Before I came to Kyrgyzstan, I spent three months in Central New York, within a hundred miles of where I was born. It was the longest time I’d spent there since 1993 when I left for college, and I left with no intention of ever returning. Syracuse isn’t a bad place to be a kid, but I never felt like I belonged there and I left without tears. I can’t say I’ve ever really missed it. Central New York is decayed factories, small, barely profitable farms, and Syracuse University college sports[i]. Gorgeous landscape, yes, but that’s about it in terms of quality of life.[ii]
I thought I’d feel weird being back. Out-of-place, at the very least.
But I didn’t. I felt like I was home. I knew how to dress, what makeup to wear, how to talk to people. It doesn’t matter that it’s 20 years later and things have changed. They don’t change that fast, and knowing the territory intimately meant it was easy for me to identify new things and react correctly to them. I found myself craving flannel shirts. My accent started to come back.
It doesn’t matter that I don’t like Central New York that much, and it doesn’t matter that I was gone for two decades. I spent the formative years of my life in Syracuse. That’s where I learned to navigate the world. That knowledge sticks with you, like it or not.
All of this got me thinking about what it means to be an expat. It’s easy to convince yourself that you know as much as someone who has grown up there. You’ve studied the data, read the journal articles, lived there for a year, or two, or seven. What does a local know that you don’t?
As it turns out, everything.
When your whole life depends on understanding your context, when your toddler brain is young and malleable and absorbent, when you learn to read from children’s books or when you’re a hyper-sensitive adolescent, you take in information in a different way. You don’t just learn that in your brain. You learn that in your bones.
Even the best possible expat doesn’t have that kind of intimate knowledge. Expats bring lots of useful stuff to the table,[iii] but we really ought to spend most of our time shutting up and listening to local knowledge. Because we’re outsiders, and we always will be.