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.