WHAT NOT TO ASK AN EXPAT

Did you move around the world?

This list is for you. This list is also for those who know someone who moved around the world. You may not know these questions, but we do. We hear them ALL THE TIME. Ok, ok. Maybe a little dramatic. But not really an exaggeration.

These are truly the most commonly asked questions that you will constantly be asked after moving abroad. For as long as you are abroad. There is no statute of limitations for the consistency of these questions. Unless you choose to stop meeting new people altogether. And what fun is that? The more the merrier I say. You never know what spark might be alit until meeting that new person. But I warn you. Before that fire can be sparked, you will have to run the gauntlet of the following questions. It’s a ritual. A never ending expatriate* ritual.

TOP THREE QUESTIONS YOU ASK A NEW PERSON YOU MEET IN COPENHAGEN:

  1. WHERE ARE YOU FROM?

    This is the first question. Always. Clearly. You are not from here.

    Most Danes and other internationals are curious. It’s human nature. And while Danes are notoriously private. They are still curious. Pretty immediately, they can sniff out that you don’t speak Danish. Ding ding ding. You aren’t from here. Did you try your Danish?  Usually a dead giveaway as well. You aren’t from here. It’s ok. The Danes speak English very well. And Swedish and German and French and probably a couple other languages well. You have been marked. For questioning. Here it comes.

    Where are you from?

    And it’s not only my meager attempts at speaking Dansk that might give away my outsider status. If English is your first language, you are just as proficient at sussing out that I’m not from here or anywhere in the U.K. either. Check. And while some of your words are rubbing off, your accent isn’t. Don’t worry – I’ll get it sorted while I’m grabbing the crisps I bought from the shop on the high street out of the boot of my hired car. But I will never call it a “rubber.” And probably won’t refer to something as pants. Unless, in fact – they are pants.

    Yes. You’ve guessed. I’m American. It’s my “from.” At this point, I usually go through the whole where is Oregon routine – which involves pointing and eyebrow lifting. Know California? Of course you do. Go north. That’s Oregon. For others, “where are you from” takes a little longer to explain. My answer is fairly straightforward (despite my elimination of all those domestic stops we made before landing in Oregon. For reference, there were five.) I find that most people have figured out a pat answer for this question. But by no means does that lessen the occurrence of said question, ad nauseum.

  2. WHAT BROUGHT YOU HERE?

    This is ALWAYS the requisite second question. Wait for it.

    Always the same answer. For me. Anyway. My husband’s job. He works for Vestas. Luckily, here in Denmark, that usually warrants an immediate understanding. It’s a Danish company. They get it. If clarification is needed, I say “wind energy.” They make wind turbines. Those big huge windmills? This is usually accompanied by some sort of hand gesture that points in a circle. Like a turbine. Do I have to do it for you? Ask and you shall receive. It’s instinctual at this point. As are the third and fourth questions – which I have combined for simplicity.

  3. HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN HERE/ HOW LONG ARE YOU STAYING?

    How long have you been here?

    This is a qualifying question. A determiner of your commitment to this new place. Anything under a year is considered rookie. It’s all about tenure this question. It places you in an unspoken hierarchy of knowing a place. Finally, at nearly two years here, do I attain a tiny bit of street cred for sticking it out. Believe me, in a place like Copenhagen, it’s not all sticking it out per se, but let me remind you that winter is coming. And it is dark and damp and full of terrors. Just kidding. No zombies. Hopefully. Luckily zombies don’t swim and there is plenty of water here. But it will get dark. Really really dark. I’ll light candles and call friends. I’ve done it before. Two years. Remember? Street cred. Wink. Wink.

    How long are you staying?

    This question is trickier. This question allows the asker to decide whether you are worth engaging for longer than the conversation where the original question was asked. Is it a contract? How long till the contract is up? Closer to a contract’s end, the bell curve of connection wanes. It’s human nature. I get it. I’ve felt it before. People don’t like leaving people. Or being left. Being outsiders here, there are many hoops to pass through before any sort of permanency could occur. See above answer as to language proficiency for starters. My answer? Right now? I don’t know. That’s the honest answer. We’ll see. There are many pieces to find in this great big puzzle called life before we can give one. An answer to this question. We are okay with that uncertainty. Right now anyway. We are happy. Our children are thriving. We have made friends. I’ll let you know. Don’t write me off.

 

THE ONLY TWO QUESTIONS YOU ASK A PERSON VISITING FROM LIVING ABROAD:
  1. DO YOU LOVE IT THERE?

