Out with the Old – Rewriting the Expat Stereotype

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.

Expat Life with a Double Buggy


6 thoughts on “Out with the Old – Rewriting the Expat Stereotype”

  1. The issue I have with the stereotypical view of what an expat is is that it is 1) outdated 2) failing to see that there are many types of different expat.

    The very nature of expat assignments has changed and so have the expat packages that lead to the stereotype people have when they hear the word ‘expat’. Things have changed.

    I’m an expat but I’m as integrated into Dutch society as I can be – my life is lead in Dutch so I cannot identify with other expat ways of life (i.e. 3 or 4 years in a country and then moving on). It’s a great topic and one I’ve written on previously – and there is much discussion at the moment about the term ‘expat’ and what we should all actually call ourselves……. 🙂

    Thanks for linking up #ExpatLifeLinky

    • Totally agree! I read an article recently that was talking about how the term expat is outdated and we should refer to ourselves as “immigrants,” but I don’t really consider myself an immigrant to the countries in which we live because I’m never there very long and never have the intention to stay – our assignments are 4 years max. And yet, I find there is certainly a “culture” to this lifestyle of moving from place to place. There is undoubtedly something that binds us. Of course, I tend to fall into the category of people that believe we’re much more connected than we often care to believe, simply by the nature of being human.

  2. I laughed at “glitzy” because I was just thinking about how people seem to think that if you travel or move to another country that you are rich or something. We have bills and try to live modestly-ish, but still we want to explore the world! With everything you have to find balance.

    I like connecting with other expats because they get me. They get *it*. There is such a disconnect between the “old” life and the new one that people don’t understand that each day can be a bit of a struggle, but it’s all in the experience and that we wouldn’t change that. It makes me emotional with I feel like someone might actually understand the stress, nervousness, anxiety, wonder, joy, and feeling of possibilities. We are a certain kind of people and I loved reading your post!

    • Jessica, Yes, yes, yes! Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. I agree whole-heartedly. When my middle son was sick and we had to quickly return to Texas for 6 months, in many ways it was nice to be home, but at the same time I felt the divide of my old and new life at every turn. In the end, it made me even more thankful for the handful of “old life” friends who truly seem to understand all the ways in which our life is so different now…and all the ways in which it is still, at the heart of it, just life.

  3. I think sometimes the stereotypes fit and sometimes they don’t. In some countries I am an immigrant (definitely when I am in the UK and in the Netherlands) as I integrate into local life and language seamlessly. In others I am an expat and the experience is definitely different.

    I have been in the midst of corporate expat life and have many good friends who are diplomats. We are now living the academic expat life, we have less institutional support than the corporates and dips get and have to be much more self reliant.

    I don’t fit any of the stereotypes, many of my friends around the world break the mould but I do know many people who are the stereotypes personified…..

    • It is true that there are people out there who fit the stereotype. I guess that’s why stereotypes exist – they come from somewhere. I do think it’s interesting how your expat status affects both how you are perceived and how you live your life. I’ve spent time abroad in 5 different capacities – as a study abroad student, a graduate research student/intern, a young professional, a backpacker and now as part of the diplomatic community. Each experience has come with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. I love how each experience builds upon the next. When my son had to be emergency evacuated from Madagascar for health reasons I kept thinking how lucky we were to be part of the diplomatic community…and kept thinking back to the time when, as a study abroad student, I was in a serious accident and spent 10 days in the hospital. My friends had to collect all their change to use the pay phone to call my parents (ugh! I think my mom is still recovering from that phone call :).) We are so much more than one experience, one phase or one person – there’s so much complexity in the many different lives we lead – wherever we are. Thank you for sharing and for your thoughtful comment 🙂

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