Saturday, July 31, 2010

L'Expatrié, c'est moi

Over lunch with my French co-worker and his Swedish wife, the three of us agreed that the expatriate life renders us unusual by definition. Not only do we constantly evaluate the countries we choose to live in, but also our own countries of birth. The expatriate observes the world in a semi-detached state that non-expatriates don't even consider. We have eaten good food and bad, sometimes learnt strange languages and, most importantly, befriended other globetrotters.

I have often wondered if one can identify the expatriate by his mannerisms or hybrid styles. Australians know immediately that I come from somewhere in North America, but they can never quite place my accent. I say 'zed' and 'lift' and bit by bit my pronunciation is taking on slight local characteristics. Additionally, on return visits to the United States, I get the odd looks from my compatriots who think I sound Australian. I don't, but neither do I sound like the Milwaukee boy of my upbringing. I sound other.

Interestingly, my French co-worker was flummoxed to hear my full on Québécois accent in French. He knew I spoke French, but out of courtesy for other colleagues in the office, we normally speak English together. His surprise highlighted a theory of mine that it is easier to alter one's accent in a second language than it is in one's first language. I reckoned that the extra effort one makes in a second language forces the speaker to pay close attention to the nuance of accent and intonation. That is definitely true for me, as I originally learnt to speak French in Belgium when I was a teenager. After a year at university in Québec City, however, I had shifted completely to a French-Canadian accent.

Naturally, as globetrotters, the conversation turned to the bureaucracy of immigration in the various countries we'd lived in: the United States, Canada, France, Belgium, Sweden, Slovakia and now Australia. We mused at the friendliness - or its lack - amongst customs officials the world over. Australian customs moves quickly and the officials are nearly always friendly and efficient. Not so in the United States or Canada. Europe can be a mixed bag, depending on the nationality. My co-worker's wife noted that red tape in Sweden is cut and dried, whereas in France it can be horribly inconsistent and pedantic. In Sweden you get the stamp or you don't, whereas in France it depends on the mood or temperament of the official.

All these topics got me thinking about the principles of freedom and capitalism, though the conversations did not turn to political philosophy. As I have noted in previous articles, I avoid overt conversations about politics because the context of knowledge varies so much as to make such discussions either too emotional or too disconnected from reality.

As an observer of the world, I thought of politics because I notice that the degree of freedom in a given country will give one a clue about the ease of movement within it. The United States has been heading towards some kind of totalitarian state for many decades, so consequently the ability to migrate there has become byzantine and lacks coherence. Not surprisingly, immigration has become a bugbear in a country with an ever-growing state. Australia, whilst hardly a completely free country, proves nevertheless more hospitable to foreigners seeking to live here. The rules are clear cut and, though more restrictive than I advocate, relatively easy to grasp.

Many people in the West today struggle with the virtue of immigration. I call it a virtue because people who choose to uproot themselves to go make their way in a completely new country are among the most productive in the world. By and large, immigrants seek self-improvement, not free handouts. If I had my choice, when I become a permanent resident of Australia, I would happily forgo all the so-called state benefits in favour of a lower tax burden. Alas, that option does not exist. It should.

In the end, expatriates are the engine of dynamic countries like Australia. They remind native-born Australians by their very presence that the country is worth the long haul flights and the great distances from loved ones back home. If I had my druthers, I would create a special passport for people who have the pluck and courage to change countries like some people change clothes.


  1. I think the special passport idea would be a fun thing. Mine would say "American by Choice".

  2. Ayo Ogunshola31 July, 2010

    Nice post, Jason. Long live the immigrant! :-)

  3. I think it's the true individualists who can change countries at will. Their identities are not fundamentally defined by an external culture.

  4. John Alway31 July, 2010

    Jason, thanks for the snapshot of a globetrotter's life.


  5. I agree with Phil, though in the interest of brevity did not delve into that subject.

  6. I never know what to tell people when they ask me where I'm from. It seems like they're seeking to find some way to define you before they know you by asking that. No one in my home state asks that, and they obviously know that not everyone that lives there is the same.

  7. Per our conversation, I just posted it to my immigration blog. Thanks again! :-)

  8. Finally an opinion on immigration that is neither racist nor apathetic. A great read.