All posts by Allison Poirot

ALLI POIROT is currently teaching IB History, Modern World History, and Psychology at Asociación Escuelas Lincoln in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She taught previously at King's Academy in Madaba, Jordan, and at public and charter schools in and around Boston, Massachusetts. She has a deep interest in progressive pedagogy and believes in fostering student autonomy and empowerment.

being ‘home’

so what is it like to move back to the States after 6 years of living and teaching abroad?

it’s basically wonderful. but that may be because i moved ‘back’ to the greatest city on Earth.

for me, this is the first time i’ve lived alone (no significant other, no roommates) in the US. it’s the first time i’ve lived in the US without debt (college loans paid off, no credit card debt). it’s the first time i bought new furniture that’s actually pretty nice, and that i intend to keep for the foreseeable future.

on the trickier side of things, it’s the first time i’ve lived in New York City; the first city i’ve moved to in the US alone; and my first time teaching in a private school in the US.

some things are lonely. compared to the international school bubble where work=play and colleagues are automatically the people you hang out with all the time, people here have their own lives, some in faraway neighborhoods across the river with backyards. they have things to do and people to go home to at the end of the day. (and so might you, eventually). it’s not as easy to make an instant friend just by speaking the same language; there’s none of that desperate and clingy sense of connection when you find someone from the same region of the US as you.

i could say that some people might feel a sort of lack of magic upon moving home. especially compared to living in Buenos Aires, a city of streetlit cobblestones and mournful accordions, life in the US can feel less poetic. the mail system actually functions; you can read your full rental contract; every sign and billboard is explicit and annoying instead of being a puzzling linguistic mystery. when you overhear strangers’ conversations, it’s no longer a secret thrill, now, it’s just mundane. your photos are less foreign and inspiring and people no longer spend thousands of dollars to come visit you with stars in their eyes. you no longer feel so impressive at the airport when you wait in line under ‘Residents’ at Immigration. and yet…

there is something so intensely satisfying at being back and immersed in my native culture (all the layers that apply): i feel refreshed, restored, relieved, reabsorbed; redeemed, almost. it’s so much *easier*. i know and trust the systems. i have some basis for understanding the interactions i encounter every day. i know what to expect, generally – at a bar or a grocery store or a doctor’s office. i have many fewer daily experiences of anxiety about misunderstanding. it’s fun, rather than frustrating, to unpack some cultural norm.

also: there are excellent public libraries! the subway has air conditioning! i can get amazing food from around the world or a decent $1.50 pizza slice!

and so, so happily, i am in New York, where i still encounter languages i don’t speak, people i find fascinating, and many, many layers of complex culture and history and possible ways to live.

my new job at an international school here began today, and students arrive in early September. i am so interested to meet them and to start working together.

deeper knowledge

I think too many teachers treat knowledge as a pool when actually, it’s an ocean.

They set themselves up as the be-all and end-all, the source of knowledge in the classroom, and expect and desire students to show them that they, the students have absorbed all the knowledge they, the teachers provide, and reflect it back. They see students as mirrors, as imitators, as people who will confirm their own self-image.

I don’t want my students to expect that I know everything they need to know.

I don’t want them to think I remember everything I’ve ever studied. I don’t want them to think I have all the insights.

Instead, I want them to understand that teaching isn’t about providing knowledge, it’s about providing guidance to knowledge, and self-confidence in navigating that knowledge, and energy and interest to pursue more knowledge.

I don’t want them to see me as a guru- I’d rather they see me as a guide.

Instead of them thinking that I’m going to teach them “all about” World War One, or European imperialism, or the Cold War, I want them to feel that there’s never enough time to learn all there is to know.

I want them to be baffled and awed by how much knowledge there is, and humbled by the little they ‘know’– but also excited, engaged, and proud that they have ways to think about and access it.

Instead of me showing them a pool and saying, “Here’s everything,” I want to show them an ocean, and hold their hand as they explore a little corner of it.

I’ll point out what I think is important or interesting, but also hear their questions about what lies beyond, or beneath.

I’ll accompany them as they fully explore a little inlet, but not block them from seeing or wanting to explore the areas beyond it, the vastness that surrounds.

