28/01/2016

The Fabulous Life of an Expat


You know that annoyingly amazing cosmopolitan life all of your friends suddenly start living when they move abroad? A few weeks in and their social media accounts are bursting with pictures of fancy drinks, interesting local people and exciting new surroundings. Everything in their new home country is so much better than at home that they have almost forgotten their native language already: it's like stepping out of the national border swipes them off their feet. All those hashtags like #expatlife and #wanderlust makes you see red. Who do they think they are? Do they think they are somehow better than the rest - the ones who have decided to stay?

... Or could it be that we all actually live in the illusion that moving abroad suddenly fills our lives with parties, sparkles and glamour? Our expat friends are likely to share a limited amount of information with us through social media, showing only the interesting parts - and thus leaving us to an illusion that their everyday life is nothing but adventures and exploration.

This is what I have personally done during the past few years. I share the stories that I think might interest my friends and family back in the good old Finland - no one needs to know if I forgot to do my dishes after work or ate poutine for lunch. I will come up with a concrete real life example by sharing a photo of me from the time I lived in Leicester, UK.

How it looks like:

This picture was published on my Facebook news feed. You can try to spot me! (hint: I'm the only one with a Finnish flag on my shirt) Looks fun, eh? All the "cool international people", many of which I miss very dearly. But on the other side of the coin....

How it really is:
This picture wasn't published anywhere. It's an unedited picture of me from the New Year's Eve in Québec a few weeks back: At midnight, I jumped into the closest pile of snow after drinking a bit too much Finlandia Vodka my mother had sent me. My cheeks are red from the cold (and intoxication...), I'm wearing my friend Sébastien's spare clothes and there is overall nothing exciting happening in here. But it is part of my expat life nevertheless.

Sometimes the 7-hour time difference makes it hard for me to keep in contact with my friends and family in Finland. Reading chat messages from them on Facebook is one of my favourite morning routines. However, many of these messages often start with phrases such as "I know you must be busy, but..." and "Do you have a moment to just briefly tell me how you're doing?" The assumed haste implied in such messages makes me reconsider my social media identity: is this how I appear to my friends now that I live abroad? Do I keep my loved ones on track of my everyday life, or have I fallen into the distant #expatlife category? Does anyone even know how it really is to live your life as an expat?

We are made to believe that a migrant's life is like an extended holiday: the party goes on and every day is yet another adventure. The idea of setting a remotely normal humdrum life in another country might seem too obscure to many, and making the distinction between migration and travelling falls into its own impossibility. By travelling, we subconsciously create a confrontation between our home country and "abroad": "abroad" is where fun, adventures and margaritas happen, and our good old homeland is for work, routine and settling down. It's a common misbelief to think that serious things cannot happen abroad, and often the expat's desire to leave his or her home country also gets misunderstood. The will to become an expatriate is seen as an attempt to escape the everyday reality and have that extended holiday.

As we see expats as escapists running from their routine life to an endless stream of parties and adventures, we also end up creating a skewed image of their reality in our minds. That is exactly when the aforementioned, apologetic Facebook messages happen: we want to know how our friends are doing, even if we are convinced they're busy having multicultural cheese 'n' wine soirées on a daily basis. We are afraid that their lives are too interesting to maintain a boringly normal friendship with someone from the old life. They must have better friends now, right?

A very touristic shot from Venice, Italy

The truth is something else. The truth is that an expat's life is just like any other life: we wake up to an alarm, we go to work, we eat a crappy lunch we patched up in the morning before running late to the bus stop. We come home from work in a crowded bus, sweat in our winter clothes, throw ourselves on the bed, exhausted from the day, and spend the rest of the evening watching New Girl. I might have just described my yesterday.

Living as an expat does not mean continuous visits to local tourist attractions, dinners in restaurants or strolling around with a camera hanging from our necks. On the contrary, it also isn't lonely, dark and meaningless wander from one day to another, without networks, comfortable routines or purpose. It is simply a life in another country. I hate waking up to my alarm at 6.15am, whether it happens in Finland or Canada. I'm happy to go and grab a beer with a friend after work, whether we will speak Finnish, English or French. There are good days and bad days. On some days I'm extremely busy running around from work to a bank to a grocery store to a pharmacy, and other days I lull in my bed until noon and won't even feel sorry.

The longer you stay, the less you care about attractions and activities in your new home country. As time goes by, you appreciate more your local grocery store finally stocking more of your favourite yoghurt, than squeezing yourself into an overly crowded museum downtown. Canada is my home, and I want to feel part of it - in good and bad. Despite some of the most amazing landscapes I have experienced in my life, I feel the most at home when I squeeze myself out of that rush hour bus and take a slow walk in the snow to our front porch, enjoying the silence. Canada is not my holiday, it is my routine.

As the cover picture of this post suggests, doing the dishes in a dirty kitchen is just as unappealing in England as it is in Finland. So every time I receive an apologetic message from a friend wondering if I'm too busy to answer, I sigh, look at the pile of dirty plates on my counter and think: "Yeah, she's right - I should be doing something else than procrastinating...."
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2 comments:

  1. Ui sullahan on tosi kiva blogi, jään seuraamaan! Mites se ranska taittuu tällä hetkellä? ;) Mä oon enemmän tai vähemmän aktiivisesti nyt vuoden itsenäisesti yrittänyt imeä sitä itseeni, mutta olemattomasta motivaatiosta johtuen mun kyvyt rajoittuu tällä hetkellä luetun ymmärtämiseen... Puheesta en saa kuin tuurilla jotain selvää.

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    1. Hei kiitos, tervetuloa seuraamaan! Mullakin vähän tökkii tuo motivaatio, ja ehkä siksi en tosiaan oo yhtään niin hyvä kuin ehkä voisin olla, jos olisin alusta asti yrittänyt aktiivisesti opetella kieltä. Nykyään kyllä ymmärrän lähes kaiken mitä mulle sanotaan, lukemisesta ja kirjoittamisesta puhumattakaan (sanakirja tosin tulee usein tarpeeseen), mutta puhuminen on kyllä edelleen ihan yhtä hirvittävää. :D Toisinaan käyn kavereiden kanssa keskusteluja niin, että ne puhuu mulle ranskaa, ja minä sitten vastailen englanniksi kun en muuhun kykene.... Mutta hei, ei anneta periksi! Pitää vaan toivoa, että kieli sitten loppujen lopuksi tarttuu, kun vaan tarpeeksi pitkään elää ranskankielisellä alueella ja edes vähän yrittää. :)

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