Posts Tagged ‘expatriates’
I’ve been staying in an apartment with possibly the best view of the tallest building in Latin America — and now I’m on way back to the States. It’s been hard to pinpoint, the reverse culture shock I’ve experienced since moving to New York.
It’s weird to say that I’ve even moved to the States after four years away. Because though it’s been nice being back and seeing old friends, meeting new people and going to new places, I’ve also experienced a number of what I call culture aftershocks.
Like how orderly and predictable transportation is: the subway, the buses, even the car traffic to a great extent. And how sanitized and over-purified other things are: the water, the food, the environment. And how reserved and detached people are: almost tripping over themselves as they run through their disciplined daily routines. It takes an enormous amount of effort not to pull acquaintances in and kiss them on the cheek when I see them, instead of the awkward hovering we do when we run into each other. I already miss the feeling of pushing through a tangled crowd, eating a taco spilling chorizo that I bought from a street stand while fielding enthusiastic calls of “Morena!!” and dodging careening cars, buses and pedestrians as I revel in the messiness of my complicated home.
I would like to first issue a disclaimer that I am guilty of this habit. Being an expatriate is a strange, wonderful thing: living outside of your home is a constant challenge and a thrill. It forces you to step outside of your boundaries, to be confronted with hostile languages, to be the outsider, the different one, the foreigner. To sum it up, being an expat can be terrifyingly incredible.
So that may be why, when we perpetual expatriates find others like us abroad, we can’t help but regard them with a little suspicion and wariness. We slowly test them out, trying to figure out why there are also there, judging their reasons and excuses as if we somehow have more of a right to be there. The most popular question in this test is also the most annoying: “So how long will you be here?”
Too short and you’re just a backpacker, a traveler with no connection to the local community. Too long and we admire your commitment to your purpose in this foreign country but wonder what you are running from. The hook is that, even if we don’t realize it, for most of us it’s both.
Photo via Women of Kireka
“Do you want some skinny jeans?”
We didn’t even notice him walk up behind us, this young gangly guy who directed us to his stall where he was selling racks and racks of American branded jeans. We were at Toi market on a deeply hot, sunny day in Nairobi. Sweat crept down our backs as we wandered through the sprawling dusty maze of people hawking everything from hats and shoes to oranges and mangoes. In Kenya, the best clothes shopping can be found not at the expatriate-crowded malls or shopping centers, but at this large market that pushes into Kibera, Africa’s biggest slum. There Kenyans can find for a few dollars designer American and European brands that retail for hundreds more in the West. The market, and smaller ones like it, are vital daily hubs of activity: the constant hustle and creativity when it comes to the trade of secondhand clothing is a hallmark of urban life in Africa.
Two girlfriends and I were already saddled with plastic bags filled with sundresses and blouses we had bought at other vendors, but were amused enough by the skinny jeans line to look at his wares. Donated and used clothing is a touchy topic in Africa because many countries’ textile industries collapsed under the weight of secondhand clothing imports that were introduced in the 1970s and ’80s. Now, more than any other region, East Africa boasts a booming secondhand scene.
Philanthropists, like the very misguided Jason Sadler and his million t-shirts, still want to donate clothing to African countries. But if there are some truths in East Africa, one is that the dynamic efficiency and innovation of the secondhand clothing trade will never cease to continue.
There are the Africa regulars. Types of people that, without fail, I can always count on seeing when I am in Africa. I distinguish them easily now:
1) The grizzly beards, slightly wrinkled and too short khakis and polo shirts of the modern missionary. May have wife in frizzy outdated hairstyle and small toddlers in tow.
2) The dark, no-business suits of the businessmen and diplomats, who look uncomfortable when they have to leave their air-conditioned cars and stand outside in the midday heat.
3) The threadbare tank tops, rugged shorts, gigantic backpacks and dreads (oh the horror) of who else — the backpackers — who somehow always have to take their gigantic backpacks wherever they go.
4) The imported sunglasses, ready willingness to show you how tough he/she is at bargaining and easy swagger of the young expat (not to be confused with number three) who works at a NGO, the UN, a safari company or is a journalist of some type. They live here, so please don’t mistake them for being just travelers.
5) The perfect manicures/pedicures and pastel-colored clothes of the expat wives who look like their sole titles should be “ladies who lunch.”
6) The bloodshot eyes from too many days of too much decadence and the voracious, insatiable alcohol appetite of hardened longtime Africa residents.
The ones I can never tell: the foreigners of African, Asian and Indian descent, like me, who are camouflaged by their surroundings. Still different, but not mzungus (white expats), we’re a little hard to find.
“Look at these mzungus,” my taxi driver said one day as we drove by a curio market on the roadside. I smiled.
“How do you say “mzungus” in English?” he asked.
“Mmm, white people,” I said.
“Yes, white people,” he confirmed.
But technically the term “mzungu” means “foreigner” in Swahili and since I’m technically a foreigner, I wanted to get his opinion.
“But am I a mzungu?” I asked him.
No, no!” he responded.
“You and me, we look the same, no one would be able to tell the difference,” he said.
Photo via JCS Cycles
We were at the bar at a Japanese restaurant in Nairobi, half-listening to the live Kenyan band, pausing between shots of vodka and glasses of wine, when my friend D asked me how long I had lived in Mexico City. Almost two years, I responded. Wow, he said, clearly surprised. “So Mexico is your first home.”
“My first home?”
“The first place you lived as an adult.”
“No, that would be Kampala,” I said.
“How long were you there?”
“And when you were there you worked, made money, paid bills, had sex, made friends, had an apartment, did all those things?
“OK, yes, that was your first home,” he said, satisfied.
Photo via Ugandan Insomniac
Mexico City, Lagos and Johannesburg spring to mind immediately as three cities that have fearsome reputations: high crime, chaotic infrastructure, overpopulation and general lawlessness. In reality, they are so much more: full of culture and art, creativity and brilliant ideas and anchored by a concrete history.
Highly praised Nigerian writer Chris Abani has a fascinating essay on the many things the capitals of the world, from Los Angeles to Istanbul, have in common for their traveling inhabitants — and how those commonalities unite us all.
A year ago, I wrote my first post on Exodus, about adjusting both to life as a foreigner in Mexico and to the fact that Barack Obama was elected president.
As I now prepare to leave Mexico in the coming months and explore more parts of the world, I look forward to sharing the last of my Mexico stories and to another year running Exodus. I am also working on my first book. Check out the new page “the book” for more information on that project …