I won’t lie to them and say “Oh yes, we know it all; this knowledge is set and done; you are now prepared for anything.”

I’d rather say, “We did this much, and it’s not a lot- but hopefully you have practicing in thinking, and interest in exploring, and some slight understanding of what more you can see next.”

when students don’t consider themselves thinkers

I almost walked out on my class the other day. They weren’t doing anything terrible, just talking over me and over each other a bit, and a few hadn’t done their homework, but several moments had just happened consecutively that together made me upset with the realization that they didn’t think of themselves as thinkers.

As it came to a head and I stopped class and made a little speech (what I generally call ‘public service announcements’, a moment outside of the normal run of class time when I address an issue of class behavior, make a correction to the emotional tenor, or identify something that I think may be an underlying misunderstanding), and I realized that I almost was crying, I remembered a time when I did walk out on my class, years ago when I was in my first year as a teacher.

The reason at that time was that my students weren’t listening to each other in their class presentations, and all the work I had thoughtfully prepared (the project design, the research support, the tips on note-taking, etc.) seemed to be all for nought, casually disregarded, or worse, not even considered as meaningful or worthy at all.

I did leave the room- first I think I spoke to them in a strong voice (not yelling), then I realized I was probably going to cry, so I walked stiff-armed out of the room and into the closest faculty bathroom, where I hung out for a while, standing in a stall, sniffing furiously and blowing my nose. When I returned to the class probably 5 minutes later the students were quietly working, a group presenting while others took notes. They were gentle with me for a while after that. It was sweet.

I read somewhere recently that people don’t actually cry out of sadness, but out of frustration, and this rings so true.

In planning to write this entry I had thought my experience over ten years ago was notably different. Not only in that then, I actually did cry and leave the room, but I also had thought that the incident years ago was for a different reason- that kids generally were just not working, or there was an actual behavioral issue, something more substantive. But now in writing this I realize that the reason I left the room in 2005 was the same reason I stopped my class this past Tuesday and actually considered walking out on them. Both times, I was frustrated that my students weren’t acting as, weren’t thinking themselves as, thinkers.

Partly it is selfish– and what I said to the kids this week reflects this– because what I’m reacting to is that my own work is being devalued. But ‘my own work’ is not just the setting up of countless educational scenarios, every minute of planning and preparation that I do for the 140 minutes a week I see each 10th grade class. My work is also the building of student identities, my influence in helping them form their minds. My teaching is not only about the Cold War or economic development or the effects of meditation. It’s about how to learn, and how to be curious, and how to get better at learning and communicating our learning. I want my kids to think of themselves as capable, and to act like it. That’s why I raised my voice at Felipe when he tried to read what he had written aloud for the class and couldn’t make any sense of the idea of it, then laughed and shrugged, not even trying. Not only were the kids not engaging with the material (that my other sections of the same class had rhapsodized about), they weren’t engaging with themselves. I told them I wanted them to take themselves more seriously, take what we were doing with each other in class more seriously, that I needed to see that more.

Now, a week later, I’m inclined to be forgiving, because I am aware of a lot of research that says that teenage brains really are less capable of quality decision-making and intentional focus, and because I know it’s OK to not always take yourself seriously, and we have many more days in the classroom together, and I have faith that they’ll get better and things will change. We have more days together, and they have more years in high school, and more years of developing as a learner after that. I hope at some point they realize that they are intellectual beings, that they enjoy learning, that they can use their minds to do amazing things. I think it may be the most important thing that I teach them.

sweet to be home

Five months ago, my mother died, and I broke off my engagement with my fiancé. About a month later, I decided to quit international teaching and move back to the US. At the time, my Head of School asked me, ‘Do you really want to do this? ’ He cited some famous psych study that lists the most stressful [not physically violent] things a person can experience, and puts ‘death of a family member’ at the top, followed closely by ‘change in relationship status’ and ‘move’. I said yes.

