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.