On the Beach

Thursday, 31 January 2013

When is an ex-pat no longer an ex-pat?

No, it's not a joke, there's no punch line (that I am aware of anyway)- it's a serious question: is there a cut off, a time when you no longer regard yourself as an ex-pat or , to quote Wikipedia,: "a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country and culture other than that of the person's upbringing". 

I was speaking to a friend the other day who moved here just over a year ago, and I asked her whether she felt "settled in". She said that they say that the first year of your move is about finding your feet- whether that be at work, in your home, at school or in your city. If you get past the first year, the second year is used for consolidation and if that is successful, after 2 years you can consider yourself to be "settled in".

By her definition, therefore I should be settled in- we moved here in September 2010, that's well over 2 years ago.

When we moved here, my husband was taking a not inconsiderable professional risk, we were taking a financial risk but we felt that, overall- if it worked- the decision would serve us well as a family. We put in place mechanisms to "catch" us if things didn't work out here and steeled ourselves for having to go back-just in case (we'd had to do it with a previous (failed) emigration, we were used to coming "home", tails between our legs).

 It's been 2 years- and some- and it feels like home.My older daughter sounds like a South African, my younger one almost does and has spent most of her life here. Is time to dismantle all the mechanisms that  would allow us to leave very easily, to emotionally and practically give ourselves over to South Africa, make changes that transform "let's see how it goes" to "this is how it is"? 

The definition of ex-pat that I give above doesn't really apply to me: I am living now in a country that was a large part of my upbringing- but then, other countries were too.

For so many people in the world now who move around the world with work or study, the traditional definitions don't apply-  a large proportion of the world cannot fully consider themselves one thing or another; their lives have been spent incrementally all over the globe and they are unable to give a definitive answer when it comes to the question: "where are you from?'. I think the term for us is 'Third Culture Kids' (I read a book by that title, the names of the authors escape me right now, but it is an interesting concept and read).

So do I consider myself an ex-pat, still? I don't think I ever thought of myself as that, simply because in my head, over time that description has come to have  negative connotations.  

Forgetting the term "ex-pat" for the moment, am I at the point where I can give myself fully over to my life here, consign London and other places  simply to "somewhere I used to live"? 

I don't think so- for a start my accent sets me apart, marks me out as a foreigner and I am sure people here, ad infinitum, will mistake me for a tourist or a Brit here on a 2 year contract. Shop assistants still don't understand me when I ask for beer, so I'm quite a way from being taken for a local.

Whichever of the countries that I used to live in I go to, I am regarded as foreign: in England, my name marks me out as being "not from these parts", in Poland, my English accent speaking Polish makes me foreign.

In all, honesty, I don't really care about that. I don't aspire to patriotism at all, I don't feel the need to belong in that way.

I love my life in Cape Town and I embrace my life here with enormous gratitude and enthusiasm . Am I ready to sever ties with other places? I don't think that's in my breeding or my blood.

But it might be time to make some things more (semi!) permanent.