Yes, living abroad is an adventure. Yes, I feel incredibly privileged and thrilled that i’ve been able to have had this experience, in two countries and two regions of the world, over the past six years. Yes, it’s financially very lucrative compared with public or private school teaching at home in the States (um, my school pays my rent, for starters– eat that, Park Slope). Yes, I’ve seen wonders of the world (Jersualem! Cairo! Petra! Mountains and deserts in South America!) and made amazing friends and had incredible conversations, and learned much about myself and my own culture in the process.

But i haven’t been *home*. Yes, I’ve visited twice a year for six years, but those short tours no longer suffice.

I am tired of living a temporary existence. At age 38, as my father astutely observed, I am interested in finally ‘settling down’. I want to both build, and to deepen. I have 10- and 15-year old friendships in New England that I want to cultivate. I have interests in teaching and history and psychology and the arts that I want to explore. Instead of running away from the political mess that is the United States right now, I want to re-engage and see how I can play a small role in highlighting the positive, encouraging the youth, and doing annoying performance art in front of the White House as often as I can stand it.

I just don’t think it’s very viable to do all that while living overseas. Schools overseas too often overlook pedagogy in favor of pedigree (some schools in the US do this also). And expats overseas often seek short-term pleasures instead of long-term lives. We live outside our normal society, so we outfit ourselves with different morals. We aren’t fully a part of the place where we live, so we hold ourselves apart. This is what I want to get away from. I want to have roots.

I learned from my disabled mother that taking responsibility isn’t a bad thing, despite what the zeitgeist says. Even though I did sometimes resent the fact that I was her primary care-giver for the better part of ten years, over that time, I grew to accept it. I didn’t expect her to remember my friends’ names, but I still told her about them. I knew she wouldn’t stay awake for the new Muppet movie, but I took her anyway. I bought her clothes and scheduled her appointments and plucked her chin hairs and played Scrabble. It doesn’t matter if I thought some of it was boring. This is what life is.

I don’t need to always be seeking the highest mountain in South America or the most remote and secluded beach in Brazil. I want to also be content with the view of the trees at a local park and the taste of a toasted bagel with butter from a close-by cafe. My adventures will be eavesdropping on passers-by and chatting with taxi drivers about the weather, finding a lecture series at a nearby bookstore, going to hear live music in a bar the size of a closet, bringing a friend ingredients for soup and making it at her house, inventing new words with her 1-year old child. I can still enjoy new and fast and loud, but I resolve to also relish the small, and slow, and quiet, and sweet.

Confronting fascism in the classroom

What do we do when confronted with a student who says he admires the ideology of Mussolini? Or when a student asks, “Aren’t Jews generally more rich?”

These and other interactions have been happening in my classroom recently as I teach authoritarianism (first Mussolini, now Hitler, later, Stalin and Castro) in IB History. A few years ago, I think I would be much more alarmed by these kind of statements, but now, although I am still somewhat alarmed, I like to think I have more patience in responding. I take my role as an adult mentor seriously. The students need to know that expressing admiration for fascism and repeating anti-Semitic stereotypes might be condemned in many social situations. But they also need to know why.

I’m a history teacher. But I don’t care much about whether my students remember the exact date of Indian independence or the name of the terrorist who inadvertently started World War One. I do like it when they know these, and it is helpful to their understanding of context and their internalizing a timeline of events- but I believe that facts should be learned only in service to thinking about ideas. It’s much more important to me that my students understand the conditions of British imperialism in India (and imperialism elsewhere) and the Indians’ urge towards sovereignty than it is that they know the date (18 July 1947) India was declared independent. It’s more important that they ponder through the tangled web of events that began World War One, and consider how nationalism and rivalries played a role, then focus on memorizing the name of Gavrilo Princip. Therefore, I organize my history classes around concepts (imperialism, power) rather than content. After all, we can’t teach everything. A case study (British imperialism in India) can illuminate a concept when we study it in depth, and other case studies (French imperialism in West Africa, British imperialism in China, Belgian imperialism in the Congo) can add more breadth to a student’s understanding. Then we can circle back the concepts we began with.

