Thursday, September 24, 2009

Welcome to Americatown, Fatty!

On Monday night I attended my first meeting with a writing circle here in Buenos Aires. The group, which is composed mainly of expat women, used to meet at a café every week, but now bounces around from people’s apartments. It’s a good way for me to meet more people in the city, as well as improve some of my own writing and see other styles out there. But the thing the meeting made me think of the most wasn’t necessarily writing.

Afterward, maybe the next day even, I started to think about American expats in general. We are totally unlike other immigrants who come to the United States. Maybe because we really aren’t immigrants at all, and we’re just floating around the world on a vacation of sorts. But those who come to the United States generally come to find work and a better life. Many expats are looking to escape from something or to learn about themselves. That’s a luxury most don’t have.

But other cultures stick together in ways that Americans do not. You can go to almost any city in the world and find a Chinatown. There are countless Little Italy’s, Koreatowns, and Russian neighborhoods. It even gets broken down into religion, with neighborhoods like Once in Buenos Aires, that is traditionally known as a Jewish neighborhood.

Yet overseas, there is no Americatown. There is no semblance of a community or feeling of pride in our culture while we live overseas, unless we are looking for a reason to celebrate Halloween or July 4th. And the only time you’ll find us together in mass numbers are at gringo/expat bars. So really, the only time Americans get together to feel at home again is when we drink.

How many Americans have said that after being abroad for a long time, they finally had to give in and get McDonald’s or Starbucks when loneliness and homesickness was too much? I can’t imagine any French expat breaking down and going to the nearest Au Bon Pan, or an Italian immigrant going to the Olive Garden for a taste of home. Maybe it’s because our food isn’t really all that special. I’m not sure.

Those who choose to live abroad have the luxury of coming for 3 or 6 months, 1 or 2 years, and then floating on to the next country or going home. It’s usually not an issue about moving up to a better life, but merely moving sideways. Aside from a few closer expat friends, we shy away from large groups of Americans, and generally tend to look with disdain upon the tourists who rush in and rush out without getting the true feeling of our new home. More so than not, we try so hard to immerse ourselves in the culture and learn about where we are, that we forget about where we’re from. On the other hand, immigrants from other cultures always brought something of theirs to the new home, whether it be cooking or humor. And I try to stress, I mean these things about people who choose to live abroad, not those who are assigned to work overseas for a year or two.

But I do think that if there was an Americatown, it would be some kind of crazy place. In a way, some do exist for sure in the Middle East, where contracting companies place American families in compounds for safety. You can find everything you need there—supermarkets, movie theaters, sports arenas, schools, etc. So the lucky folks living abroad would never even have to leave the barbed wire walls unless they wanted to, which they probably don’t very often. Who would want to leave the comfort of a 12x12 U.S.A. with extra security?

For those of us that choose the other route, living alone or with new friends or random strangers in foreign lands, it’s a different experience altogether. And unless a mass migration starts heading out of the United States, you can be sure that there won’t be any Americatowns any time soon. And that’s fine with those of us who choose to be here. We’ll be at the bar, right after the writing group finishes talking about the Emmy’s from last night.

Above: McDonald's in Morocco

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