If you live in a nation as densely packed with expatriates as the UAE, then you may frequently find yourself conversing with living exhibits, writes Justin Thomas
New Romantic? I know when you came to the UAE
The opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi presents a great opportunity to appreciate the beauty and culture of the world across many ages. However, one need not visit a museum to experience snapshots of past cultural epochs. If you live in a nation as densely packed with expatriates as the UAE, then you may frequently find yourself conversing with living exhibits or expat fossils who perfectly embody the zeitgeist of the time and place they expatriated from.
This psychological fossilisation is a function of departure date and duration. In other words, expatriate fossilisation becomes more likely with each passing year away from one’s homeland. A similar phenomenon can be observed among convicts who, upon release, can sometimes represent perfectly preserved snapshots of the era just before their incarceration.
I once worked in a small shop situated close to a large prison in the UK. Occasionally, newly released prisoners or parolees would frequent the shop. A customer's ex-convict status wasn't always instantly apparent; however, you could usually spot them by their outdated product requests for packets of Opal Fruits (now called Starburst) or chocolate bars called Marathon (now called Snickers).
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The situation is similar with expat fossils. I once attended a dinner party with a British colleague who'd been ex (out of) patria (homeland) for more than 25 years – a lifer, in prison terms. Like some kind of psychological palaeontologist, I set about carbon dating his cultural composition. I classified the specimen as having departed the UK sometime around 1985, during the mid-Thatcher years. He had left just before political correctness went “mad”. This factor was reflected in his after-dinner banter, which he peppered with comments that might, by contemporary global standards, be considered sexist and racist. Seeing him interact with the other diners, most of whom were recently arrived expats, was like watching someone attempt to force a floppy disk into an iPad. His was a mind that time forgot.
It's not only attitudes that get frozen; some long-term expats are also perfectly preserved snapshots of past fashion, living reminders of how we used to dress. I had one elegant, debonair friend who left the UK during the rise of the new romantics when pop groups such as Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and Ultravox were riding high in the charts and massively influencing what the more fashion conscious youth wore. True to the attire that was popular when he left the UK, my friend continued to sport a skinny tie and an eccentric hairdo, paying homage to new romanticism with a wardrobe that time forgot.
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The occasional visit, back to the birth country, will provide a reminder that things have moved on without us. But for some expats, this is not enough, and they remain frozen, a freeze frame of Karachi in 1984, Damascus in 1997 or Manchester in 2006. These are the walking exhibits, found in every corner of the UAE.
Some expats who return home after decades overseas might find that they are now cultural aliens in their homelands. Sitting at the petrol station in a British town, waiting for someone to come and pump the gas, momentarily forgetting that “self-service” is the way that things are done in the UK. Fossilised, repatriated expats face challenges of time and place. However, re-acclimatisation will eventually happen; patience is all that is typically required.
We should appreciate our expat fossils while we still can. Alas, our world is shrinking and globalisation's homogenising influence will make expat fossilisation a thing of the past. However, until then, continue to enjoy the living exhibits, the walking time capsules, wherever they are.
Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University