I saw a newspaper article recently that asked the question “what is the difference between an immigrant and an ex-pat?” I didn’t actually read the whole article, but the headline instantly brought a couple of key difference to mind for me. At least by connotation, when I hear “ex-pat” I generally think of someone middle-class or above. If they self-identify as an ex-pat it’s likely that their connection to ‘home’ is stronger than their connection to their current country of residence. They are more likely to seek out people like themselves than to integrate fully in the community. And they may be in the country for a specific and limited amount of time.
Of course there are scales for all of those things – the spaces between visitor, ex-pat, immigrant, and local may be more of a fluid spectrum than distinct and sticky labels. Maybe I am inventing those distinctions, but when I look around here most of what I say holds true. For my fellow Cuso volunteers, the non-Jamaican Cuso staff, the people I’ve met who work here for foreign corporations, the staff of the High Commission – every one of those distinctions apply. Even as volunteers on a stipend we are still clearly economically better off than the far far majority of Jamaicans.
The ex-pat life is one of privilege. It can also be incredibly lonely.
The loneliness is particularly acute in a location such as Kingston where security is a factor in how free one is to get out and about.* And by one, as always, I mean me – the tall blonde who definitely stands out whether I want to or not. Some days I try to rock it, sing the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song in my head, smile, and stride purposefully down King’s Street. Other days I wish I could put a bag over my head. I’m sure every female friend I know here feels the same unavoidable spotlight on them. The attention may not actually be threatening, but it’s not just Cuso who has suggested restraint. My co-workers are constantly saying to me “you went THERE, you did WHAT?” – and I’m really truly not doing anything that seems risky.
My point is, getting out and about takes conscious effort and planning, and I’m a getting out and about-er. At home I’m more likely to be out than in of an evening. Even if I’m just popping over to the pub for nachos and cider, I can just hop in my car, drive three minutes, and never give a second thought to my safety. Some nights at home I would text a friend and she’d be over with a bottle of wine in under 20 minutes.
If I go out here, anything after 6 pm requires paying for a cab both ways or sticking to the one restaurant I’ve decided it’s safe to walk to. I love JoJo’s, but it’s getting old. And cabs – cabs mean extra money, time, effort to do anything or go anywhere, and – let’s be honest – come with their own risks.
For someone used to her freedom, and someone who craves connection, these barriers have a very real impact. I also find that JoJo’s and similar nearby restaurants attract a fair proportion of other ex-pats, and I’m generally disappointed by that. I feel like staying in ex-pat enclaves minimizes my experience in some ways. The familiar can be very comforting; it can also be very mundane.
I have put conscious thought into trying to expand my social circle here. I suppose it is a matter of time – both in terms of making connections and in terms of people not seeing value in getting to know someone who is only here a few months. Those few months sitting at home most evenings though are really starting to feel LONG.
I feel like I’m in a social catch-22; to stay safe I have to limit where I go, how/when I go, and with whom I go. But I long for freedom to explore, and people to explore with and it’s not like they’re going to fall from the ceiling to find me sitting in my room. It is getting better. I have let co-workers know I’d like to do things with them. I have started actively trying to meet new people and to ask them to help me meet people. But still … this belle would really like to go to the ball. I’d even settle for a sock-hop.**
* Apparently Cuso used to give volunteers in high security areas a bonus in their stipend to help cover the extra costs of security like all the cab fares. I vote we bring that back).
** Is it just me, or is it absolutely insane that I’ve been in Jamaica 3 months and have yet to go dancing?