    After screams and hugs of course! Usually there is excitement about your return.

    Then more often than not, follows DO YOU LOVE IT THERE? YES. Then YAY! More hugs. More cheers and welcome home. Sometimes, but really not always, this question can be followed up by the adjunct inquiry “Do you speak Dutch now?” No. No I don’t. Because I don’t live in the Netherlands. I live in Denmark. The Netherlands is a different country. With an entirely different language. There are way more K’s and double vowels there. But I do enjoy my new Dutch friends here in my new from. And I do love Denmark. Great. So no Dutch. No, no Dutch. Maybe a little Danish.

  2. WHEN ARE YOU COMING HOME?

    You said two years. That’s coming up. Be home soon then.

    Ok. Here is the trickiest question. On a scale of tricky. This one takes the cake. And Danes love cake. When I said two years. That was for my kids. For me. Confidence for my husband. For us as a family. We knew going in that we had to emotionally commit two years to trying this thing. This opportunity. This life abroad. That clock timer is almost up. In November. In that time, my children have grown inches each. Hormones have transformed them into young men and maturing tweens. Hairstyles have changed and weight has been gained. Maybe just by me. Did I mention Danes love cake? But two years was a guideline. An earmarked idea of how long it might take to fit in. To understand and learn from a place. I knew from my own experience shifting state to state that one year on a calendar is the bare minimum to establish yourself in a place. Find the doctors, the good grocery stores, the playmates and all the places. That you favor. Where you fit. What fills your bucket. In a foreign country, I guessed two. Two years. To really feel like you LIVED somewhere. Bare minimum.

    I maybe left out that second part when explaining to those we left. Minimum. Two years minimum. We’re trying to work out what is best. For us all. At a minimum. We’ll let you know. As soon as we know. I promise. Trust us.

TWO QUESTIONS YOU WILL BE ASKED UPON RETURNING HOME AFTER HAVING FIRST VISITED YOUR FROM:
  1. DID YOU HAVE FUN?

    Translation: Which place do you like better?

    This is really a way for new friends in your new from to try and see if you will be staying longer or leaving soon. (Go back to “How long have you been here/how long are you staying?” See above for implications of your answer.)

    No. I know they care. I do believe their “Did you enjoy your holiday? Your vacation? Your break back in the States?” That’s really far away may I remind you. Many of them have not had the chance to visit your from. They should. I’m trying to convince them. This question is currently followed up by – are you voting for Trump? Sigh. Ugh. Sigh. Ugh.

  2. YOU’RE LEAVING SOON AREN’T YOU?

    I can hear it in your voice. I can read it in your posts. You love it there don’t you.

    You won’t be staying here much longer is the assumption. Again back to – how much should I emotionally commit to you. When will I have to say goodbye to you? Again. It’s tricky, tricky, tricky.

In the end, it all boils down to connections. Are you making them? Are you building them? Are you keeping them? I’m trying. I went naked skinny dipping in the broad daylight with some of those connections. That’s pretty fricking connected. We weren’t touching – come on – that’s not the kind of connecting I’m talking about. But I said yes. I chose to have that experience that connected me. With those friends. As for what the future holds, I don’t have all the answers right now. And that is ok. I can’t answer my father-in-law’s eternal question, “What is your five year plan?” I don’t know. My husband doesn’t know. And while the uncertainty can seem daunting sometimes, I take stock in the idea that we are happy. We truly are. We are healthy. Our children are learning, growing, experiencing. You know I have teens and tweens – right? It is definitely not all sorts of idyllic up in here all the time. And let me be clear – my from is no better than your from. My home is no better than your home. But it does impact who I am and the choices that I make and the experiences that we have. And my childrens’ experiences will be different from mine. I know this. Case in point, the boys HATE that I went naked swimming. Oh well. It is what it is. That experience is mine. They will have theirs.

And believe me – I’ll let you know as soon as I know anything that there is to know. Cool? Until then. Keep asking questions. I’ll keep trying to answer. It may not always be the one you want to hear. But it will be honest. I promise.

NOTE:

I have used the following definition for those people who live in a country that is OTHER than their original.

*EXPATRIATE: to withdraw (oneself) from residence in one’s native country.

This is a choice made to follow a job, family or attempt life in another place. In my humble opinion, it is most likely a temporary scenario (with no minimum or maximum time limit or requirement) but with the distinction that there are no ascribed intentions of denouncing passport country to become citizens elsewhere. There are nuances, stigmas and stereotypes to said word. I am aware. This is my current distillation. It is open to interpretation, discussion and feedback. Gentle, constructive, polite and intelligent feedback. That is all. Cheers from Denmark. From this expatriate.

