What is it like to live in a foreign country?

At first everything seems so different.  It’s a feeling that I cannot explain but the second I’m off that plane and out onto the street I feel it.  The smell is different, the sounds, the rhythm of life, the faces.  The cars are often the first thing I notice.  I take note of how small they are, how many more motorbikes there are, how much faster speeds they travel at. Then of course the street life itself; what people do in the street, what is the being sold, the shop signs, what is sold, how differently it is sold.

All of a sudden with no warning at all, I reach a point where I don’t notice these small things anymore.  Lately I have been feeling this way.  Nothing I smell or hear is noticeably different and I walk the streets and have to think twice before I am consciously aware that I am not in the U.S.  I catch myself speaking Spanish to someone without thinking twice about it  and stand there puzzled afterwards thinking about how normal this has become for me.

Being an expat, you learn about how people in other parts of the world deal with whatever they are handed and that they don’t know anything different to even complain. Small things from crumbling wobbly sidewalks and needing to always have exact change for the bus, to big things like a failed credit system, corruption, and the fact that their history has taught them to trust no one. I recently saw a young girl that couldn’t have been a day over seven all by herself walking through subway cars selling some sort of small calendars.  I couldn’t believe how small she was and that she was completely alone. Today I got on a subway at the end of the line and saw another young boy of the same age fast asleep sideways on two seats, also alone.  He looked so peaceful, but I wondered where he would go when he woke up. Did he have anywhere to go, anyone who expected him home that night wherever home might be?  Who worried about him, what he had eaten for lunch, had he even eaten lunch?  It sounds strange to say, but it’s in these moments that I become more conscious of where I am, that this wouldn’t be something I would see so regularly back home.

Some days, being an expat, I feel like I need to be some sort of ambassador for the U.S.  I am by far not the most patriotic person, but at times I feel like it’s my job while in another country to inform people about how is or more often, how is not the U.S.  That we don’t ALL eat McDonald’s every day, that not everyone is fat.  That not every American wants to fight all the wars we’re in or that ones we’ve fought.  That not all Americans are enthnocentric and uncultured and don’t have passports or speak other languages.  I also feel it’s part of my mission to set straight what people might have seen in our TV shows or movies.  In more than one place that I’ve traveled I’ve had people tell me they thought Americans ate eggs, bacon, and pancakes for breakfast every day.

I found myself completely embarassed the other day when I found out that MtV had been airing Jersey Shore here.  I couldn’t imagine that culturally Argentines would even understand half of the show and its absurdity, but more than that it worried me how people might perceive young Americans based on a group of people that act in such poor taste.  At times I will feel very proud of what American culture has brought other people around the world, from music, to art, fashion trends, to entrepreneurship.  But in other ways I feel like I just want to crawl under a rock and never come out.  It’s not something that keeps me up at night, in fact I think it’s being able to make these observations that makes living abroad so interesting to me.