As some of you may know, I spent this past summer as an intern with an international organization in Geneva, Switzerland. I had stayed abroad for extended periods of time before, either as an immigrant or as an exchange student, and thought I had a fairly accurate idea of what “living abroad” would be like. Yet my expatriate experience was quite different from my other stays abroad.
An external observer might have described me as a typical expatriate – one who is brought to a country because of their job or other similar circumstances, never bothers to learn the language, and sticks within their own expatriate circle. Let me explain. I found out I would be going to Geneva on a very short notice. I had never taken French before. I was to work in an international organization.
As a result, I ended up speaking English at work, and, while I did go out and meet people, I mostly found them through expatriate networks. Needless to say, the people were fellow expatriates who spoke English. The whole experience gave me a different perspective on expatriate communities. I had, too, been quick to judge them as self-contained and unwilling to embrace the host society.
However, my summer in Geneva shed some light on why expatriates tend to be isolated from the mainstream society. First and foremost, working in an office with 1 (one) Swiss co-worker and thirty times so many foreigners, I had very few chances of even meeting locals. In a place like Geneva, with so many foreigners working in the city, it’s natural that the expatriate scene is quite vibrant, with thriving fully-English social network websites and events.
Language is usually another big accusation directed against expatriates. Why was I not much better at French after 3 months in Switzerland? While I do commend those who manage to learn a language on their own, I must say working full-time is not really conducive for it. With many language schools closed for the summer or offering classes in the afternoon while I was at work, I found my only French resources were the two self-study books I had brought with me. Again, I do believe it is possible to learn a language on your own, but I think it’s safe to say a lot people need some sort of formal learning framework to make progress, if only to receive guidance from a language professional.
So, here I am, having been the ugly, scowled, unadjusted foreigner abroad. What I took out of my time in Europe, which was by no means lonely or miserable, is that “backstage” of expatriate living. I remember my own disapproval of some foreigners I would encounter in Russia. Perhaps you’ve experienced similar feelings? Stop and think, though, what opportunities are their for expatriates to mingle with the locals? Are there any language classes full-time workers can take?