I recently finished the novel You Are One of Them by Elliot Holt. There’s a lot in the plot that will sound familiar to expats – travel, intercultural relationships, cross-cultural adjustment.
It also talks a lot about diplomats and expats. The book takes place between Washington DC and a largely expat community in Moscow. Here’s the sentiment that runs strong throughout the book – diplomats hide behind walls, diplomats and expats drink too much, diplomats and expats aren’t able to form relationships because, in anticipation of a departure, they never fully commit themselves to those around them. We’ve heard this all before. I’m not going to be the one to say this is never true, but for me, these aren’t the norm of the definition of what it’s like to be a member of a diplomatic or expatriate family – these are the exceptions.
When I look around my community here’s what I see…
Expats are people who connect to and bond with individuals from a very wide array of political and religious beliefs. We do this because we realize that these things have very little to do with friendship.
We’re individuals who can strike up conversations with anyone, anywhere and at anytime. We seem to inherently recognize the transience of the world around us so we take advantage of the little bits of time we have. We’re not all extroverted, but we do know how to start and maintain a conversation. In my experience, we’re also pretty good at seeing the value in even small moments.
When we experience something that takes us back to another time and place it connects us with friends across the globe. We send a quick message via Facebook or text or email that says, “I saw this and thought of you friend. I miss you.” Our brains are wired with a fascinating map of experience and those experiences don’t exist in a vacuum – they’re connected to our friends and family and they’re enriched by the experience of having shared them with someone who matters.
Expats give new meaning to the terms adaptability, flexibility, curiosity and acceptance. We live these values and they become the scaffolding that supports our constant movement.
And above all else, I see tremendous amounts of love and commitment and community.
So, why do the stereotypes persist? I don’t know. I’m not sure it matters why as much as it matters that, as a community, we know that we’re not glitzy people, sitting behind gold-plated walls, drinking champagne and backstabbing our neighbors. And perhaps in the end that reality is self-perpetuating – the more we live authentically, the more we represent the new diplomat or the new expat community, the more power we have to alter the stereotype. It will be from that place, I feel, that the depth of our experiences and complexity of our choices will reveal not the old image, but the new one. If I look around at my friends I think they’re doing a pretty good job of breaking the stereotypes and I can’t imagine a more wonderful group of people to love.