting, of course. My mom came to visit one weekend during our fall break and I cried so hard when she left to go back to Dallas.”

    For the ESL teachers, their programs provided for a support group within itself. They instantly connected with the other English speakers, as well as found networks online and offline to build relationships and develop social and professional contacts. For Damon, trips back home would serve as opportunities to fill up on familiar foods—and Coca Cola—and absorb as much popular culture as possible.

    “On vacations we would have three video recorders recording for 24 hours, and would take many tapes back to watch TV shows.  We even grew found of commercials,” he said. “We would watch our video tape of the Motown 25th Anniversary over and over.  This was the first time Michael Jackson did the Moon Walk.”

    Still, for this group of expats the experience offered far more fulfillment than challenges, and they believe that being yanked from their comfort zone has changed them for the better. Their lives abroad forced them to let go of preconceived notions about their host countries here are a few misconceptions they’d like to put to bed about the placed they’ve lived.

    •    Rhonda: French people aren't rude or any more or less so than your average American, but like all people, are complex. The Japanese aren't as passive as they are often portrayed.
    •    Nicole: I think the biggest thing would be the fear factor I feel the media portrays about Korea. Yes, we all know that they are officially still at war but it is amazing to see living here how most Koreans do not worry about North Korea.
    •    Kamara: The people [in Abu Dhabi] are beyond hospitable. They would give me the shirt off their backs. My car broke down; the guy I was dating gave me one of his. It’s hard to articulate, but everyone assumes Arabs and Muslims are trying to blow stuff up. Some, yes, but the people I met are friends for life.

    Living abroad is not for the close-minded, but if your cultural and intellectual curiosity trumps feelings of apprehension, these folks advise you to take the leap.

    As Damon so eloquently stated, “If you're scared, stay on the porch. Think of how much you can grow from the situation and think of all of the people who were able to leave to be recognized, Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson for example. Nowadays, in most places I think you’ll find that you will be treated better than at home.”

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