So when a student asks a provocative question, I need to remember that they are a student. My IB History kids are 16 and 17 years old, and many of them are encountering this material in-depth for the first time. They haven’t previously read ‘What is Fascism’ by Benito Mussolini or ever actually seen a video of Hitler giving a speech. I want to hear their natural curiosities instead of shutting them down. They need to work through the attraction of Hitler’s nationalism to Germans of the time, and the appeal of Mussolini’s open-ended ideology. I don’t want my students to pay lip service to the ideals of democracy and republicanism and world peace; I’d rather they arrived to these ideals after thinking through, even briefly empathizing with, the alternatives. 15 years of experience teaching has helped me arrive at a working solution. I am explicit about explaining how such ideas may be received in social and academic contexts today. I also invite them to reflect more on their own thinking: “What do you admire about Mussolini? Why do think others might have admired him (or admire him today)? Why might others condemn him?” Last week I showed a news clip of neo-fascists in Italy. I wanted the students to see how neo-fascists present themselves and how others respond in the real world today. I encouraged my student asking about Jews to talk to her Jewish friends: “How do you think they might answer when you express that idea about Jews being rich? What would you say if you heard someone say all members of your religion are rich, or middle-class, or poor?”

If I want my students to take their ideas seriously, then I need to take them seriously too. If we don’t listen to our young people and give them space to work out (challenge) their ideas, they will be even more in danger of extreme ideologies- because immunity comes from knowledge, not ignorance.

Do we live here, or are we vacationing?

The reality of being an expat is that your family and friends back home usually assume you live some kind of art-film existence in which you travel constantly, never work, have poetic interactions in another language with strangers, and stay up late every night. The reality is that even while living abroad, we still have to buy groceries, do dishes, and take out the trash, as well as grade papers, plan lessons, and stay up late to make a work deadline the next day.

But this is not just the view of our loved ones back home. I think the idea of being “on vacation” permeates expat culture in our communities here, as well. We expect each other to always travel; our social connections come and go; we are constantly looking to our next move. Because we don’t feel like this is our true home, we never fully invest. And the consequences are that there is something lacking in this expat life; this expat culture. For example:

I value travel, but not when the result is 200 selfies and little self-reflection.

I value new friendships, but prefer those that can discuss the day-to-day as well as the occasional adventure.

I value cultural exploration, but not empty engagement. We should explore old classics as well as new restaurants; quieter neighborhoods as well as trendy ones; local news as well as international.

This practice of not-really-investing has consequences for the schools we teach in as well. Why would I want to improve my curriculum, if I know I’m just going to be moving on in a few years? Why would I seek to get to know my students? Why would I volunteer for faculty committees if I won’t be around to see the results?

One of my favorite aspects of being a schoolteacher is that I get to be part of an educational community. Call it geeky, but the fact that we convene 200+ students and 50+ teachers every day to learn and study is thrilling. And it’s even more exciting to me to see how it develops- to be part of a student club, now in its fourth year, as it becomes stronger and more active; to become a better team leader and orchestrate conversations between faculty where no connection before existed; to teach a student in her sophomore year and see her again in senior year with more wisdom and greater awareness of herself. We’re teachers partly because we like to see kids grow. I want to stick around to be a part of that.

I think there’s something to the notion, also, of letting a place affect us. So often we think of leaving our mark. What mark did your previous schools and placements leave on you? And what more could you learn (about the place; about yourself) by staying longer?

I often feel like travel nowadays is treated as buying a packaged adventure. Here’s your gorgeous breakfast, an unbelievable view, an insane boat trip. If you’re not doing something all the time, there’s something wrong; it’s inadequate. A night in is lame and you’re a failure. Maybe it’s because of Facebook and Instagram that we feel we always have to be exuberant and active and exciting. But we and our students also need to see the value in healthy everyday routines, slow conversation, long-term relationships, community-building, institutional development. We need to actually live here, not be on semi-permanent vacation, in order to be fulfilled and meaning-seeking adults.

Full disclosure: my viewpoint is very much affected by the fact that I fell in love with and will soon be marrying a local, and he has helped me access Argentina far beyond what I would have on my own. I’ve returned to cities instead of only going there once and then continuing to the next on my list. I’ve listened to his family members’ personal and and political histories. I’ve reconsidered how I want to learn the language.

