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An Expat By Any Other Name

What does it mean to be an expat? That’s a question I mull over a lot. Besides the fact that I’ve been an (American) expat for nearly 20 years now, one of the reasons I think about this is because I’ve seen a real shift in what being an expat even means. Berlin has had a start-up tech scene boom for a while now which brings in people from all over the world who live and work in the city in an English-speaking bubble. The companies offer German classes between team building yoga flow and chill time at the onsite frozen yogurt bar/black light ping pong party zone, but it’s still pretty rare to meet someone from the scene who speaks more than a few basic phrases.

This has been hard for me at times because of what tech has done to the Bay Area. Hell, tech was one of the reasons I left and became an expat in the first place. The Silicon Valley dawn of tech in the mid to late 90s made it almost impossible to find an affordable place to live in the Bay Area. Do-gooder NGOs and artist collectives in San Francisco, many of which had been there for decades, were losing their leases left and right to make space for some fly-by-night Dotcom.

On a walk home down Crow Canyon Road in Castro Valley when I still lived with my parents, I once saw a woman living in a tent hidden away in the bushes; a middle class woman, white, well groomed, who probably had a full-time job but got evicted from her place by some shady landlord seduced by flashing dollar signs.

No one ever walks down Crow Canyon Road. It’s one of those many busy American streets that probably only has a sidewalk because of some zoning law (the reason why I was walking there is worth another post later). The woman’s tent was placed far into the bushes, so you wouldn’t have seen it from a car.

“Hi,” she said. She seemed shocked and extremely embarrassed to see me. I said hi back and hurried on.

“The New Economy Is Here!”

“Welcome To The Dotcom Revolution! A New Era Of Never-Ending Growth!”

Those were the headlines I read in the newspaper everyday. But now this average woman had to camp out in the oleanders on the side of Crow Canyon Road. And I’m talking about a middle class white woman here, which means poor people of color were likely faring far worse. Was I the only person here who saw the emperor wasn’t wearing any goddamn clothes?

Of course, I could be wrong. The woman might have been there for some other reason. But I doubt it. Wide-spread unscrupulous evictions were also reported in the paper at the time, although they were less likely to make the headlines than the Utopian Dotcom stuff.

And, sadly, none of it was surprising, not really. That’s one thing that drove me crazy about living in the US: Any time major money can be made, human decency pretty much flies out the window.

“Wait, there’s money to be made? There’s money to be made!!”

Forget Jesus, Allah, Odin, or Zeus. In the US, commerce is God.

As you can see, I came to Berlin with some tech culture baggage to say the least and I was none too happy when the culture started sprouting up here too. I’ve got a judgy streak; I’m not proud of it, but it’s there nonetheless. And when it came to these new techie expats living in their techie, all-English speaking expat world (even the Germans in the scene talk to each other in English, which irked me even more…) I judged away, muttering under my breath like a crazy person whenever I passed the two start-ups that opened up on my very street.

Anyway, as is always the case with my judgy side, the only real cure is actually talking to people instead of grumbling about them. There’s a girl from Lithuania in the start-up scene in my jazz class and, yes, she’s lived here for five years and barely speaks German and most likely doesn’t have the slightest clue about the difference between the Ruhrpott, Baden, and Franconia. But she’s an absolute sweetheart. And, besides, why should she learn German anyway? Lord knows she doesn’t need it in Berlin.

A French woman in my writing group is a digital nomad, a copywriter and journalist working for French publications remotely while living in Berlin. Every winter she and her girlfriend, also a digital nomad, flee the dark dreariness of the city and set up shop in some warmer place in the world. Last year it was Ecuador, the year before, South Africa.

I also met another expat in a head honcho position here for a blockchain technology start-up (in case you didn’t know, blockchain is apparently the next super big thing. Soon(ish) it will be so ubiquitous any clueless banter about it people have nowadays will seem as funny as these news clips about the World Wide Web in 1995).

She told me she can’t stand the Silicon Valley culture because it’s so money driven and obsessed with venture capital, venture capital, venture capital. Apparently the scene in Berlin is much more altruistic and has a definite let’s-build-a-better-world spirit. This sounds much nicer, although it still sets off a few bells with my inner sceptic.

Either way, tech culture always brings a wave of gentrification and spikes in housing prices, and that’s happening in Berlin too for sure. But Germany is a country that is (mostly) governed by principles, not euro signs, nor is it a Neo-liberal cesspool like *some* places. Although the city is changing and will definitely become pricier in the years to come–as it already has–I still think there’s no way it would ever reach the level of Bay Area craziness. When I left the Bay Area, it was hard to get by if you weren’t in tech. Now it’s beyond obscene. I read recently that if you earn less than $100,000 a year there, you technically (no pun intended) considered “poor.”

Anyway, these tech people and digital nomads, most of whom are millennials a good ten to fifteen years younger than I am, they are the new expats, Expats 2.0 if you will. Now that my initial judginess has (mostly) subsided, I’m actually almost envious of them. Maybe the reason they don’t usually learn languages or assimilate into the culture is because their identity does not depend on where they’re from or where they live. These are the children of the Internet, enjoying the freedom of living in the Cloud.

As for me, I’m an analog expat. I moved abroad when the Internet was mostly just that wacky weirdness they describe in the clip above and the only clouds we had were those white ones in the sky. Back then, you became an expat for love or because you were lost–in most cases, both were true.

Don’t get me wrong: We still had those living-in-a-bubble kind of people who somehow managed to stay incredibly English or Canadian or Italian far after they were fresh off the boat; however, those kind of analog expats eventually always went back to where they were from. They came for adventure, a few crazy years abroad, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But the real analog long-time expats, at least the ones in Berlin, with us it was different.

An analog American expat friend of mine was the first one who defined it around eight or ten years ago. She was doing group therapy at the time with a lot of other English-speaking expats (most analog expats speak German, btw. Back then, you couldn’t really get away with only speaking English, so we didn’t have much of a choice. Still, therapy is always best held in your native language, or so I’ve been told). At one of the sessions, another long-time analog expat said, “In this group we’re all such different people, but we all have one thing in common: We didn’t belong in the place where we come from.”

Analog (Berlin) expats=The unbelongers. The constantly off-kilter.

Not that this makes us special. A lot of people live in a place, a family, whatever, where they feel like they don’t belong. Plenty of writers and artists feel this way too, of course (some of the analog long-term expats I know are arty, but not all of them). The difference with us is we left the place where we were the odd man out for a place where our outsider status was emphasized. Sure, I speak fluent German; I understand the culture and have a German partner. I also have a skin color that allows me to blend in with the natives. But I don’t “belong” here, not really. At my core I’ll always feel American even though the US was precisely the place where I never felt at home.

And Berlin? Yeah, it’s home; at least for now, which is probably forever.

Here’s to us: The long-time analog expats of Berlin, who found our place by amping up our sense of unbelonging and painful otherness, and embracing it.

 

 

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