expat culture shock

In languages, the pareto principle comes in handy: once you know 80% of the words you are able to get by and, through context, guess the rest.

I have been living and working abroad in a fully immersive multi-cultural but English-speaking culture for the last 9 years. My colleagues, friends and acquaintances are from all over and English is our common denominator although more likely than not, a second or third language. Native English speakers are not very common in my circle and so, for all of us, English is a language we are fluent in but in which we still make lots of mistakes.

I am perfectly aware when I use the wrong word or tense, I realize it as soon as the words come out, but it does not stop me from making the same error in the next sentence. Frustratingly, it seems that there is nothing I can do to avoid it. Yet to most of my friends these mistakes make no difference. They make them too.

As a long term expat I have recently realized the full extent of what I like to call, for lack of a better name, the “expat sub-culture”. Living in this melting pot of cultures and languages my friends, colleagues and I have developed our own language and, dare I say, culture. With each group, there are words that are only used among ourselves which have been borrowed from our native languages or from the local culture. Often times, we would even create our own words. The local words are used by everyone in the country, others are context specific and often group specific, ie I can’t use some words with some groups of friends in the same country because it may make no sense to them.

For example, in the Middle East the words “yalla”, “inshallah” or “habibi” are so commonly used by the Arabic speakers that permeate everything and frequently replace several other words or full sentences. Still today, I keep using them because they have a powerful meaning that can’t be expressed as well in English. Yalla is perfect when you want to rush someone without sounding rude and inshallah has a unique and very precise meaning in Arabic that I cannot find in Spanish, Catalan, English or French. It translates to “God willing” but it has a connotation of supreme power, of lack of control over the results that probably had in the English language originally but which has been lost in the agnostic/ atheist culture of today. We use the translated version in Spanish but nobody spends a second noticing it is a religious word. Anyone living in an Arabic speaking country would use these words, without a doubt, and 4 years after having left Dubai they are still part of my vocabulary and that of my friends.

What is most interesting is that nobody ever explained their meaning to me, I learned it through context after hearing it hundreds of times in various situations. Inshallah is indeed best translated as “Don’t keep your hopes high” and I used to hear this a lot from co-workers and clients.

Fascinatingly, as expats we are also adept at inventing our own words, which are only understood by the specific group in which they are created. This only happens when there are non-English speaking members, otherwise the need for a new word is usually not there. These new words are often adaptations into English of words in other languages created in a moment of blockage or because they were perfect to describe something. Jokingly, we would start using these words and they would become so engrained you risk using them outside of the group and getting laughed at. Words like “atrapated” to mean stuck with something or confused or having a difficult time was a good example. It was invented by a prolific colleague of mine from the Spanish equivalent and we used it so much that it became a recurrent joke pronounced simply to have fun.

When you are an expat you realize how much of a sponge you can be for languages. After moving to a new place you quickly start using the words that are so specific to the local culture. In Singapore it did not take me long to start responding “Can” or “Cannot” instead of yes and no. And I saw all my colleagues and friends doing the same. Words that, by themselves, are already a Singaporean Chinese adaptation of English in what is called Singlish. A good example of what happens when languages co-exist.

With expat friends and colleagues there is never a time when you can’t express something. If you can’t find the right English word, you can borrow a local one and if that doesn’t work, one in your native tongue will most likely do the job. Because we are all well-travelled, we all speak several languages and words are more often than not common to more than one language using your native language word usually does the trick.

The expat sub-culture also extends beyond language and into fashion, music, food and everything else. You find yourself cooking your favourite meals from back home with a tinge of chili, cardamom or ginger. And with this, we all become true citizens of the world.

Then one day, you join a large multi-national with primarily native English speaking colleagues and your sub-culture becomes challenged. You can no longer express words in your own language or borrow words from the local language because your colleagues don’t even live in your same country and making grammatical errors is no so easily forgiven. There is no malice or snobbism in their reactions when one of these things happen just lack of experience in a mix and match of languages and cultures.

Then you realize the power of being fully immersed in the wonderful expat sub-culture and how practical it is to be a part of a construct that is not defined by borders, languages or backgrounds. And it hits you: you miss the richness and power of a truly diverse environment where formalities are superseded by practicalities and language is a tool to aid life not a weapon to take advantage of the less gifted.