I’m grateful for the opportunity he has provided me with deepening my connection to this place where I found myself– my for-now home– instead of moving on to the next in a few years’ time. I’ll never be a local, but at least I can be a more engaged immigrant.

activism abroad

1- A few days ago, I stopped to yell at some guys on the street. I had been running, and ahead of me on the sidewalk I saw a woman with long hair in a ponytail, a sports bra, and running tights. She jogged towards me and passed me, as I watched 3 local men whistle at her, make rude gestures, and shout things. Maybe because of the adrenalin, or cortisol, or because I was already hot and sweaty so prone to making questionable decisions, I decided to interrupt them. Stopping my run, I said to them in terrible Spanish, “Don’t do that; she doesn’t like it,” and despite their looks of confusion and claims of “No entendes” (‘You don’t understand’); I persisted in speaking to them in English, using gestures to make my point: “Does anyone look at you when you walk down the street? Is *your* body for others to talk about?” I said, disdainfully (hopefully) eyeing one of the men up and down. “It’s rude!” and I ran off. I don’t think it was very effective in convincing them catcalling is wrong and that they should stop; but maybe they’ll look around next time to see if a red-faced stranger is present before they do it.

2- I’ve attended 3 protests now at the US Embassy: one last year for the Women’s March (after the inauguration of Trump); one this January in protest of the Muslim Ban; one a few weeks ago in support of gun control and in response to the recent school shootings in the US. Each time, I’ve made signs, invited others, connected with other expats (American and non-) upon arriving at the protest, and marched, yelled, and discussed. They were small – the Women’s March in Buenos Aires was probably at the max 200 people; and the other two had less than 30 participants- but it maybe felt even more important to be seen making our voices heard (thank you, local media, & social media as well). Even Americans that live abroad have convictions about what’s happening our country, even though we don’t live there.

3- At school I am now the lead faculty sponsor of the GSA: Gay Straight Alliance, or, if you prefer, Gender/Sexuality Alliance. This year we’ve gotten much more active- partly spurred by a few key student leaders and partly just because we now have the numbers. During our Ally Week, we hosted a 50+ student ‘town hall’ discussion where students shared their views on gender rights. The GSA planned and presented a workshop at SPEAK, the school’s student-led conference, on the ‘myths and facts’ of gender & sexuality. We have a whole-school assembly planned for this Friday, co-created with the Feminist Club. And later next month, we’ll have our Day of Silence. This year, one of our faculty members came to share with us his personal stories of coming out, and one of our alumni stopped by to explain her experience being out and lesbian in Buenos Aires. We created and led a workshop for faculty about ‘Safe Space’ issues. The school nurses are now supporting our efforts and faculty give strong and consistent support. It’s been busy, but super stimulating, and the note that I received from a student about how much she appreciates my vocal and visible support hammered it home.

Can I do all these things because I’m American? Is my activism a privilege, or a duty, or a right? When is it appropriate to celebrate individual rights, and when is it crossing a line into cultural disrespect, misunderstanding, or impoliteness? Should I yell at cars that run stop lights (hell yes), even though it is extremely common and largely unpunished in BsAs? Should I challenge my Chinese students who believe democracy could never happen in China (maybe, but first ask them why they think so)? At what point do I hesitate and consider that I may be overstepping my place?

Some years ago, the intention I set for the school year was ‘Seek to understand’. At that point I had realized that my feisty righteousness, which in some settings was celebrated and admired, could also go too far. I finally was recognizing that I needed to be careful in making assumptions, especially about sensitive political or cultural issues. Some of my friends here are much better at this than I am– my friend from Tennessee, who asks questions to others about gun control before sharing his considered opinion, or my friend from Iowa, who is always careful not to succumb to the party line. Maybe the longer we live abroad, the less attached we are to our original political identities; the more self-reflective we are; the more self-defined. Being an foreigner is an opportunity to get closer to our values by removing ourselves from the context in which they were formed.

