What Happens When You Live Abroad
The anxiousness that was once concentrated on how you’re going to make new friends, adjust, and master the nuances of the language has become the repeated question “What am I missing?”
Good post, good observations. As an ex-pat since around 2008 I’d like to add a few of my own.
Firstly, something weird happens to my “national identity” sense. I feel Polish of course, and that means I’m interested in what happens in Poland, I read Polish newspapers online, and I’m very much interested in Polish culture1, but I no longer use Polish on a daily basis2, I no longer feel that the political situation of my home country affects me in any way, and I really don’t see a situation in which I’d decide to move back to Poland. At the same time I hardly feel Norwegian, and I don’t really think I’d ever become one even if I lived here for 30 years. So I feel somewhat stateless.
Secondly, I think the whole “mastering a local language” thing is a myth. Yes, when all the signs suddenly become meaningless and you can’t say if what you’re looking at in the grocery store is actually butter or margarine, it’s an obstacle of sorts. Most foreigners I know here in Norway attended courses of Norwegian as a foreign language (at least to some degree), but of all of them only one speaks Norwegian fluently (and it’s a somewhat special case, because this person wanted to stay in Norway permanently since he got here). The rest is able to have a basic conversation about how the weather is bad and how beer is expensive, but that’s it. Interestingly, it seems the amount of work put into studying matters little. While it’s obvious that I can’t speak Norwegian (finished only level 1, with a strong D), all my other friends that finished all the possible levels of the course still don’t speak the language (even if they’re German). Same goes for Karolina – she completed all the levels of Dutch, but she still doesn’t speak it. We all use English because it’s so natural, convenient and easy. And there’s always someone around who doesn’t understand Norwegian at all, so what’s the point? That’s why I find the observation made by Thought Catalog so spot on: ex-pats gather in communities regardless of their origin. I hang out mostly with Norwegians, but at the same time with folks from India, Canada, Germany, The Netherlands, Slovakia, Ukraine, Russia, South Africa, Algeria and China3, and we all speak English fluently. Perhaps this is what happens in Scandinavia simply because the average level of English fluency is so high, and I guess this wouldn’t happen in France, Spain, Italy or Germany (or any Eastern European country for that matter). Then again I’d still expect ex-pats from many different countries hanging out together, regardless of their country of origin.
Finally, I wonder how different my experiences would be had I not stayed in academia. Academic environments are naturally diverse when it comes to nationalities, and unfortunately most contracts are short and tied to some grant money. This means most people won’t consider investing time and/or money in learning a new language. I’d expect this to look differently in the so-called industry.
- It is somehow sad, that whereas reading news, listening to the radio, buying CDs and books from Poland is fairly easy whilst abroad, watching new Polish movies is very hard. Foreign cinemas naturally seldom show them, and online services either don’t allow foreign IPs or don’t have new films. Since there is approximately 20 mln Poles abroad, I’d consider creating a paid online service a reasonable business idea. SV people, get it done (and cut me in for 30% if it works). ↩
- I skype/facetime with Karolina ~daily, that’s right, but given that she also uses much more English than Polish, our mother tongue is becoming a scary pidgin-like talk. Mind you, this is what happens after ~4 years of continuously living abroad in the age of Internet. It’s frightening to think what it was like two decades ago. ↩
- There is of course something special about the Chinese: they always stick together. But then again, I suspect it’s simply because English is so hard for them. ↩