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Ex-expatriate

Expatriates bitch. It’s like, you know how other adults go to parties and play charades or watch videos of huge men in tight pants and helmets rhythmically running into each other head first? Well, we expatriates bitch. We drink and bitch. We bitch about the local food, about the local women/men, about the local bureaucracy, about the local roads, about the local bugs. It doesn’t change much over time or space. The Sun Also Rises is the best book ever written about expatriate bitching, and it takes place in 1920s Paris. If you can bitch about that place, that time, you can bitch about anything, anywhere. The bitching always starts with, “You know what happened to me at the store?” or “Can anyone recommend a good dentist?” and suddenly we’re all chiming in about why the fuck don’t the lines move, about how dentists here drill extra holes in your teeth just to charge you for more fillings.

I should say I don’t know if all expats do this everywhere, because if there’s one thing you learn from living abroad in another language, it’s that your conclusions about everything are almost always wrong, and their subsequent drafts and revisions are wrong as well, on and on, in layer after layer of a huge, malodorous onion of mistaken opinions. So probably not all expatriates bitch constantly, but that’s maybe because they’ve been at it for so long and had enough experience with the malodorous onion that they’ve switched from bitching to something they think is more refined, like cultural analysis, anthropological investigation. Yes, you say, crossing your legs, leaning back, sipping. The dentists cheat us. But why? Then comes the unpacking of the history, colonialism, the nature of Latin language peoples versus Germanic language peoples, the effects of climate, legal systems, dictatorship, class, globalization, politics, Catholicism.

It is bitching, but with rules – sport, rather than bar-room face-punching. It’s an inevitable transition, because as you settle into expattery over the course of years, bitching becomes exhausting, and out of a certain degree of necessity (“WHY THE FU… ah forget it.”), your righteous annoyance channels into this new hobby of pseudo-intellectual inquiry. You know you would probably turn out to be wrong about all of it, if any of your dingbat theories about driving habits or salt usage were falsifiable, but you need some way to explain the things around you that, however long you have been abroad, remain foreign.

And now, after eight years, I’ve gone home, or anyway, back to the US. There was no reverse culture shock, because you don’t get to plead any kind of culture shock for making a lateral move between European cultures. Culture shock is when you move to a Japanese fishing village from Dallas, Texas, or vice-versa. I’m not shocked, at all. My problem is my brain won’t go off bitching mode, or rather, I can’t turn off the rarified amateur anthropologist voice in my head. Everything in Alexandria, Virginia, needs to be taken in and turned over and examined for legitimacy, or just meaning. The street signs, the family dynamics, the accents, the food product marketing, the way people wait in line, the way they smile or don’t when they look at you.

I always felt that living abroad made time slow down for this very reason: When everything is a little strange, you notice everything, and when you notice everything, there’s no such thing as routine, and when you don’t have a routine, the months feel elongated. But I spent long enough around the unfamiliar that it became a state of mind. Now I realize that something fundamentally changed, like I’m the ant who had a nice bildungsroman and figured out it was an ant, and I’m back with the news, but none of the other ants care, because why should they? And it’s going to be really, really hard to go back to being just an ant. Or who knows, maybe it won’t be. I’ve been wrong before.

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