Sunday, June 16, 2013

Broadening the mind (foreign living)

Travel is supposed to broaden the mind, though it doesn’t always. Most expats return home greatly changed by their exposure to foreign cultures and peoples. Even a week in someplace exotic is better than a week’s vacation taken in one’s home community, or even one’s home nation, necessarily. But a couple of years – ah, now we’re talking.

Even a minimal two-year stint allows an expat to get out and around – to explore his temporary home, and maybe some of its neighbouring countries. Even hanging around with other expats provides exposure to other cultures and ways of thinking.

The greater the variety of expats, the better. A major reason why Linda and I made Cayman our home in 1981, after our standard three-year stint here, was the variety of nationalities our young son could mingle with. From age two to age thirteen when he went off to boarding school in England, he mingled with a mind-broadening range of English-speaking children from several parts of the world. And even the boarding school was pretty international.

His Cayman chums were mostly British, because we his parents gravitated towards British expats. But his friends and acquaintances included US Americans, Canadians and a rich variety of Caribbeans, including ethnic Caymanians. In our earliest days, the total population of this tiny Island was below 15,000, of whom only 5,000 were foreign; now it’s 50,000, of whom 35,000 are foreign born.

The exposure certainly steered Ross towards becoming an expat himself. In his twenties he lived in Mexico as an immigrant, immersed in the local middle-class culture. Next came Guatemala, mixing with US and European hippies. The hippy trail led to Peru and Ecuador, and one special woman and her baby daughter lured him to Norway. There he became an immigrant again as the father of (by then) two small Norwegian-speaking girls. 

Oslo is full of expats, all of whom are strongly encouraged to speak Norwegian. Rumour to the contrary, all Norwegians do not speak English. A blog-post of mine last year (The weather in Norwegian, July 2012) reported Linda’s and my embarrassing failure to bond with one of Ross’s in-law families, for want of a language in common.

At our wedding in Toronto in 1967, only two of our twenty guests were Canadians. Linda’s Bridesmaid was English, my Best Man was South African. Australia and New Zealand were also represented. A few months later we set up home in Bahamas (Lunching with the stars, January 2013), where most - though not all - of our friends and workmates were expats.

In Perth, Australia, we met mostly expats or former expats. In New Hebrides (Aiding and abetting adultery, November 2012) we socialised with expats from England, Australia and New Zealand, and shared the tennis courts with Frenchmen and the cricket field with Fijians (When the clock struck four, October 2012).

The Internet has greatly expanded access to foreigners of all nations. There are discussion forums galore, carrying the opinions and experiences of English-speaking expats and natives in and of almost every nation in the world. Most of them cling stubbornly to their tribal outlooks, which is both disappointing and surprising. Tribal loyalty still trumps the notion that “people are people”.

The belief in “my country, right or wrong” is not compatible with an open mind. How could it be? I’m always sorry to see the belief surviving in expats, who really should know better.