But as I hone in on the values I truly believe in, I realize how prone to propagation I am– I went on a rant about not shopping at Wal-Mart in my Psych class the other day- so I must needs also consider my effect. When I lived in Jordan, it was obvious to me how ignorant of its political/religious/historical context I was. Asking questions and pursuing knowledge was my priority. Here, it’s trickier: Buenos Aires feels much more like the US, and so I can sometimes slip into having expectations informed by my experiences back home. I judge Argentine cuisine (too much meat, needs more spices), its gender roles (hello machismo, anorexia, high heeled fashion). The separation between what is good for me and what is good for others is murkier. In Jordan, I didn’t presume to impose- but in Argentina, I feel more comfortable, and thus more able to critique.

In my history classes, we study social reformers; in psychology; we consider why we do the things we do. In activism, we share our values with the world, and assume that others should hear them. I still have convictions, but I am learning to listen too.

 

does living abroad accentuate or obliterate class? yes to both.

In recent years, I’ve found myself in a position that sometimes seems to transcend class and yet is so much an explicit embodiment of it.

In Jordan, I had the experience of being assumed to be rich. This makes sense, because how would you get to Jordan (and how would you choose to come) if you didn’t have the money to spend on the plane ticket at least? Also, I worked at a boarding school that enrolled royal princes from both Jordan and elsewhere. What was interesting to me was that the normal signifiers of class status that I was familiar with from the US- the size of houses, the type of clothing, the accent, the car, etc.-  were invisible here; the people I was meeting had no idea what my background was other than what I presented. They couldn’t see my house or my car or my parents or my neighborhood. They could make guesses based on my accent and my clothes, but they didn’t seem to need to- I was a foreigner (and an American) in Jordan, and that meant high class. Maybe this was due to the golden glow working at a prestigious boarding school founded by the king gave me, but I saw it more as just a function of being American. “Oh, you’re American,” they seemed to say, “you must have three cars and a house and a pool and six golden retrievers and three TVs.” (Actually, my dad’s life is somewhat like this, minus the golden retrievers….Hmmm.) I felt disingenuous sometimes, like when parents assumed I would be familiar with the names and reputations of all the colleges their son wanted to apply to, or when I was invited to swanky embassy events. I still have a hard time navigating my relationship to some of my ex-colleagues and ex-students from that school.

And what about now, now that I’m in Argentina? I still don’t understand the signifiers here. My colleagues and friends who are local can instantly do so– name an neighborhood, and they’ll tell you a connotation; describe an accent or a speech pattern (as if I could) and they can name a reference. Of course, we do the same at home. Here I, as a foreigner, can only accurately perceive the most obvious and blatant markers- someone asking for money in the subway versus someone whose parents are paying 40 grand a year to attend a private school. Besides noting who lives in a house in the suburbs and who lives in an apartment downtown, I don’t have much knowledge about class variances amongst Argentines. And what about the other way? How do people in Argentina perceive my class status? How does class work in an international context?

My thinking now is that although I take great pride in deciding to travel abroad, having come from parents who have never left the country (except to Canada) and a town where many stayed close by, I don’t think that my experience is really about class, but that it’s more about opportunity and education and interest. I am also not that interested anymore in how I am perceived by the locals- what they think of my self-cut hair, my foreign-looking outfit and the fact that I’m reading the New Yorker on the train to work. I know that the fact that I’m here is a sign of privilege. They know that too. We may think we’ve transcended signifiers of class: no one can see the house I grew up in, no one bullies me for wearing the wrong brand of sneakers, people don’t judge me for where I went to college. When I first meet an Argentine they don’t immediately ask where I live or what I do. But the very fact of our expat existence, and the fact that most of us can choose where to go next (back home, continuing abroad, or whatever) means that our class is one of privilege. Our access to local culture will always be through that lens.

 

 

 

aesthetics and ethics

One of my colleagues and I have been having a long-running conversation about ethics and aesthetics. Her assertion is that aesthetics = ethics– not necessarily that this is the way it should be, but that it is how most people operate:  people have strong aesthetic preferences and they express them as (and often believe them to be) their ethics. My rants about Uber and celebration of public transportation are an excellent example. My colleague’s reactions to others’ photography and the way they explain their work is another. But I think living abroad also affects our aesthetic/ethical experiences, then shapes our reasoning, then broadens (or narrows) both our aesthetic and ethical convictions.

