Being an expat isn’t all sunshine and croissants. It’s a lot of work.
Tasks and errands that were easy back home are suddenly hard, and those that were hard are now even harder. And this doesn’t just apply to the big things, like doing your taxes (my current nightmare). It applies equally to the small stuff, like making a dentist appointment, or having your super come over to take a look at your faulty radiators, or asking for meds at a pharmacy because you’ve got the sniffles.
And it’s often not just a language gap (although I dare you to pronounce a single prescription label in a German apotheke), it’s a culture gap. You often bring your home culture to even the most miniscule, rote social exchanges, and it takes time and effort to master the smallest pleasantries of another culture. My girlfriend and I often get a kick out of the singsong melody that supermarket cashiers here use when wishing you a nice rest of your day. It’s almost exactly the same cadence and rhythm every time, and you could just about play it on a flute. (Tschüssi! Schönen Abend noch! Ciao!)
Stumbling through those dozens, hundreds of tiny social exchanges we as humans share everyday is tiresome and draining. The awkward, mis-timed cues and gestures; the stuttering and mumbling as you search for that foreign word to express your feeling, need, or intention; the internal shame spiral as your brain finally grasps that word and sends it deep into the end zone with the clock running out, but your butter-fingered tongue fumbles the reception and the word comes crashing down in a mangled heap. Trust me, this stuff really takes it out of you and sometimes makes you want to just write off the day and go to bed early.
Even when you’re operating in the comfort of your own language, which native English speakers are pretty much afforded the chance to do here in urbane, progressive Berlin (I guess actually learning akkusativ, dativ and genetiv is for the olds), you’re often bridging other gaps as an expat. Will your pop culture references and sense of humor land well with the group you just met at the bar? What about the cultural touchpoints that underpin your style of communication in the workplace? And, for those brave enough to forge a romance that transcends languages and cultures, do you have the stamina and wherewithal to continue bridging these gaps, big and small, with your partner on a daily basis?
Navigating these questions takes bravery, and I write from the perspective of a straight white American guy in a cosmopolitan European city, working at a very internationally-oriented company, with a considerable degree of fluency in the local language. When I think of expats and immigrants for whom any of the preceding conditions differ, I can’t even imagine how much bigger these gaps must seem.
But I firmly believe that the juice is worth the squeeze.
Just like in yoga, which uses meditative breathing and physical stretches and poses to create space and build strength in the body, I believe the very experience of being a foreigner, when you approach it with openness and curiosity, is a sort of cultural yoga. Through constantly reaching and bending and stretching, you create space and build a resilient and flexible psyche. (The key is to just keep breathing.)
Do you know what I mean?
Maybe not, but maybe that’s the whole point: making peace with culturally-induced ambiguity, and maybe even taking pleasure in it.
In my expat experience so far, my workplace is the best example I’ve got to illustrate what I mean. The startup I work at here in Berlin counts around 400 people in its ranks; a considerable size, but not so big that you don’t know most names or recognize most faces at our proverbial water cooler (it dispenses sparkling water, because #Germany). What’s much harder to keep track of, though, is where everyone’s from: our workforce of 400 is drawn from 50 nationalities. Five - Zero. That’s a lot of hometowns and accents I guarantee you’ve never heard before.
At previous jobs, Friday drinks were usually an awkward, stilted half-hour of uncomfortably sipping half an IPA and making small talk with coworkers, while everyone engaged in a covert race to dream up (or make up) a reason to slip out and get on with the weekend. It was, pretty invariably, a let-down. But when Friday evening rolls around at my current gig, and we meet in the kitchen for our weekly unwinding, people actually stick around, and I’ve found that I do, too.
Sure, yes, because the beer is free and German.
But because the cultural exchange is as well.
The Yankees’ playoff hopes don’t tend to come up, but I never leave work hoping they would have. Fridays here are a United Nations summit conducted over pizza boxes, with various delegations comparing notes, holding forth and telling tales from back home, wherever home is.
(Even the pizza preferences themselves bear observation. You can rely on the Brits and Americans to move decisively toward the meats. Germans have an inexplicable soft spot for tunafish and onions. The Italians will usually pick at some Parma ham and rucola slices, looking rather resigned in their decision to have settled in this northern, Teutonic food wasteland.)
The extra energy you have to contribute as a foreigner pays off in another way, too: it’s proven to make you better at putting yourself in others’ shoes, and imagining outlandish experiences and points of view with fewer reference points (or perhaps none at all).
In a seminal study released in 2015, researchers from the University of Chicago showed that children who are raised in multilingual environments develop empathy earlier and more fully. As a proxy for emotional understanding, the study tested spatial reasoning: the kids who participated were asked to envision and manipulate objects hidden from their view, but visible to the researchers. Children who had been raised with exposure to multiple languages passed this reasoning test far more frequently than those who hadn’t.
And take note of this minor distinction: These results applied to all children who had grown up around multiple languages, not just those who spoke those languages fluently.
(Those kids also probably make more money. So, American parents back home, here's your takeaway: next time you’ve got the kids strapped in on the way to soccer practice, if you want to watch that sensible Honda Odyssey turn into a svelte, early-retirement Maserati before your very eyes, just fire up some Duolingo on the sound system. Or Muzzy the Bear. Does that still exist? I don’t know. My mom used to play us Yanni’s seminal Live at the Acropolis album on cassette tape, which I think came complimentary if you bought a green Eddie Bauer edition Ford Explorer between the years of 1992-1996…)
...Sorry, where were we? Right, benefits of expat-ness. The way I see it, there’s an ultimate benefit of all this uncertainty, a psychological participation trophy for still picking yourself up and dusting yourself off after years of awkward encounters at the bank or the supermarket or the post office. It’s a greater sense of yourself.
If society reflects your personality and essence back to you, then you’ll never see yourself so clearly as when you’re reflected in the surface of some foreign, unfamiliar pond. You’ll notice the ripples, the blemishes and what lies beneath the surface. You’ll learn how your reflection behaves when rocks are skipped off it, when strong winds warp and distort it for days at a time, and you’ll know that your essence remains the same beneath cultural turbulence.
So if you’re thinking about making a leap of faith and becoming an expat, don’t be afraid. The gap between your present state and your ideal future might seem daunting, perhaps insurmountable. It’s more of a headfirst dive than a leap of faith anyway, and the water’s cold and bracing at first. But when you rise to the surface and calm comes again, you’ll be rewarded with a clearer view of yourself than ever.