Three Kinds of Expats

A friend here in NY, who has nothing to do with the Budapest crowd, named Paul Frankenstein (yes, that's his real name), observes this on his blog as he sets off for a trip of undetermined length (three months, I thought) to China:

As I head off into the night (yes, I’m packed now) a parting thought:

There are three kinds of expats:

  1. Expats who head out on a one-year assignment and come back after three months.
  2. Expats who head out on a one-year assignment and come back after three years.
  3. Expats who head out on a one-year assignment and come back after thirty years.

Sounds about right. What kind of expat are you?

Rick E. Bruner | Expat Philosophy | Apr 24, 2004 | Comments (2)

Ex-pat or Wetback?

[From the Budapest Week Archive Classics]

By Dork Zygotian

Last Saturday night my friends invited me out to a local Budapest "ex-pat" bar. Of course, they complained, as "ex-pats" are wont to do, that the summer's tourists had ruined this particular "ex-pat" bar, and so we sauntered over to the door and picked up a copy of an "ex-pat" newspaper. It directed us to another "ex-pat" bar, this one being a favored haunt for local American ex-pats. Sitting at a table full of compatriots we exchanged ex-pat news: how much a dollar gets today at Keleti, which consulting firm went belly-up this week, and what a drag it is you can't get real balsamic vinegar or cheap sushi in Hungary.

I nearly ex-pactorated.

What, exactly, is an "ex-pat" and why are all these foreign people calling themselves "ex-pats?" In my day, which wasn't all that long ago, they were called "foreigners" as in he's a foreigner, he comes from another country. Simple.

Ex-pat is short for expatriate, which is used by english speakers to designate themselves while living abroad in foreign countries. To be specific, it has a British background in that it was a way to deal with a category of person during the years of the British Empire that was neither a "colonist" nor in the military. The term took on a broader meaning in post-colonial days to refer to large foreign communities "resident" in the ex-colonies for any length of time.

Interestingly, the Webster's dictionary definition of expatriate does not conform at all to the present Budapest ex-pat usage of the word.
Expatriate 1. to banish a person from his native country. 2. To withdraw (oneself) from residence in one's native country. 3. To withdraw (oneself) from allegiance to one's country. 4. expatriated, exiled. (

Banished? Exiled? Are all those perfectly sculpted yuppies sipping tequila at Picasso Point really banished from their homeland? Did the Clinton administration start rounding up Young Republicans, tossing them into the dark holds of overcrowded, stinking cattle ships, exiling them to barren shores with no hope of ever seeing their beloved New Jersey ever again? (And if he didn't, then why the hell did we elect him?)

Are the "ex-pats" the poor Huguenots of the twentieth century, sent by strife and politics from their ancestral fields into unabated exile, seeking merely to ply their modest trades and crafts wherever some benevolent monarch will grant them respite from their beleaguered exodus? If we collect enough signatures to send to the US congress, will they be allowed to go home?
Returning to Websters, we ask did they withdraw themselves? It isn't unthinkable, in this era of safe sex propaganda. The ex-pat community, however, is anything but withdrawn. They brought Burger King and bagels with them, so that their residence here definitely isn't a case of intended interruptus. There is some sense of staying power.

Did they withdraw their allegiance? Easy to answer. How many US citizens are voluntarily serving in the Hungarian army. I don't see anyone raising their hands.

No, the term ex-pat has definitely mutated towards a new usage since Americans started flooding into post 1989 east Europe. The Brits have some right to use it at will, since the term got started in their colonies. Americans didn't really have colonies (Puerto Rico, Guam, Samoa, the Philippines and Toronto don't count) and in place of The Commonwealth the best Americans have come up with are overseas tax shelters and franchise food outlets. A token burger outlet really isn't the same as having 30,000,000 sweating coolies working for King and Country.

For Americans, the idea of emigrating from the US doesn't really have a tradition. We are brought up to think that people emigrate from somewhere else into the Home of The Free and The Brave. Americans don't have a unified tradition of living abroad. When Hemingway or Arthur Miller wrote about "ex-pat" American life in Paris earlier in the century, they were commenting on a rather snug literary circle, rather than a mass movement of Americans out of the US.