I remember moving back in with my dad after years of living away at college. Again taking showers in the bathroom that had been mine in my four years at high school, I was struck (displeased, alienated, discomfited) by its aesthetics: the dull tan ceramic fittings of the sink and toilet; the K-mart (or equivalent) bathmat; and especially the mass-produced and flowery-scented pink bar of soap. It needled me so much to have shifted back to this pre-college aesthetic that when I first had the opportunity to go to the natural foods store and buy what I thought of as better (‘natural’, brandless, herb-smelling) soap, I immediately felt calmer and more in touch with myself. In hindsight I definitely judge my own snobbery, but I also understand it more since living abroad.

There are so many ways to experience disconnection when you live outside your home country. Most obviously, the language of passers-by on signs and in the street. A newfound geographic orientation and a need to be more aware of where you are so as not to get lost. A need to learn the local habits (restaurant opening times, places to buy vegetables, how to recharge your subway card) and access bureaucratic and logistical systems. But for me, the deeper disconnection is aesthetic. I visited a friend in Sweden in 2011 and was amused and sometimes flustered by the differences in fixtures on faucets, the presence of a sauna in every apartment building basement, and the cleanliness and orderliness of the trains. The baked goods used cardamom instead of cinnamon. The door keys were a different shape of metal. My summer in China in 2008 is still a blur of specific food smells and tastes (lots of soup; red bean buns for breakfast), silk fabric, humidity, and construction-zone dust. Jordan was the home of red dirt creeping in under the doorsill, meat dishes made with lamb and yogurt, and signs written in flowing curly and incomprehensible script. You could say experiencing these is just the adjustment to a new geographic and cultural location and the resulting need to accommodate, but I experienced it as a sometimes aggressive new reality that I needed to sometimes protect myself from or defend myself against. Because who am I if I switch to using lever 2000 or irish spring instead of my vermont-sourced, handmade, sandalwood-scented soap? How can I recognize myself if I start wearing sports-name-brand clothes, or using hairspray, or eating spam? Does my name written in arabic script still signify the same me?

Living abroad can seem like an onslaught against personal identity. Holding tight to aesthetic values is one way to reply to this. Of course, I am exercising my (expat, moneyed) privilege in holding onto these. My ability to shop and pay for the things I want in my home and my ability to choose my method of transportation exists because I am well-paid and can take the time to indulge myself. And in this, I understand my colleague’s assertion that aesthetics equals ethics– the preferences I have become almost sacred to me, because they represent the choices I am making about how to live.

 

 

The Everyday Challenge of Being an Expat

Being an expat, especially long-term—for years at a time, instead of months or weeks—requires a fortitude and resilience that I think people who don’t engage in this lifestyle sometimes don’t easily 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. This is partly to be able to name and own my personal 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 use to request vegetables at the produce stand? What I will tell the bus driver when I am asked my destination? 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 just a few weeks ago? True, 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, more than 75 percent of the time I do not understand what people around me are saying. I might miss or misunderstand the audio message on the subway saying that there’s a service interruption. I don’t understand the explanation of the store owner when I ask for a different size 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 waitstaff 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 U.S., 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 cafés in Buenos Aires, the waitstaff 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 friends. Socializing is a very much respected and assumed social norm. It would be rude for a restaurant, though it’s a business, to interrupt. So, to our norteamericano 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 consider it terrible that in the U.S. a server will often bring you the check just as you’re finishing. Even though he or she might say “Take your time, let me know when you’re ready,” to a foreigner, it could indicate that the restaurant wants you to leave. This is an illustration of how much our interpretation of a situation is reliant on our expectations and understanding.

There are so many possible social errors to be made. What message does it send if I give Christmas cookies to my encargado (apartment building maintenance man)? Why did my older neighbor (probably in his 60s) ask for my phone number? Really, how much should I be tipping in restaurants? Is it actually okay to ride my bike on the sidewalk? Could I really be the only one that is trying to recycle in my building? Should I be self-conscious about wearing athletic clothing in the supermarket?

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.

allison.poirot@lincoln.edu.ar