I was 22 years old when I first got on an airplane and flew to a foreign country. I knew a few things about the destination, the local language not being one of them. The life awaiting me had few perks: a teaching job with a paltry salary in a remote, rural region of a remote, rural country.
The downsides didn’t matter very much. My life in Midwestern suburbia had gotten stale. I wanted to get lost, so I did.
I spent the next three years rambling, sometimes studying, occasionally working, but mostly bumbling. I did lots of things. Some of them still feel meaningful. None of them were part of a plan and few of them made much sense.
I lived in Hungary then, one of those middle-of-the-road, low-cost countries that attract westerners who don’t know what to do with their lives, or don’t want to do anything at all. Now I live in Georgia, an (extremely) low-cost country that attracts lots of westerners who don’t know to do with their lives, or don’t want to do anything at all.
I’m a little older now and more certain about who I am and what I want in life. I have a steady job and a steady relationship and spend less time in basement bars and roadside beerstands. But I’m still an expatriate. It’s worth revisiting what that means and whether that lifestyle is worthy of admiration or emulation.
The life of the globetrotter is celebrated in middle-American pop culture. Whether the subject is a “do-gooder” (Peace Corps volunteer, aid worker, language teacher), a professional backpacker, or an ode to the 1920s Paris expatriates, the wanderer is usually touted as an adventurer, idealist, and cultural aficionado.
Films and novels like Under the Tuscan Sun and Eat,Pray,Love praise the wandering soul, selling a product to audiences who, in many cases, have never ventured far from home themselves. Without question, backpacking through Europe, bicycling across South Asia, or taking a job in a distant capital can be exciting and rewarding.
But for most expats, life is more banal than glamorous.
On Saturday evenings in Tbilisi, a string of expat bars are buzzing with English-language voices. Enter a place like Dive Bar, Café Gallery, or Zoestan, and you’ll see the same picture painted by different hands: American teachers, Dutch embassy staff, British journalists, Belgians on European Volunteer Service, and a few Georgians.
These people don’t necessarily congregate because they love each others’ company. In fact, small expat groups often fall into petty squabbles. These circles are small and socially isolated and people get tired of each other. Members usually haven’t known each other long enough to have deep personal loyalties. These barflys are downing drinks in the same liquor hole because they are all strangers.
My place to be a stranger used to be Budapest. Now it’s Tbilisi, and it’s the perfect place to get lost. Everything is cheap and abundant, the people are welcoming, and internationals are in demand. The lifestlye is intoxicating, but often for what it isn’t, not for what it is. As foreigners we are perpetual tourists, taking part in the local pleasures while free from everyday worries and responsibilities. I am unlikely to run into anyone who knows more than a little about me.
That limbo that foreigners live in – far from home and unable (or unwilling) to assimilate in the new surroundings – is explored in Edward Said in his famous essay Reflections on Exile. Said draws a distinction between the expatriate and the exile: “Exile originated in the age-old practice of banishment,” he writes. “[Exiles are] cut off from their roots, their land, their past.”
His views on expats are quite different:
“[Expatriates] voluntarily live in an alien country, usually for social or personal reasons. Hemingway and Fitzgerald were not forced to live in France. Expatriates may share in the solitude and estrangement of exile, but they do not suffer under its rigid proscriptions.”
The exile’s misery comes from being denied the possibility of going home. They become estranged. The expatriate doesn’t want to go home. But the weakening of roots, the loss of the upper-case “Home,” separates the expatriate from his or her roots as well.
Expatriation is a soft form of exile. No physical barrier stands between the expatriate and his/her place of origin. But after a threshold is reached, interest in returning home disappears. There is no “Home” left to return to.
The expat’s biggest problem is the lack of problems. Money is easy to come by. Bitter political controversies bear no personal significance. The expat is unshackled by tradition, familial obligations, and expectations. He or she is truly free.
But it is precisely because of this form of freedom – freedom as the absence of obligation – that fewer things feel worth doing.
Far from home, in a comfortable but unfamiliar environment, life begins to resemble a dream. Eventually the expat loses their sense of self. Said describes this in detail:
“The exile can make a fetish of exile, a practice that distances him or her from all connections and commitments. To live as if everything around you were temporary and perhaps trivial is to fall prey to petulant cynicism as well as to querulous lovelessness.”
Ennui sets in. With a wallet stuffed with money and nothing important to spend it on, the expat drifts into self-indulgence. Dissipation becomes a lifestyle.
This is far from the life of the swash-buckling adventurer. The expat knows they’ve fallen into dissipation. Bored to tears, they take to complaining about their adopted home. The cuisine lacks variety. The customer service is poor. The locals are uncouth.
So, why not just leave?
Unfortunately it isn’t that simple. Ties with home are too weak to be restored – or at least it feels that way. Life here is no great shakes, but going home means accepting all the burdens that come along with it.
James Wood, an Englishman living in Massachusetts, writes of the experience: “Perhaps the refusal to go home is consequent on the loss, or lack, of home: as if those fortunate expatriates were really saying to me: ‘I couldn’t go back because I wouldn’t know how to anymore.’”
Consider Jake Barnes, the quintessential American expatriate in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises:
“You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil … You drink yourself to death,” a friend accuses Jake midway through the novel.
Our protagonist knows he’s in a sorry state. Floating across France and Spain constantly drunk has made him physically exhausted and emotionally empty. But pack up and go back to Kansas City?
It’s no surprise that Tbilisi is full of lost souls. So is Budapest, Bangkok, Berlin; anywhere with a sizable international population. Most of these people came with the youthful enthusiasm that propels the young adventurer. Some still have it.
A lot of others (myself sometimes included) are blowing money on big meals and endless streams of wine, wandering the streets looking for another good time. The lifestyle has its thrills; some cheap, others less so. But it’s nothing to idolize. Just ask the gaggle of Tbilisi expats waking up with a hangover every morning.