being an expat, especially long-term- years at a time instead of months or weeks- requires a fortitude and resilience i think people who don’t live this lifestyle sometimes don’t recognize. obviously most people understand living abroad means you are not always comfortable, and everyone acknowledges the ‘language barrier’ as well as cultural difficulties that you might encounter, but i want to provide further definition of these, partly to be able to name and own my own experience, and partly to answer the charge of “oh, it must be so wonderful; you’re living such an adventure”. yes, it is an adventure, which means it is indeed wonderful and exciting, but it’s also tough and isolating. my daily life is sometimes more of the latter, due to the simple reality of living in a foreign country.
any act that requires exiting my apartment requires preparation and intention: what phrase i will say to request vegetables at the produce stand, what i will say if someone asks me to pay for the train, what i will say if i run into one of my neighbors in my building; especially the one that helped me call the landlord when i locked myself out of my flat in only my bathrobe a month or so ago. yes, these are not difficult phrases (well, the last one, maybe a little awkward), and by now i don’t really have to so explicitly prepare or practice them. but the lack of ease and the inability to rely on instinct is real and can often be tiring. when i walk around my neighborhood or anywhere in the city, probably more than 80% of the time i do not understand what people around me are saying- on the subway, on the street, etc. i might miss or misunderstand the audio message on the subway saying that there’s a service interruption; i generally don’t know if people around me are talking about me (no, they’re not; i’m not xenophobic); i don’t understand the explanation of the store owner when i ask for a different size of a dress. whenever i go to a restaurant or a store, the polite exchange of requests or orders is not instinctual. there are too many dialogue scripts and too often both the wait staff and i go off of them. this isn’t ‘stressful’ per se, but it is certainly not easy. every interaction requires energy and thoughtfulness. this is why going ‘home’ to the US, even for just a few weeks, is such a relief.
even when the dialogue works (which, generally, of course it does- people are usually patient and helpful, and i can be clever with my limited vocabulary), there are the dozens of other signifiers, verbal and nonverbal, that i might misperceive or miss completely. body language, word choice, timing- what seems fine and natural to me may be rude to them, or vice versa. timing especially can be a good example of this. in restaurants and cafes in Buenos Aires, the wait staff does not bring you the check until you ask for it. it is customary to hang out for great lengths of time over your meal (or drink, or whatever) and talk with your friend or friends. socializing is a very much respected and assumed social norm. it would be rude for a restaurant, even if it’s a business, to interrupt. so, to our American sensibilities, it may be annoying to have to flag down a waiter, but to an Argentine, it’s just how it’s done. an Argentine might very well consider it terrible that in the US a waiter or waitress will often bring you the check just as you’re finishing. even though they might say “take your time, let me know when you’re ready,” to a foreigner it may seem to mean that the restaurant wants you to leave. i don’t mean to sound like i’m living in a social utopia– society before business, chit chat before income– because Argentines do have recognition that other people might be waiting for a table or the waitstaff needs to change shift, and there can be rude waitstaff, and sometimes you should really leave in a timely fashion. still, it’s a good illustration of how much our interpretation of a situation is reliant on our expectations and understanding. …social psych in a nutshell.
there are so many social errors to be made- what message does it send if i give christmas cookies to my incargado (apartment building maintenance man)? what does it suggest if i invite an Argentine to my house after we’ve just been on two or three dates together? why did my friendly older neighbor (probably in his 60s) who i often meet when he’s walking his dog ask for my phone number? really, how much should i be tipping in restaurants? is it really ok to ride my bike on the sidewalk to avoid the cobblestoned road? am i the only one that is actually trying to recycle in my building? should i really not wear those super-short shorts out in public when i’m grocery shopping?
this is in part why travel is so great- it can foster serious self-reflection, and encourage us to admit to our own cultural biases and previously unacknowledged assumptions. don’t get me wrong, i’m not a cultural relativist- i still hold convictions about good food and polite behavior and respect and dialogue. having multiple lenses to look through, instead, helps bring my own thinking into focus.