Oh! And if you are a cultural blogger living abroad and writing and sharing about your life across borders, bridging cultures through blogging – then check out Blogging Abroad and submit yours for inclusion. We’re all here living, loving and learning on this big crazy planet together. Let’s share more.

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Love from Denmark, Erin

most commonly asked questions to expats living abroad
But what you will anyway

20 thoughts on “WHAT NOT TO ASK AN EXPAT

    1. Glad it resonates in Belgium as well! I’m guessing some of it is fairly universal when it is quite clear that you are “from” a place. Hope you are settling in ok and enjoying your new journey! Cheers from Copenhagen, Erin

  1. Ha! Pretty sure we went over those first three last week! Also, the Dutch thing! It’s weird, I get that too. Why?? And, do people really have wooden shoes over there? Do folks not know that Denmark and The Netherlands are two different places? Bizarro. Looking forward to the next time we meet, though maybe not skinny dipping 😉

  2. I can’t even count how many times I’ve answered these questions. The hardest is ‘how long are you staying?’ Because it always feels loaded, from my friends and family back home and new friends here. We don’t know!

    1. We should start counting! It will be like a badge of honor – that’s how many people you have met! That’s something right? I agree – the motivation behind some of the questions is what gets me too. I try no to be too cynical and keep answering honestly. Cheers from Copenhagen, Erin

  3. As an ex pat I get asked questions that seem simple but are huge, involving entire life-plans: “Do you think you’ll stay here forever?”, “So where are you going to go if you don’t stay here?”. Gaaghh – I cannot plan next week, never mind where I am going to live out my old age. I don’t feel rooted where I live but I’m not sure where home is any more – it’s so complicated being an ex pat! I agree with you that it all comes down to making connections, and when you let that slip you lose touch with the place really

    1. Yes – I’m not sure why making a choice to leave somewhere and start in a new place makes it seem that we are all knowing and have it all figured out. Connections are key. Always. Thanks for connecting here – cheers from Copenhagen!

  4. Totally agree with the two years minimum. These people that try to expat for only 6 months are crazy! Your comment about explaining Oregon was also funny. I always said, “you know California right? (yes) do you know Washington? (yes) Great – then right between them.” Love the posts Erin. Thank you for sharing.

  5. micheleloves

    LOVE this!! I can totally relate if only from a state to state move. It’s not all that different – yet so totally different. Everyone from Colorado acts like we are so lucky to have finally settled in the best state in the nation. Ummm..it’s beautiful, don’t get me wrong, like really beautiful, but have you ever traveled to the Pacific Northwest? It’s taken two years but we’re doing it. We’re learning how to bake at high altitude, how to drink enough water to not get dehydrated, how to live without any moisture in the air, how to survive driving in the snow and not get frustrated when they don’t know how to drive in the rain. We still can’t figure out why they put green chili on everything though. Oh well. Anyway…..much love from the Rocky Mountains my beautiful friend.

    1. I ABSOLUTELY agree – there are so many similarities – we moved from Washington to Michigan to Ohio to Pennsylvania to Texas back to Oregon. EVERY TIME was an adjustment and local culture discovery. Love you! Glad you are feeling home there in beautiful Colorado! Cheers from Denmark – Erin

  6. I live in Copenhagen and I’ve been here for 4 years now. The big “how long are you staying here?” has changed to “are you staying here for good?”. Again, not the easiest question to answer, but I often just say “yes probably, it’s nice, you know…”. Because saying no freaks my Danish friends out. They don’t want me to get up and leave, they’ve only just decided I am decent permanent friend type material!

    Though now I also have no excuse for not being a fluent Danish speaking whizz kid. Hmm. Better get on that I suppose..

  7. TextPat A

    This definitely resonates for me, living in Singapore! And you’re totally right– some of those questions are definitely loaded. I’m half Japanese, but from California, and people in Asia reeeeeally can’t figure me out. “Where are you from?” “The US.” “No, where are you FROM?” “California.” “No. Where you really FROM FROM?” “My dad is Japanese.” “AH! I knew you’re not from US!” “Oh, well, yes… but I am…”
    Anyway, fun post. 🙂

    1. Yes – I can imagine that there is a difference when you “look like the locals” – we look “Danish-ish” and have a Swedish last name (but are all American for generations) so there is an expectation that we should speak the language and understand the customs. Thanks for connecting and commenting! Cheers from Copenhagen – Erin

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