Today, at least in east Europe, Americans foreign residents have taken to using the term "ex-pat with relish, the way "travelers" like to distinguish themselves from "tourists." The overuse of the term ex-pat does not just designate a foreigner, but somehow a better class of foreigner. Foreigners who are justifiably making two to three times the local wage, but still not as much as a dishwasher back in Jersey City. "Ex-pat" is a term dripping with class conceit. Not that anything is wrong with conceit. Conceit is fine for some folks.

Are the Italians living in Budapest "ex-pat Italians" or the Romanians here "ex-pat Romanians?" A German living in Hungary might describe himself as "a German living abroad in Europe." If a middle class citizen of the Dominican Republic moves to New York City, lives there for five years, speaks English, marries an American, and has children in America, is he an "ex-pat Dominican?" Are the Hungarian-Americans who have returned "ex-pats" or returnees?

The truth is most Americans living here are economic migrants, people who were willing to leave home in search of rewarding employment lacking at home. Middle class employment, to be sure, but being a "development consultant" sure beats being the griddle boy back at the Burger Hut on Route 17 at home. A joke current around Boston goes" How do you call your software programmer? Waiter!" Those programmers/waiters are now voting with their feet, or their plane tickets, at least. I haven't heard anyone speak about "helping Eastern Europe" in several years.

A good many young people arrive in east Europe simply to find an honest way to keep their white collar work resumés alive, even if it means making much less than one would at a similar job in the states. Twelve years of Reaganism bankrupted the middle classes in the US, and today entry level white-collar jobs are as rare as albino orangutans, and the competition for them astronomical. We are witnessing the first wave of emigration, or at least economic migration, away from the United States.

When I arrived here in 1987 there were a lot fewer foreigners living in Budapest, and most of them drove Tupelov tanks instead of Volvos. The few Brits and Americans around then tended to know each other, lived well on Ft 5000 a month teachers' salaries, and it seemed that Hungarians were a lot more enthusiastic about our presence than they seem to be nowadays. Longtime foreign residents in Hungary, the "Old-timers" are now viewed as moldy relics, oddly fluent in Hungarian, endlessly reminiscing about the communist era when everyone called each other "comrade" at work and there were no non-stop stores or fast food outlets and a restaurant meal cost Ft 60, with wine.

One gets the feeling that "ex-pats" are serving the role once played by the Russians, or Hapsburgs, or Ottomans. Overpaid, overfed, and over here. Many "ex-pats" are far too conspicuously enjoying the thrill of upper class life on the cheap in a country that is rapidly returning to the kind of class-stratification that has weakened it so often in the past.

My favorite example of the kind of thinking that exemplifies "ex-pat" mentality is in the pages of a certain local "ex-pat" newspaper (not this one, nor our sister paper, or even the one published by the fat guy who hates the Clintons.) There, in the restaurant listings, we find the Chicago restaurant listed under the heading "Continental Cuisine." Now, the Chicago is an oasis of good, stick-to-your-ribs American food, a veritable Beef Heaven for Yanks in search of Tex-Mex, but "Continental" it definitely ain't. It is ethnic. Damn good, classy ethnic food, too, but when you are located in Budapest, "Continental" does not simply mean coming from some continent or another. In the same newspaper listing, we find the Carmel Jewish Restaurant listed as ethnic, although it serves cuisine that is entirely native to this part of Europe. Ooops! We forgot what continent we are in! Ex-pats do that sometimes.

I don't suppose that suddenly ex-pats are going to suddenly find some new terminology for themselves. Maybe we can start by considering the Hungarian term: idegen. It means, simply, alien. The Hungarian root derives from the Old Hungarian root word ij (bow) from which derives ideg (nerve) and ideges (taut, nervous.) Viewed from the Hungarian etymology, aliens make people nervous.

But don't guests always make one nervous?

Rick E. Bruner | Budapest Nostalgia, Expat Philosophy | Apr 2, 2004 | Comments (8)

On Dating Hungarians

[From the Budapest Week Archive Classics]

By Dork Zygotian

As one walks down the street in Budapest, a common reaction that many visitors have as they gaze at the physical perfection of Hungarians is "Gee! I wish the human race were transformed into cute little rodents whose only aim in life was to have continuous, lusty, mindless animal couplings at every opportunity, hundreds of times each day!" Yes, Budapest gets the juices flowing, and why not? Hungary is a land of romance, of passion. But first you have to get over the hard part. You have to get a date.

