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Expats in the Making

Here are some things that I learnt in school: trigonometry, analyzing meter and rhyme in Greek poetry, and every single event leading to the fall of the Tokugawa dynasty. Here are some things that I wish I had learnt in school: dealing with taxes and investments, nailing job interviews, and becoming more aware of cultural diversity. Whether you want to be a pilot, a cook or photographer, the goal of school should be preparing future adults for real-life situations.

We did a bunch of cool things back in school, but in retrospect, I wish we had had a more well-rounded, globally-oriented education. Obviously, school can only provide some foundations, and you have to tackle life on your own and get hands-on experience. In my case however, taking a preparation class before moving abroad would have certainly helped big time. How would that hypothetical course go?

Expats in the Making: the elective high school subject for ecdemomaniacs and prospective expats. Because one can never be too prepared to deal with this wonderful yet confusing world of ours.

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British Sinks

Being abroad can be a nerve-racking adventure in which even the most common daily routines become a hilarious challenge. Take washing your hands for instance. British sinks are the place where dragon fire meets penguin tears. They have two taps: the hot one will scald your hands, whereas the cold one will shatter them into frozen pieces. So, why do British sinks have separate taps for hot and cold water? Foreigners around the world have asked themselves that question for decades.Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, British sinks, cold and warm water taps, faucets

Back in the day when our grandparents were toddlers, houses didn’t have hot running water, just cold water that came from a main supply. Later on, hot water systems were added separately to each building for safety and health reasons.

British plumbers were concerned about the pressure difference between cold and warm water. The first came from a main supply with a much higher pressure than the latter, which was stored in a tank inside each house and relied on gravity. In case of an imbalance of pressures, one stream could force its way into the other and pose a number of problems.

There were also health risks involved. Old tanks were made of galvanized steel, which corrodes easily; and they didn’t usually have a proper lid, which made the tank an AquaLand for errant birds, distracted insects and sweaty rodents in need of a swim. Squatting fauna aside, hot water sitting in an attic tank was not considered safe to drink, for it created the optimal conditions for bacteria like legionella to proliferate and wreak havoc on human stomachs. So, what did the Brits do? They came up with regulations to keep them separate and prevent the hot water contaminating the cold water supply.

You might be thinking: “Sure, but that was YEEEARS ago. Why haven’t they switched to mixer taps yet?” – Well, in a word: tradition. Whereas continental Europe reinvented its water supply system after the war, Britain rebuilt its houses clinging onto the separate taps tradition. Chances are that mixer taps will take over in the future, but in the meantime, have fun flapping your hands between the two taps when washing them.Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, travel and language comics, tea, United Kingdom, British problems

Schrödinger’s Immigrant

The human mind functions in mysterious ways. It believes what you want it to believe. Once it’s made up, it will scrape for ideas to support that belief, and it will dismiss every piece of information that contradicts it. It will blindly swallow whatever resonates with it and promptly reject everything that doesn’t.

As I mentioned earlier this week 1, I can understand that not everyone can be into languages and traveling. Maybe you had a bad experience in French class back in school, maybe you live in a fascinating country and never felt the need to go abroad. And that’s alright.

I can even understand that some people might be afraid of foreigners, diversity, and basically everything that involves a degree of strangeness. We gravitate towards what’s similar. The cultural bubble in which we grew up becomes the standard for “normality”. The mind feels at ease around what’s familiar and certain, and it startles at what’s different and uncanny.

However, being reluctant towards what’s unfamiliar is one thing. Another completely different issue is displaying irrational, latent animosity towards it. Where is this hatred coming from? Did that French class go really wrong? Were these people wronged by foreigners? Do they just have very small penises? So many questions.

I need answers. I ask and listen to their arguments. Their minds are made up, and will cling on to that belief no matter how poorly founded. The mind will recite he same ol’ broken record: “Immigrants destroy our economy. They steal our jobs, increasing the unemployment rate among locals; they are lazy shits who sit around all day leeching off of state benefits”.

Well, hold on a second. Are immigrants ambitious overachievers who take all our jobs, or are they too lazy to work? It took me a long time to unveil the logic behind this argument. Hours of complex thinking and scientific analysis. But don’t worry, I figured it out:

Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, Schrödinger's Immigrant, racist arguments, economy

 

Now, let’s get serious for a moment. Let’s assume that you did in fact have a horrendous experience with foreigners and your aversion is somehow justified. Let’s focus on the one thing that makes the world go round: money. I’m not an expert in economy (I’m not even good at Math) but I do have a basic understanding of it: those who work pay taxes, and that tax money is used – among other things – to support those who don’t work (retired citizens, children, etc).

The legal working age in my country (and I’m willing to bet it’s the same throughout Europe) is 16. Within the first 16 years, the state spends around 150.000 € per person in education and health coverage. Once you reach the legal working age, you can become a cog in the system and contribute to the gold pot with your taxes – although let’s be honest, in reality people start working much later.

When foreigners move to your country, they find jobs, and they start paying taxes from day one. Yes, their taxes aren’t as high as the average local, basically because foreigners are usually paid less – especially at the beginning 2. Yes, sometimes their salary is so low that they need additional support, such as reduced housing prices or food aid. Nonetheless, the amount of money that the state spends in these cases is laughably ridiculous compared to that initial capital invested in every national. No country takes in foreigners out of altruism. It’s sad, but it’s true.

So, you can keep hating immigrants as much as you want. You can keep reciting the same ol’ broken record and blaming them for the ailing economy.

But the fact is, your aging country desperately needs them.

The Language Ninja

You are abroad, little foreigner. Far away from your country, your native language, and your folks. Whether you are living abroad or traveling with friends, foreigners often stick together and use their common language to communicate, and most of the time they assume that there’s no one around who can decipher their messages. Well… watch out, for the language ninja might be right behind you!

Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, embarrassing situations abroad, faux pas, native recklessness

Here are some case studies featuring The Language Ninja in action:

Case study #1 (image above)

I’m on the subway in Berlin on my way to meet a friend. The two Spanish women next to me are exchanging workplace gossip, including some disgusting pranks and sketchy office practices that could get more than one person fired. My friend calls me up, I start talking to her in Spanish while I can see the two women going vampiric pale and sweating more than sinners in a church.

Case study #2

I’m getting groceries in a supermarket in Savonlinna (Finland) and two dark-haired guys stare at me as I walk past them. Spaniard A says to Spaniard B: “Look at that curvy goddess”. I turn around and reply: “¿Gracias?”. Hysteric giggles follow. We end up in a karaoke bar singing hits of the 80s.

Case study #3

I’m in a hostel in Stockholm and introduce myself – in English – to a bunch of friendly Austrian guys. I unpack and do my thing while they resume a heated conversation about their sex lives, their numerous partners and their kinkiest bedroom stories. After half an hour one of the Austrians asks me about the location of the showers and I respond in flawless German. The Austrians burst into hysteric laughter, which takes almost ten minutes to dissipate, and spend the next hour apologizing. Later that day I meet their girlfriends, who insist on me tagging along to the bars that night (#solotravel). The Austrian guys spend the night subtly paying for all my drinks in exchange for my silence on their sex stories.

What about you? Have you ever been busted by a language ninja? : )