Separate in Another World

I recently had a discussion with a writer friend of mine about being separate. I told him that I grew up in a political family, which meant we moved a lot. And I mean we moved a lot; I went to eight grade schools in eight years. I was always the new kid, always arriving late in the school year. It gives one a certain perspective on life, I think. It certainly did me.

So I have always felt separate.

This conversation led me to think about separateness and the effects that emigrating to another country has on a person. Several months ago an editor asked me to write an article about what every ex-pat should know before moving to another country. I’m sure what she had in mind was a cheerful essay on how inconvenient it is to encounter things like siesta hour in the middle of the afternoon when your plans include shopping during those hours. I wasn’t very interested in the topic– I still haven’t written it– but I have begun to think about it.

What should every ex-pat remember?

The elementary answer is: It’s not your country, and the reason people, more often than not, forget this simple fact is buried in their cultural past.

At home we understand the circuitous routes we have to take in order to get things done. When we go to the DMV, for example, we might hate it, but we also understand the rules of the game and how to maneuver ourselves through the system. We understand our country’s laws and what is acceptable in our culture. We blend in and find our way through life without really thinking about how we do it.

Anyone who moves to a foreign country loses this ability to cope in an environment they are accustomed to. This is true no matter what level of sophistication the immigrant has. Most neophyte ex-pats enter a phase in which they are totally enchanted with everything about the place they have chosen to call home. Even the inconveniences are quaint. Call this: The Novelty Period.

It is in this phase that people write home and tell of the many wonderful things they are doing: the festivals and markets they have frequented, the funny episodes of waiting in line for a cell phone all day, and the charming neighbors they have encountered in their unconventional and enviable new lifestyle.

This phase could last for years or be very short depending on the individual and the place they have chosen to live.

At some point, though, the ex-pat will be startled out of the Novelty Phase to discover that some of those quaint customs they enjoyed at first are actually created to take advantage of them, and then anger almost always replaces infatuation. Enter the: That’s Not The Way We Do It At Home phase.

Our English speaking newspaper here in Costa Rica, The Tico Times, is filled to overflowing with these bitchy letters, all telling Costa Ricans how to run their country. The authors of these instructional diatribes are insufferable, and I always find myself thinking, but it’s not your country! And, If you wanted it like it was at home, why did you move here in the first place?

This is also the period when many ex-pats begin hanging out with each other in order to gain strength in numbers as if to say, “We are separate but equal. We belong to a group within your culture.” I have never understood this. If I wanted to remain with my own ilk I could have moved too, oh, maybe Miami, or Hawaii, or las Vegas.

If the ex-pat is lucky he eventually discovers that the system is workable, that some of it is good and some of it is bad– just like “home.” Only then, I would say, does a person begin to feel a semblence of assimilation in their new home.

I know I will never feel completely Costa Rican. On the other hand, I never felt fully assimilated in my own culture, so for me it is okay.

My mother tells the story of meeting a Mexican man, living in her hometown in Oregon. She asked him how he dealt with being an immigrant. “I dissemble,” he said.

It is how many of us survive in other cultures, and some of us in our own.

  2 comments for “Separate in Another World

  1. sarah m
    05/08/2007 at 7:49 pm

    Yeah, but the editor was looking for 3000 words plus and the pay was pitiful. Better thatit appear here.

  2. Ruth D~
    05/08/2007 at 4:05 pm

    Interesting! I think you may have written your essay!

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