Ten Types of Expats
During the two years I've spent living in Cairo, I've noticed about ten different types of expats. It's hard to say what type of expat one will become before arriving. The different experiences and intentions one has before arriving mix with the encounters in the new country, all contributing towards an eventual metamorphosis of identity. Before long, a new shape does take place, and sometimes the transformation isn't what you expect. Awareness of these ten common expat types is the best antidote to embracing them.
1. The Closet Depressive
The closet depressive is my favorite figure. By day this expat is cheery as a spring flower; at home, alone, when the windows and doors are shut, she stares at the floor in the corner. She always turns a smiling face to you, not because she is trying to fake happiness, but more because she doesn't want to bring you into her depression. Her depression is too personal to share. It is too deep. Only Buddha could fathom the suffering. The closet depressive runs from sincerity, lies to herself about her situation until she actually convinces herself - albeit temporarily - of an international bliss. She never complains nor wearies your ears with harangues. But some days you may not see her; she has stayed home, brooding in silent sadness, thinking about how wonderful it is to be in a new culture.
2. The Cultural Pluralist
The cultural pluralist, through and through, wants you to know that your ethnocentrism is real and that it is really quite nasty, actually. She tries to win over your prejudices and convince you that this other type of lifestyle you're immersed in, though "different," though dissimilar to your own traditions and habits, is an alternative lifestyle that is just as equally valid, vital, normal, worthwhile, and meaningful as your own, or as a previous life you remember with nostalgia. The cultural pluralist is always open to new experiences, new foods, new people. She is learning the language and developing extended conversations with taxi cab drivers and juice bar owners. She is the sort that you sometimes hope is a closet depressive.
3. The Drifter
She decided to take a year abroad, not because she has specific plans to study Arabic or network ties at US AID, but because it "looked like a good option at the time." She finds herself sometimes wandering aimlessly about the streets, not really committed to any particular plan or agenda. She is just as happy to meet a local as another foreigner. In the back of her mind she believes in fate and destiny, though she may just shrug her shoulders about this if confronted. She hopes that something greater than herself has pulled her here. Around every corner she is waiting for that force of destiny to manifest itself in a convincing way. The drifter is your friend, but she is everyone's friend as well, because she is secretly searching for meaning, and wondering if she can find it with you, or with the person next to you.
4. The Escapee
The escapee wasn't necessarily living a crumbling life in the poor corner of town before shipping off to Egypt. Usually the escapee was just bored. He longed for something unusual and different. He is the sort that believes interest correlates with distance: the farther away a country is, the more interesting it must be. For the first several months, the escapee, being immersed in freshness of culture, sees life anew. He can barely walk straight for the hundreds of images, noises, and people competing for his visual attention, which he offers entirely. In time, however, these audiovisual stimulations fade. On the inside, an emptiness is brewing. When the culture no longer fascinates, the escapee longs to escape again. It is his nature. The surrounding brush and desert are barriers he must cross in order to find the lasting happiness and utopia he will eternally seek.
5. The Oil Guy
The oil guy has been transferred here by his company, either through some optional ballot he filled out, or by some other lure. He is housed by his company in a big apartment in Maadi, probably Road 200, and is given a company car to drive, probably a new Jeep Cherokee or Ford Explorer, at least a 2002 model. The oil guy makes a load of money, and outfits his home with all the comforts of satellite television, VCR and giant flat-screen TV, maids, and the like. He can count on his hand the total number of Arabic words he speaks. He is naturally happy and at ease, though sometimes a little dull, perhaps from working with oil rigs. Leaning comfortably back in his Lazy-boy, he offers you "Root Beer," asks about your family and rarely directs the conversation to the surrounding culture.
6. The Military Man and his Bedraggled, Rootless Family
The military man needs a break from life, but he's not going to get one. He was transferred here from America, most likely now fulfilling his "hardship tour," which is required at least once in the military man's career. His kids were probably ripped from their last high school and friends; they arrive friendly but internally guarded. The military man himself is a little cold, for he knows that in time he will have to move on. His family, bedraggled and rootless, though eating commissary food and sitting comfortably on plush American military couches, frequently feels an emptiness that makes them desire a home more than anything. The military man's best friends are his own family, and you will find them occasionally playing baseball at the park, but they are not the sort that will reach out and include you. Their only community, they have learned, is their own family.
7. The Enduring Wife Figure
She had no particular desire to come to Egypt. She did not develop a case of "Egyptomania" like her husband did. But she loves him, and once promised to follow him to the ends of the earth. Or at least she has no other alternatives or convincing arguments to stay other than that she enjoys Pringles and mushroom soup. While her husband leaves each day on his "quest," the enduring wife figure remains at home, caring for the children, inventing games out of scrap paper and broken crayons, chasing the children in circles at the park, putting religious pictures up on her blank walls. She gets by each day on inspirational quotes. When her husband returns home and relates his day's journey, she listens cheerfully and pretends to be interested. In reality she is only interested in him and the excitement he radiates.
8. The Bridge Builder
By increasing the understanding between cultures - principally between the Western and Arab world - the bridge builder will increase empathy, understanding, and therefore bring about "world peace." This bridger would ultimately like to work for the foreign service, to be one who interprets cultural expressions or actions and shapes them into articulate signals the embassy can finally understand. The bridge builder is an idealist; she may have never had an Imagine World Peace bumper sticker on her car, but she would gladly slap on one. Her greatest desire is that she can "make the world a better place" through her ability to empathize and "cross-communicate" with both cultures. This type burns out fast.
9. The Orientalist
He's been here a good fifteen years, at least. The Orientalist is no longer surprised by anything in the culture. He knows most everything, has been practically everywhere. He speaks and writes Arabic by now, and so he believes he's earned the right to voice unsupported generalizations and biting criticisms. He's met enough Egyptians to know, that's why. He'll tell you exactly what solutions are needed to modify troublesome Egyptian behavior. He may understand the culture, but that doesn't mean he agrees with any of it, and he tells you this straight out. His own bluntness fuels his drive to express himself. He likes to hear himself speak and give authoritative opinions of the way things and people are around him. Nod your head, he won't listen. The most you can do is quietly endure.
10. The Actual Expatriate
His remains, he has decided, shall not be repatriated in that godforsaken American country, but shall find their eternal rest in Egyptian soil, a country that, despite its drawbacks, he has come to feel is his home. America is too commercial, too materialistic, too fat. The American people are culturally insensitive and globally ignorant, he believes. His coming to Egypt may not have initially been with permanent intentions, but something convinced him that the way of life here was better. Perhaps it was the absence of American TV, or the kindness of the locals. Most likely this fellow has converted to Islam, and has an alternate Sufi name if you ask him. He has found a higher way of life, and in that spiritual conversion also found a cultural conversion. His heart is right here, smoking sheesha with his brothers around him. Americans don't disgust him, but he feels sorry for them, what they can't see. He feels what they can't feel.
These expat types are in no particular order or gender. While one may begin as one type of expat, it is both expected and probable that the expat will shift categories, metamorphosing into another sort. Identity is always tenuous and shifting for expatriates.
Tom Johnson teaches writing at the American University in Cairo, Egypt.