Friday, 19 November 2010

Expat Life -Examples of What to Negotiate When Living Abroad

Expat issues have become a bit of a free for all lately. We're all expats now -people who own an indebted building site in Spain, people with a relative in Australia that they sometimes stay with get the drift. But being an expatriate is not just about fuelling a cottage industry of "relocation advisers", intercultural specialists" and "localization experts". Living in a foreign country, whether by choice or forced to by circumstance is first and foremost a huge upheaval - actual and psychological. It is a cultural adventure - you need to be both flexible and grounded. And not everybody will be able to handle it.

Speaking personally , almost my first memory is of living abroad (in Holland) but at the same time being conscious of the fact that this wasn't "home". I was small enough to adapt quickly, make friends and pick up the language. Which brings me to my first focus point.

- Without wanting to get into a philospohical discussion how language constitutes being and personality (which it undoubtedly does) being able to talk the language of one's adopted country is the most important element of settling in. Especially in the beginning when things have to be sorted, not being able to communicate is a nightmare. Command of the language takes away the feeling of being regarded as an outsider. To me that is the most important safeguard against cultural alienation

Local culture
- I am often amazed when I hear of British people moving to countries which will feel utterly alien to them. At the height of the property speculation boom lots of people moved to countries like Bulgaria or Hungary to make the most of low property prices. I would dearly love to have a progress update of what happened to those enterprising souls! Take Hungary, of which (being part Hungarian) I am half-way competent to talk about. A) The language is extremely difficult to master. B) Notions of Hungarian history, ethnic complexities, political alliances and violent national dislikes feed into daily life and virtual any aspect of its society. I would think it extremely unlikely that (apart from specialists) any British subject would have the background, cultural empathy and ability to adapt easily to such a cauldron of cultural complexity.

And Hungary is just one example; I would imagine countries like say Turkey, Portugal, or even southern Italy to be equally challenging to the newcomer (and these are all still in the Western hemisphere)

The weather
- trivial as it may sound, the weather in your new country can be a huge hurdle in the adaptation process. Heat, cold (associated darkness) or extreme hunidity are physically challenging and can literally make life difficult for the prospective expat. Again, speaking personally, I found living in Scotland challengingfor that reason. It actually turned out to be a deal-breaker as I was not prepared to change my life totally and settle into a permanent winter existence.

Fashion - That's not just an ephemeral phenomenon, it's a cultural signifier, and a very tricky one at that. Two examples: 1. I remember wearing a flowery summer dress in Rome, and feeling totally self-conscious - everybody else was wearing sharply-tailored clothes. 2. My husband spent some time working in an an advertising agency in New York, and found the dress code totally at odds with European practice (Americans not favouring the creative look.) Again, awareness here is key. British fashion, for example, is fairly out of kilter with European main stream dressing; lots of British people in France, say, are simply not aware of the fact that the way they dress is a major obstacle to being taken seriously there.

- Even the most a-political person will get sucked into some of their new country's issues. The way women are treated and expected to act (especially in southern or Islamic countries), tolerance towards foreigners (whether you thought of yourself as belonging to that group or not: Now you've become one!), levels of poverty and the country's attitude towards it ... these are all issues far-removed from party-politics, yet you will have to deal with them afresh in a new country.

Those are just a few of the challenges expats encounter on a day-to-day basis. I would love to hear what were/are your major issues as an expat and what you personally found challenging.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Dialects and Tribalism -Time for a Re-Think?

Let me put my cards on the table: I dislike dialects. They are ugly, incomprehensible, and yokellish. In the past year, I've lived in two areas of two different countries which both specialise in local lingos that are pretty incomprehensible to outsiders (and in my view both slightly unattractive) - Scotland and Bavaria. Actually, that very incomprehensibility is much more of a problem to the natives themselves than to an outsider. They are victims of their own presumed exclusivity. Imagine a Bavarian teacher applying for a job in Hamburg - and the unnecessary misery they'd be creating for themselves.

Obviously I am aware of the decade-long discussion about the beauty, fairness and real-ness of local dialects, as opposed to the soullessness, dirigism, and enforced standardization lurking behind a universally comprehensible language. But there is nothing liberating or particularly individualistic in speaking a heavily accented language not shared by other people. It is a sure-fire way to marginalise yourself. Not because of any class-stigma attached, simply because other speakers find it a) difficult to comprehend b) possibly ugly c)possibly culturally offensive.

In Germany, this is merely cause for good-natured, if tedious banter; in Britain however, where tribalism and a dangerous "pride" in one's (arbitrary)
locale is so often a cause for aggression and prejudice this is a different and dangerous matter. Especially in the UK I would therefore be totally in favour of a re-introduction of a standardized language. This need not be one associated with dominatory forcces like public schools. When Italy first established itself as a unified state, Florentine dialect was consensually adopted as the nation's language. Something similar could be done in Britain. What I certainly consider a totally wrong move is the encouraging of dialectical aberrations by state institutions, such as conducting lessons in Scottish dialect ( not: Gaelic).

Dialects have ceased to be comedy material. In an increasingly tribal society (which in itself is a worrying development) they are a potential - and unnecessary -powder keg.