Sunday, December 13, 2009

Is expat literature different from travel literature?

In follow-up to my last entry on blogging and expatriate identity, I would really like to encourage y'all to visit Anastasia M. Ashman. Anastasia, an American who lives in Istanbul with her family, is the editor of Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey. The book was published by Seal Press and I am super excited about reading it.

I especially appreciate a recent discussion of whether expat literature deserves its own shelf in which Anastasia writes:
Expat lit is not travel literature since writing about life from outside a homeland does not mean writing from a state of travel. We’re coping with extended life in a foreign culture, navigating subtleties, adapting to find harmony. Personal assimilation/identity issues dominate expat writing, and filter their world. If travel writing is a chance to travel vicariously, expat lit is a chance to live abroad vicariously.
She also quotes Emmanuelle Archer who says that:
Travel may open your eyes but does not change your identity. Expatriation sure does!
These observations make perfect sense to me and I was wondering if you'd be willing to share the ways in which your identities have changed as a result of your expat/immigrant experience?

In the meantime, I will continue to try to figure out whether to call myself an expat or an immigrant.


Photo via Gaspi * Your Guide


  1. An interesting viewpoint.

    I'll say this: being an expat for two years has absolutely changed my point of view on a wide variety of things. My wife is continually commenting on how much I've changed since we moved here from the States. You definitely learn to look at things from a wider-angle lens.

    For example, I grew up in America, so I was raised in the "40 hour a week, 8 hours a day, two 15 minute breaks per day with a 30 minute lunch, 50 weeks a year with only 2 weeks off at most" lifestyle. When I first came to Bulgaria I was kind of in shock at how (cough cough) "lazy" everyone was.

    Now that I've been here a couple of years, I realize it's not laziness at all. It's simple ENJOYMENT OF LIFE! For example, I know a couple of sisters who run a resort bed and breakfast + cooking class out of the Puglia region of Italy, and they rarely work more than 4 hours a day. The rest of their time is spent sipping wine, drinking coffee, and enjoying the coastal life of the Mediterranean. Most of my American friends look at them with jealousy and disdain, claiming they are "lazy" because they don't get to work until 11 a.m., then they work for a couple hours, take a lunch, take a nap, work for a few hours in the afternoon, and enjoy more relaxation time.

    Is it really lazy to enjoy life? Seriously?

    That's not to say Bulgarians aren't hard workers, but honestly...every chance you have, the nearest coffee shop is your destination. Friends, family, it doesn't matter...there is NEVER such a thing as "no time for coffee". Day or night, there is always time for a coffee/smoke break in Bulgaria.

    I never appreciated family until I came here. I never had a particularly close bond with my parents (probably a result of them kicking me out when I was 15 years old), so it was foreign to me for my wife's family to embrace me with such open arms. The entire clan here gets together EVERY weekend out at Grandma's house. In America you only see your family on holidays, and even then it's always tense and reluctant. Here, people embrace their family relationships. My wife, for example, talks to her mother and father EVERY day, even though we live in the same city. We have drinks with her dad like CLOCKWORK, every single Friday, and we haven't missed more than 4 times since we came here 2 years ago.

  2. What else? Hmm. I still get irritated at queues/lines in Bulgaria. I don't think that will ever go away. It's the one thing I miss...respect of the golden rule "whoever got here first gets to go first". In Bulgaria it's "whoever can push their way to the head of the line the fastest".

    In any case, that's the short version :) I can definitely say that my outlook on life has changed dramatically, as has my wife's. For example, many Bulgarians have this mentality that anything not Bulgarian is "bad". Thus, bringing non-traditional dishes to holiday feasts is considered next to spitting on God. Last Christmas Evy made eggnog and cookies for her family. I made some cheesy potatoes and some honey-maple-mustard-glazed ham. No one ate a single thing. Not a single piece of ham, not a single cookie, not a sip of eggnog. Her grandmother was literally putting spoonfuls of my potatoes on people's plates but no one ate a single bite. The looks on their face was pure HORROR at daring to put something NON Bulgarian on their plates.

    Another perfect example is Subway (sandwiches). My wife lived for 2 years in America, and she learned to appreciate many of the things in the U.S., like sandwiches. We go to Subway every Sunday afternoon. Just yesterday we were there and we watched a Bulgarian couple come in, ask what these sandwiches were, then turn around and walk out without even bothering to try them. Why wouldn't you want to at least TRY something new? How can you ever know if you like it or not if you don't even bother to try it?

    In any case, my wife refuses to cook for her family anymore, as do I. We only cook for our close friends, and all of them have spent some time outside of Bulgaria, so they appreciate OTHER things. But many Bulgarians just refuse to try anything unless it's Bulgarian, which makes it easy to spot someone who has lived outside of the country or spent time outside of Bulgaria. They are the only ones willing to experiment. My favorite was her mother coming to Seattle in 2007 for New Years (2008's first day) and the ENTIRE trip all she did was bitch about how horrible the food in America was, how horrible the service at restaurants was, how horrible the food was, how horrible the food was, and how horrible the food was. She spent her whole trip lambasting her sister (who has lived in Seattle with her husband for 7 years; they are naturalized citizens) about losing her Bulgarian roots and becoming "westernized", as if it was some evil, vile thing.

    So yeah...being an expat you definitely learn to notice other things that change your viewpoint on life for sure !

  3. was making breakfast when I thought I'd add this:

    I think the one thing being an expat really offers you is the ability to see beyond your own limited world-view. Regardless of where you are born, from the day you learn to read and write you are indoctrinated with the viewpoints of your culture. Some of those viewpoints are good. Some are bad. But until you've had the opportunity to actually live in another culture, it's impossible to known which is which.

    Clarity, I suppose, is the one thing I can take away from being an expat. And temperance. I've definitely learned to be more tolerant towards other people, and I've definitely learned to look beyond the tunnel-vision that most Americans have of the world (that is, the view that America is the ONLY country that matters and everyone else is inferior) and appreciate the cultural differences. As I immerse myself more and more into Bulgarian culture I come to appreciate more and more of the things that foreigners look at with disdain.

    For example (and you can ask my wife) I have a very hard time with "spur of the moment" things. I am a very schedule-conscious individual. It was one of the hardest things for me to overcome about the Bulgarian way of doing things, because here...there's no such thing as a schedule. When someone says "I'll meet you at 6", what they really mean is "between 6:30 and 7". I've also learned that no one ever tells you there's a dinner party planned...until the day of the dinner party, when they let you know that you were invited to so-and-so's birthday party, but no one ever bothered to let you know until the last minute.

    It still drives me nuts, but I've learned to be more accepting's just the way things are done here. No amount of me complaining is going to change the fact that day planners and schedules aren't really used here. People just do what they do and roll with it.

    Sorry for the essay :) Caught me with free time on my hands this Monday morning.

  4. T.W., your comments are very interesting!
    Petya, I vote for T.W. as guest blogger.