I was watching/listening to a lecture on the American Novel Since 1945; the guest lecturer was discussing the novel, Lolita, by V. Nabokov, and commenting about how Nabokov’s exile from Russia related to the writing of this novel. The lecturer discusses the nature of exile being the need to invent a new culture because nothing is familiar: that which is accepted as common by natives is for the exile, or the expatriate, unfamiliar and in need of translation or decoding. The world is denaturalized. Nothing makes sense. It’s a state of discontinuity with the new home. Of course, in the exile’s case, their move is often necessitated by events outside the control of the exile. In the case of the expatriate, this move is not necessarily necessitated by events outside his control, but rather from events that he can control, such as finances, emotional entanglements or difficulties of one kind or another. But, the end result is similar.
I came across this joke in an article by William Deresiewicz in Winter 2012 issue of The American Scholar
The Devil appears to a man on his deathbed. “I’m going to give you a choice between Heaven and Hell,” he says. “And just to make it fair, I’m going to let you see them first.”
Heaven is, well, Heaven: halos, harps—pleasant but dull. Hell, however, looks terrific: drinking, music, dancing girls. “I’ll take Hell,” the man says.
Once he dies, though, Hell turns out to be exactly what you would have imagined in the first place: flames, screams, demons, pitchforks. “Wait a minute,” the man complains. “This isn’t what it looked like before.”
“No,” the Devil says. “But then you were a tourist, and now you’re a new immigrant.”
So then, the expatriate (or immigrant, to use a less exotic term) moves to a new country that he may have visited once or even many times as a tourist (how many times have I heard the heartfelt, Bali is like my second home, I’ve been there so many times). The new home is often one with an unfamiliar culture where the immigrant (or expat) needs to decode everyday events that make sense to most everyone around him, but are completely, or nearly so, alien to him. An expatriate can, and often does, take up residence close to others who are in the same situation, perhaps even from the same country as one way to negate this sense of discontinuity. While this solves some of the immediate negative effects of cultural discontinuity, in the long run it can make integrating into the new culture or, as an alternative, creating a new hybrid culture, extremely difficult.
Or, the immigrant can surround him(her)self with reminders of “home” such as familiar books, music, clothes or food. In this digital age, the immigrant can use the internet to keep in touch with family and friends back in their home country, and reach out to other expatriates in his new home. But, again, this approach leads the immigrant into a situation of existential angst – yearning to be one with the new culture, while clinging to the old.
To return again to the joke – it can take us to an examination of the difficulties of leaving beside our preconceived notions of the place that we are moving to (often highly romanticized) as well as how our natural ethnocentrism leads us to misinterpret events, cultural concepts, and everyday occurrences as mundane as shopping for food or as exotic as attending a religious ceremony. The tourist can navigate these discontinuities with a local guide or a handful of cash or even just a smile and a shrug. The expatriate, knowing that (s)he’s going to be here for a long time, wants to get the local prices and the local feel, to be let inside this new home. But, there is a price to be paid for admission, and this price requires some work – learning a new language, studying up on the local culture to find out what’s taboo and what’s not, getting out on the streets to meet neighbors and shopkeepers on their ground. It means going beyond the order-out culture becoming so prevalent in the new Bali. What looked like good fun as a tourist, suddenly becomes a somewhat onerous task to complete as an immigrant.
How then to resolve this sense of cultural discontinuity? For some new arrivals it’s easy, they use the new culture as a picturesque background for their life and continue on in a familiar cultural bubble that, in Bali, is easy to find. Ubud, Seminyak and Sanur are three destinations where many immigrants can be found that have taken this road. Others, more a minority in the wave of immigrants flooding the island, set off for out-of-the-way villages and try the deep immersion route. And then some folks, try to mediate the problem of cultural discontinuity by dipping into the immigrant world as needed while basing themselves in the local culture as much as possible. I took the second path for better or worse. How about you?