The Divided Life of the Modern Day Expat*

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.

Borders, identity cards, and legalities fail to convey a more complex reality.

What does moving to another country really mean in the age of the internet?

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.

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* 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.

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10 responses to “The Divided Life of the Modern Day Expat*

  1. Jim Strickland

    Hey, Courtenay,

    Great post. I have forwarded it to a friend who lived with his family in China for several years.

    Dad

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  2. Love your blogs on Killa and Colombia. Our oldest daughter was there in January. we still hope to move there next year. Winters in the north east are just too long and cold.

    But forgive me if I say that the kumbaya stuf sorta kinda makes me puke. Salk and Sabin cured polio. Saved millions and millions. But the internet is full of Jew hate. Ridding the Muslim world of vaccine did not change their world views. I suppose they believe that polio is a Zionist plot anyways.

    But i can say that the people of Killa are not racist. Arab Christians and European Jews created or expanded a lot of businesses there ( ie, Fedco, Avianca, Olimpica, SAO, Barranquilla Jr. etc.). Colombia is accepting of foreign people especially in Killa.

    I am very curious about your condo/apartmento hunting. You once wrote that you are close to Parque Venezuela. You like the area? I would love to live in Alto Prado. I used to like walking from the Carrulla on 53and 72nd to Harvi where in the evenings an open restaurant appears called Fast Food. Great perros!

    One can buy on the streets of Killa for 25$ coffee as good as the coffee served in Rome for 8 euros!

    VAMOS COLOMBIA!!!!!!!! sabato/saturday July 04 17pm vs Brasil!!!!

    http://www.cbc.ca ( live streaming )

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  3. Hi Courtenay … I see your point about expat and how it does not describe you OR others in a similar situation. You are kinda (social) evangelist (without the religious part). I think if you were to look for a word in Spanish OR any other non-english language, you may be successful.

    btw, our travels took us to Robin in Puerto Rico http://www.rainforestfruitfarm.com/
    Very interesting person and family. Check it out when you get a chance.

    Palani

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    • Hi Palani! That’s an interesting point about looking for an appropriate word in other languages – I’ll have to give that some thought! As for Puerto Rico, I will definitely check out the link you sent – we are making our first trip to PR in November. I’m excited!

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  4. I am so thrilled to have found this blog. My husband works for a barge company and was just transferred to Baranquilla. Your blog is going to be a godsend to me!

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  5. mmm fast internet in BAQ? We use Metrotel and not sure if it the building we are in or the service provider, but we struggle to even make Skype calls. We are probably changing, but it will be a dartboard approach at getting a better service. Care to let me know which company you are getting the good service from.Much appreciated, Darren

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    • Hey Darren, Great question! Since my husband and I both work from home (my husband in the high-tech field to boot), decent internet is an absolute must for us. At first we went with Claro, paying for the highest available speed. At first, it was great (we always do speed tests, both download and upload, to check), but then after several weeks or a few months (not sure which), it got pretty slow — though we could generally still make Skype calls. However, another problem for us was that if the power to our building went off, so did the internet since it was run through some line that required the electricity. We added (seriously, we doubled up) a Metrotel DSL line. The DSL didn’t cut off with the power, which was nice, and we found it to be more reliable than Claro (less random going-down). Eventually we went with just Metrotel. I have heard — and I’m not techy enough to know whether this is the case — that whether Metrotel is fast depends on how far away you are from their station or sub-station or something like that (has to do with it being DSL and not Cable). If that’s true, then it could vary depending on location. I think it also varies depending on whether you are primarily accessing servers in the US with your web searches or in Latin America (although we are almost always going to US sites, so that should show the slower side — forget about YouTube, just about — for whatever reason, with Claro in particular YouTube is a problem). Anyway, those are my two cents. You may have to experiment a little to figure out what works best for you. And complain persistently if you’re not getting what was advertised!

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  6. Thanks Courtenay, We will hound them more before changing. I have Claro in Santa Marta, and while the speed is reasonable the service is not. Took about 10 days to reestablish the connection when it went out. No reason given.

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