Taking the “X” Out of Expat
If you ask me, there’s nothing “X” about becoming an expat. I didn’t divorce my country. I’m not a former American patriot. I’m a dog and cat owner, an American writer mom who joined her husband and family to grow, try a new way of living, to take risks, and share our American experience in Switzerland. But that’s not the end of it. As expats, we made the decision to open, to risk, to lean out and learn from other ways of life, from other cultures.
Now that I live in Switzerland, and my kids attend an international school, I’m no longer exposed merely to my neighborhood, my village, my government, my sport, my way of life. Now countless types of people, who enjoy multiple forms of sports, entertainment, philosophies, opinions, eating habits and traditions, are all available for me to learn from on a daily basis. How did you get here? I ask. Where did you come from? How do you like this way of life? What do you miss?
Whether a person is Swiss or foreign — she or he has an opinion, a childhood, a career, and possibly raised a family in a way I’ve not yet known; she’s come from a village in India, a city in Italy, a home in South Africa, a flat in Munich, or an apartment in Lebanon. Every day I have the possibility to speak with another mom or dad or child or adult with a wealth of experiences, who has risen in the morning, living in a way that I have not. A mom might have survived war, experienced loss of freedom, poor schooling, while another might have had a luxurious lifestyle with a staff that I could never picture, especially not in Switzerland.
Each person I meet, whether the grocery store clerk, the mom at school, the refugee at the shelter or the guy delivering my mail has a story — he or she becomes a bead in my expat life, strung onto a long strand that connects us. Though I know my goofy humor and choice of workout clothing worn all day might baffle my international acquaintances at times; and my need to ask a thousand questions probably marks me immediately as an American— we moms from different nations have a lot in common too. Most of us like to chat before pickup, go for a walk, drink tea or coffee.
Almost all moms I meet, no matter where they’re from, wonder about their identity, worry about their kids, about school, about getting older. Every expat I find might feel displaced; but when we talk, a sense of place rises with our stories, with a similar sense of loss, growth and purpose —we are transforming each other, building something beautiful with our differences and similarities.
And while I have that expat or that Swiss person in my life, for a half an hour or five years — I’m pretty confident that we exist as exactly the opposite of “X.” We exchange words, try a new food, take risks riding on brakeless toboggans, skiing down terrifying Swiss faces, clicking up trails with our walking sticks, swimming in a glacial lake beside the swans. We open up, as opposed to crossing out. We dare to disagree. We tell one another what we don’t want to do, don’t want to be, don’t like. We see new ways of dressing, expressing, arguing, living and loving.
In the end, our expat strand, if we open it, becomes something like an nation. It evolves into a place not delineated by a wall, a line on a map or an ocean. It creates a connection in the continuum of our lives, bound together, open to adding more people and languages and places. It facilitates new ways to collaborate, new opportunities for peace.
Our expat status can take us well beyond ourselves, marrying us into real lives of foreigners, into love shared with “the other,” into great divides finally united.
I’d say that’s the exact opposite of “X.”
Article by Amy Aves Challenger.
Amy Aves Challenger is an American expat and writer of essays, poetry, and and a novel forthcoming. She leads creative writing workshops in Zurich. Visit Amy’s website here.
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