I love this. I love the premise of this book and I love this post–and I love the play on words: Apple Gidley writes an entertaining, humorous, informative, page turning book called Expat Life, Slice by Slice. Awesome! And I love adding another clever expat to my Expat Life category, introducing her to my readers. Oh and I love that Apple had a book launch in The Hague–how amazing would that be? By the way, you don’t have to be an expat to enjoy this. You’re human (alien human or not)? Then you’ll love it. Over to Apple…
“Your resident alien card, ma’am,” the immigration official said handing me permission to stay in America. After checking I hadn’t grown green pointy ears, I wasn’t sure whether to be amused or incensed.
As expatriates we often feel adrift, alien, in a country not our own but are rarely labelled as such. The feeling of not quite fitting in goes hand in hand with learning another country’s road rules, finding homes and schools, unpacking boxes, and not having a friend to call. After a few months we realise we now understand the system, both vehicular and monetary; the kids are settled and happy, and we have found a pal with whom to share coffee or wine at a not always politically correct hour.
I was in the Netherlands recently for my European book launch and while Den Haag was never home Emmen, in the east of the country, was for almost five years. My ear rapidly became retuned to the language and goedemorgen and alstublief tripped off my tongue with ease after an absence of almost thirty years. I remembered to check for flying Dutchman on bicycles before I stepped off a kerb and felt instantly comfortable, though being the only one shivering coatless in a sudden downpour, recognisably different.
Similar feelings bubble up in other countries in which I have lived and yet in the country of my birth, England, I invariably feel alien. I thought it was because childhood memories were more vivid from Africa and Asia than from a few cold months spent in rural England, often years apart. However having conducted straw polls among expatriate friends who did spend their formative years in their passport country, I find I am not alone.
Alienation comes in many forms. It doesn’t seem to matter if we call India or Ireland home. When we return from a few years away we feel detached, not completely in sync with those around us. We go ‘home’ full of expectations of a summer spent catching up with old friends, or lazy days with our parents. Instead little irritants rise to the surface when things are not as efficient as expected or remembered, though perhaps our memories have taken on a rosier glow with absence. We find a kind ourselves in a kind of suspended animation, not quite fitting in where once we were comfortable and longing to return to that borrowed country, where we really are alien.
To compound matters, upon returning to our host home wherever it is in the world we go through agonies of self-recrimination. “I should have been more patient with Dad”, “I wish I’d spent more time with my sister”, and so on nag at us until we exhaust both our spouses and ourselves. The perceived notion within the family at home that we leave family issues behind as we lift off from the tarmac on our flight to Expatland is silly. Those issues follow us wherever we are, with added logistical difficulties of getting ‘home’ in an emergency.
What we, and our family at home, have to remember is that we don’t have family in our host country to fall back on when things go awry, whether it is a sick child, an unfaithful spouse or just a bad day. Which is why friends in the same position, often newly met, become the bedrock of our time in Expatland. They understand the guilt of being away as much as they understand the pleasure and privilege of being a global nomad. Those friends are not there however when we go ‘home’ whether for a holiday or to repatriate and so the expatriate’s alienation is twofold. There is no getting around it and feeling different slowly becomes the norm and we learn to smile and realise blending in really doesn’t matter.
I thanked the immigration official and accepted I would remain an alien whether at home or abroad.
Apple Gidley, a freelance writer and author of Expat Life Slice by Slice, is a seasoned expatriate having started her nomadic life at a month old in Nigeria. She has relocated 26 times and has called 12 countries home and currently lived in Houston, Texas.