November 25, 2012

Questions For Expats


When you meet someone new in the expat community, the inevitable happens...certain questions tend to creep their way into the conversation.

"Where are you from?"

"Why did you move to France (Italy, Spain, Australia, etc.)?"

"How long will you stay in France (Italy, Spain, Australia, etc.)?"

I know because I've been asked, and am guilty of asking them as well.

Chocolat chaud with @pretavoyager

And I'm intrigued. Why do we feel the need to define fellow expats by  their backgrounds, their decisions and their experiences?

Is it just curiosity?

Does knowing that others have made similar life decisions validate our own?

Is it simply that the experience of being strangers in a strange land and sharing a common language draws us together, even though we might never have been friends if we had remained in our home country?

By asking "how long will you be here," is it possibly to avoid creating relationships with people who we know will just be leaving in a short time?


Over the years I have been drawn to my fellow étrangers for comfort and advice, and have been fortunate to make many wonderful friends in the process. Friends whose paths I never would have crossed had we not moved to France.

So I guess I don't mind answering the expat questions. When I meet new people, I am curious too. And chances are, the person asking will be worth getting to know better!

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Unknown said...

I've often asked myself this question but I think it's definitely worth asking - some of my greatest friends are no longer in Paris and I can't imagine not having invested that time, albeit fleeting, in getting to know them while they were locals.

Anonymous said...

I have the same - I both am asked and do ask the questions above, but I think if we were all at home in our own contexts we would probably also have a set of questions that we were asked and would ask, too, no? They'd just be different. My best friend was raised in the South of France and as we were growing up she'd come to visit in NY and would always laugh at how various of my friends always asked her the same type of questions. Our questions (both what we're asked and what we ask) tend to define us I guess.
Fun post to consider, thanks!

Carina said...

I think it is just a natural introduction into small talk, trying to establish common ground, things that might be of mutual interest.

In non expat environments the questions I used to be asked were 'where did you go to school?', 'where do you live?', etc and the one that used to annoy me regularly 'What does your father do?' - even as an independent adult I used to get this and wonder why I couldn't be spoken to as me being me without all the background hoohah!

The expat questions will always be there, they're just replacing those from other times in our lives. They are an initiation into what may, or may not become a friendship, as a step in discovering a little about the person that you've come to cross paths with.

Unknown said...

This happens a lot in the district too, which is a revolving door of international workers, campaign folks, students... It goes beyond the expat comm, the questions are the same: where are you from (it's very rare to meet someone from DC), what brought you here, how long have you been here... you can make long lasting connections with people who are just passing through for a few days though, I think it's always worth giving people a chance, regardless of how long they might stick around ;-)

Unknown said...

Interesting post and interesting comments! It occurs to me that perhaps these questions are not the byproduct of an expatriate life, but of our modern, mobile world? After all, 200 years ago, people hardly moved from their villages. I wonder what questions people asked then? :)

MilkJam said...

That's interesting, truth be told I don't meet many expats. The only ones I meet are those I've already "met" online so I guess no need to ask those questions. And I've defiantly never been asked how long I plan to stay! I'm surprised its one you've been asked

I get a lot of French people asking me HOW ON EARTH I ended up out here in very rural Normandy, I always laugh & ask if they want the long or short version. :-)

My biggest pet peeve is when the first thing people ask is what your occupation is. Maybe because I'm not sure I have one yet... And while working in jobs I didn't care much for I certainly did not want to be defined by said occupation.

Interesting topics!

Brianna Asaro Photography said...

From my own experience, the reason I asked was to find a connection with someone who knew where I was talking about. Someone who could understand my experience. That's what was hardest when I came back from Europe ... no one here really cared to hear what I had done, the smells, the views.... But someone else in my position has some valuable experience we can talk about together.

Betty Carlson said...

Yikes, just wrote a long comment and it somehow disappeared (I think!) I have gone back and forth over the years, but am now enjoying expat company quite a bit more than, say, 10 years ago. I should analyze why...

Phil said...

I think this happens for various reasons. Because it's exciting to see someone else go through what you've gone through, to see if there's something to learn from the way someone else did it, to see if the other person also had to deal with negative crap from people who thought you were nuts for leaving where you were, because it's a measuring stick of sorts to see how well you yourself are doing in relation to another expat (not the nicest reason, but it happens). But ultimately, I think it's because we're human and most of us want to know how we're doing, if anyone else understands us and to share our stories.

Michelloui | The American Resident said...

I suppose it's all part of drawing a picture of that person in our minds. I think specifically regarding the expat life, I agree with Phil, that it's to see what sort of shared experiences we have and to see if there's a better way to do something. Interesting post!

Jennifer said...

It is always sad when someone leaves, but investing the time is usually worth it!

You're right. There will always be questions. If we met at a cocktail party in the US we would ask each other, "what do you do?"

Jennifer said...

Your comment sums it up it so perfectly.

I think the question "what does your father do?" is strange too. When we moved to Louisiana, we were asked a lot of questions about our parents - where they went to school, who they were, etc. I found it bizarre!

I can imagine DC would be similar with so many people coming and going! I also agree that it is worth giving people the chance, no matter how long they will be around.

Jennifer said...

I never considered that before...I'm sure you are right.

I get the "how on earth" question too! More and more I'm asked about my occupation, but that didn't happen very often in the south, unless it was an American asking. :)

Jennifer said...

Connections are important and when one is feeling "adrift" in a foreign country, fellow expats are often good (and sympathetic) lifeboats.
Thanks for stopping by to comment and share your experience.

I wish I could have read your long comment! It never showed up.
Have you analyzed why yet? :)

Jennifer said...

I enjoyed reading your comment. All very good observations!

I think Phil is on to something there, too. Thanks for stopping by!

JoanInBelgium said...

I agree with Carina. We ask each other some basic questions just to open communications and discover mutual interests.
I have friends living all over the world now. Our first initiation to the expat life was in Bonn, Germany. (although I still say that our first international assignment was our move to Cincinnati - a huge change from central California). Our children were in the International school, and other parents were our first friends. I have stayed in touch with friends from Finland, Sweden, New Zealand, England, Australia, just to name a few. I wouldn't trade the experience for the world.
It is sad to see them move on, but with cheap European flights and skype, we still manage to stay in touch.

Anonymous said...

Good questions! I find that often, it turns out I have more in common with expats that I meet here than I would with someone I meet randomly back home. I guess it has something to do with the fact that most expats have made some kind of effort to be where they are, rather than just staying in one place. It usually makes for a good story!

Jennifer said...

Being an expat definitely allows us to meet people from all over, and now it is so much easier to stay in contact. I love to see people who embrace this life with the enthusiasm that you have. Sadly, not everyone does.

That is so true! There is usually a common adventurous spirit among expats. Great comment! Thanks!

emiglia said...

I always ask "how are you here?" As an American, I know there's always a story. Sometimes it's interesting, sometimes it's funny, and sometimes, I'll admit, it's a little bit helpful :)

But regardless, it's also a great icebreaker... like "What classes are you taking?" was in college.

Jennifer said...

I like the way you phrase that question. :)