This information is aimed at men, those slaves of testosterone who carry their brains in two neat little bundles between their legs. Women who are visiting often ask "Are there any available Hungarian men?" The answer is yes. All Hungarian men are available. Every one of them. Especially if you like married men, about forty, reeking of pálinka. All Hungarian men are charming, enchanting, good-looking, and completely unintelligible if you don't speak Hungarian. Rex Harrison crooned it best, in My Fair Lady, "Oozing charm from every pore/ He oiled his way across the floor/ Never have I seen a ruder pest/ than that hairy hound from Budapest."

Men, however, must take a different approach to attract the wily Magyar leány. Ever since Zsazsa Gabor first uttered "Dahhling..." and Cicciolina first sprayed a front row in Turin, foreign men have felt an irresistable attraction to Hungarian women. And why not? They are among God's loveliest critters, scampering merrily around the Danube basin clad in tiny bikinis, clinging halter tops, and those wonderful high heeled shoes known in other parts of the world as "fuck-me pumps."

If you are just traveling around Hungary or staying for a while, there are a few things you should know about dating Hungarian women. First of all, there is the language barrier. I have known people who had a perfectly happy, if somewhat shallow, relationship with absolutely no intelligible communication between them for months at a time. Rubbing your belly means "Hungry? Want to go to expensive restaurant?" Other communications were made by rubbing anything else. Otherwise you will have to speak Hungarian or find a Hungarian who speaks something you understand.

A good looking Hungarian woman who speaks English, German, or French is quite a find, and she knows it. She recieves daily faxes from suitors the world over and she knows the exact opening hours and addresses of the Chinese restaurants that serve imported lobster Szechuan style, which goes extremely well with a light, yet fruity French white wine, slightly chilled, and remember to tip the waiter 10%. Still interested?

Hungarian women are raised on Hungarian men. That means they are used to recieving flowers before being taken to the theater and wined and dined afterwards by a nice smelling young man who goes to the bathroom every fifteen minutes to preen in front of a mirror to ensure that he still looks nice and then after two dates he's allowed to get to home base, and then they get married, two years later divorced, and that's where you walk in. You are different than all the nice smelling young men she's known. You are not Hungarian. You are exotic.

You did not go to the same school system, did not serve in the same army, did not grope her same girlfriends in highschool, nor belong to the same Young Communist league. Nor has she been busted for possession by the same cop in Alabama, dropped out of the same University, belonged to your voodoo cult, nor ever watched The Brady Bunch. You are Ricky Ricardo to her Lucille Ball. Exotissimo!

That doesn't mean that meeting the Hungarian girl of your dreams is going to be easy. You can't tell a Hungarian girl that you are a tourist. You have to come up with something more permanent, like environmental protection engineer or journalist (a perennial favorite around our office.) You will also need a suit of clothes that could not possibly have ever seen the inside of a backpack, and a real pair of shoes.

And yes, you will have to start taking showers. Lots of showers. And buying flowers. And taking her out to nice restaurants that normally cost you an arm and a leg, but now leave you a financial quadripelegic. And while the local Joe gets to home after two dates, you will have to wait longer.

The waiting period is to see if you are "serious." That means that you are either staying in Hungary long term, or you are really, really rich. After all, Lucy wasn't just "living" with Ricky. They were married.

You will have to compose yourself with a lot more chilvalry and charm than Western girls demand. You will open doors for your date, but you will always enter a restaurant or bar first. You pay the bill. You pay for taxis. You compliment her looks, her clothes, ask attentively about her day at work. You call her, she does not call you.

At the same time, all this hoopla is designed to get you a few old fashioned rewards. You are expected to be a gentleman, and gentlemen are not expected to do their own laundry. Hungarian women are not attracted to new-age sensitive guys. They want A Man, not a companion who knows how to parboil brown rice and cries at the end of movies.

Having followed this advice, you should now be the proud owner of a Hungarian girlfriend. Stay the helm. There is still much to learn.

Rick E. Bruner | Budapest Nostalgia, Expat Philosophy | Apr 2, 2004 | Comments (101)