I used to dream of writing a novel called Halfway to India. I envisioned the book as a stylized version of the life I was leading at the time – a life married to a quintessentially American guy who had lived in the US for decades, but whose ties to his country of birth remained very strong. The “halfway” part alluded to my frustration that I could never work out the opportunity to actually go to the place that exerted such a powerful, pervasive influence on my everyday life. It was definitely a case of so close and yet so far.
Today, the tables are turned. I am not in India, though I eventually did visit.
Instead, I am very happily in Colombia, the home turf of another culture that I love. But in many ways I am still only “halfway here”, in this country that I have made my home by choice. This is the blessing and the curse of the modern day expat: the ability to live with one foot in your country of birth and the other in your country of residence.
This divided – or integrated, depending on how you look at it – life that my husband and I lead is definitely a product of our technology-driven lives. The high-speed internet available in Barranquilla gives us access to just about every form of work and entertainment that we had in the US. We pay Skype $7.99 per month for phone numbers with Miami-based area codes that allow our clients, friends, and families in the US to call us, at home or on our cells, just like before. Our three year-old son routinely “Facetimes” with his grandmother. Meanwhile, I listen to NPR and its South Florida affiliate, WLRN, every morning just as I did in Miami. Thanks to the combination of fast internet and Netflix or Amazon (depending on the night), my husband and I are tuned to the same TV shows that our friends in the US are enjoying. Of course, all that streaming is really not necessary anyway since DirecTV provides plenty of US and English-language programming.
Media- and communication-wise, it’s almost as if we never left. While that certainly makes the transition easier, it also raises some questions. If we didn’t have DirecTV and stream-anything-you-want ability, would we have more of an immersion experience in Colombia? Absolutely. If I didn’t listen to NPR every morning, would I pay more attention to the local news in Barranquilla? I do try to keep up, but I’m sure it would come naturally if I couldn’t rely on my old habits. Would I make friends here more quickly if I couldn’t communicate so easily with friends and family in the States? Probably. Would I enjoy all the zillion Colombian holidays if I didn’t have to abide by a US work calendar? Oh… sigh. Yes, yes, I would!
And yet for all those seeming downsides, it is technology that allows me and my family to live abroad in the first place. Thanks to technology, my husband and I both have “portable jobs”; for the most part, we’re limited in where we can live only by the availability of a good internet connection. Our freedom on that front made it possible for us to move to Barranquilla and get to know our family here, and for our three year-old son to learn Spanish and experience the Colombian part of his heritage. Even if we had been able to find jobs in Barranquilla to support our move, without today’s technology, I would have had qualms about taking our son so far from his grandparents in the US. I am comforted by the fact that he communicates with my family in Georgia and North Carolina just as much as he would have if we were we still living in Miami. There really isn’t much difference. While I might have enjoyed a “full immersion” experience in my 20’s, at age 40 I’m not sure it would have worked for me. Technology meant that I never had to confront that choice.
The ability to live a life that integrates multiple places and cultures is in some ways just as new as the technology that makes it possible. Accounts such as Paradise Imperfect: An American Family Moves to the Costa Rican Mountains, published in 2013 about a Seattle family’s stay in Costa Rica around 2004, show just how significantly and recently the transformation has occurred. The family at the center of Paradise Imperfect struggles for months after their move to establish even the most basic of regular communication with their family in the States. One life is given up almost entirely for another, if only temporarily. And in a situation like that, it’s more likely to be temporary (to my mind) precisely because parting ways to such a large degree with family in the country left behind – particularly if there are young children involved – can be less than desirable over the long term. Also, in years past, to the extent that expats integrated parts of one culture with parts of the other, the integration seemed more likely to occur not so much during the years abroad as after, when the experience becomes part and parcel of the life led upon return.
In the case of my family, our life is not about trading one culture for the other. We aren’t like characters out of a Merchant Ivory film (not that I don’t dearly love some of those!), hauling all our table settings to a foreign land so as to preserve intact all our most defining customs – we left plenty behind. But our experience is not about cultural immersion, either. It’s about selecting the various elements of life that work for us and weaving them together to create a new context that is uniquely ours. It’s what author Gina Rudan calls “culture hacking” – the ability and opportunity to create a new culture for oneself at an individual, rather than societal, level. (Her description of “living a life of convergence” is better than any other I have read and provided me with key insights for this post; I highly recommend it.) That is the reality of the world in which we live. We’re not digital nomads, we’re long-term culture hackers – and integration, not division, is the goal.
Honestly, I’m so much more comfortable with this concept of cultural convergence than with the more old school models usually applied to people who move abroad by choice rather than necessity. The quest for an “immersion experience” or the insistence on maintaining all the key elements of life from the birth country both center on the concept of the “other”. And while our world is by no means beyond discrimination on the basis of race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical disability, societal and economic groupings, and more, I hope that we are slowly approaching a point where we look at each other less like aliens from another planet and more like fellow human beings. While there is risk in the application of cultural convergence to our individual lives – beautiful aspects of one culture or another might get lost in the process, or pieces from one culture might be appropriated wrongly by people from another – it seems more respectful at a human level than any other available option at this point.
We have been in Colombia for nearly two years now, and I wouldn’t trade that time for anything in the world. We have learned, we have grown, and we have had experiences that we never would have had otherwise. I’ve come to appreciate that our daily life is full of choices. Things that used to be givens just aren’t. Sometimes the number of choices is so great that navigating them feels like bushwhacking through dense vegetation. But that’s what blazing a trail is, after all — and this trail is ours.
* Can we please come up with a word to replace “expat”? The word is problematic, referring generally only to one class of people. For example, people who move to another country to take a job that involves manual labor are not generally referred to as expats. “Expat”, in my mind, somehow harkens back to a colonial or post-colonial elite that dominated whatever nation they chose as home. Beyond that, it’s way too focused on borders in a world that is increasingly borderless. At best, “expat” refers now primarily to people who relocated for a corporate position or who fall within a particular tax category. Since those don’t apply to me, I don’t find the term to be a good fit but I am at a loss for what else to use. “Digital nomad” doesn’t work, since I don’t move around all the time. There are many people, like my husband and me, who move for reasons not motivated by the corporate world or politics. We need a new word. Suggestions welcome.