Life As An Expat in Tel Aviv: Where Am I Local? The Most Difficult Question For Many

A rather personal account of living abroad in the postmodern world.

Words: Meri Frig

Image: Author's own

Image: Author's own

“Don’t ask me where I am from, ask me where I am local,” encourages Taiye Selasi in her famous TED talk. The insight resonated with many, who do not have an easy answer to this question that, on the other hand, to some, may be considered innocent. They may be referred to as expats, immigrants, nomads, or simply cosmopolitans.

Third Culture Kids, or people that have spent a significant portion of their childhood outside their parents’ culture, do not necessarily have the answer to ‘where are you from’. In the short film So Where’s Home, one explained that he feels TCKs live in a grey zone between the culture they grew up in and the culture they are from, therefore not fully integrating in either. 'Rootless' and 'confused' are words that are often used to describe the Third Culture Individuals. They may even feel most at home at airports in all possible corners of the world. Sometimes, with having a mother from one culture and father from another, TCKs know how to connect with people from very different backgrounds, and attune to cultural subtleties so foreign to many others. 

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros tell us that Home is Where Ever I’m with You. A professor at my university once called himself a love refugee, having ended up in Finland to live there with his partner. I reckon I could be called one too, having moved to Tel Aviv to be with the man of my dreams. Although the term 'love refugee' does not resonate with me the slightest, and also does feel politically terribly incorrect.

"What should we ask when we meet someone new, if 'Where are you from' or 'What do you do' would not reveal anything meaningful?"

Image: Author's own

Image: Author's own

Although I'm not theoretically a Third Culture Kid, I don’t fully integrate in where I am originally from, or where I currently live. Honestly, my head has always been in the clouds, as has also been pointed out to me many times ever since I was a child. A daydreamer, absent-minded, Walter Mitty, a person with a strong imagination. That's what I've been told from early on. 

Being abroad, I have mostly spent time with my dog, hoping he will not start talking back to me. I work on my laptop, practice yoga with the Yogaia app, run with my Spotify playlist. Lost in Translation has always been my favourite movie, and it turns out I made my own reality reflect that, at least a little.

I have learned the local language and to read the cryptic letters, understand the local slang. In fact, some Hebrew words have now become common in my vocabulary. Most commonly, 'balagan': a big mess, chaos. 'Yalla', of course, meaning, 'let’s'. I still have not got over shouting to my dog 'die', which in Hebrew means 'stop' or 'enough'.

When I read or hear my mother tongue, Finnish, I believe I can understand very subtle meanings, read between the lines. Hebrew I would most often not fully understand, even if I understood every word. Physically my spoiled, beloved refugee bum is here, yet I am not really here, fully present, local.

"I still have not got over shouting to my dog 'die', which in Hebrew means 'stop' or 'enough'."

Image: Author's own

Image: Author's own

I have learned not to take everything literally anymore, I believe ('How are you' may not actually be a question to be answered). When I first talked to my husband and he called me dear, little did I know everybody is dear or sweety in here. I believed in every word he said, but luckily that did not get me into any further trouble.

Lonely Planet once informed about the different stages of culture shock. First, you fall in love with a place. You want to move there, inhale the place, experience it, invite all your friends to share it with you. Slowly, however, you start imagining the place where you once lived as superior again: where you grew up the food tastes better, the commercials are better, people are better. When, or if, you finally revisit this imagined place, you often notice you no longer ‘belong there’, you have changed, and that is when the biggest culture shock appears.

For many, the most immediate connection to home can be found wherever there is Wi-Fi. Your family, your friends, or maybe your long-distance girlfriend goes everywhere with you. The meaning of home has now changed for many. Our origin story gives a sense of security and belonging, which is said to be paramount, yet it is, to an extent, imagined (Vice, Reddit, and Wikipedia have even reported of an existing conspiracy theory that states that Finland does not really exist, but is fabricated by the Soviet Union and Japan).

What really characterises our authentic selves now, if not our demographics? What should we ask when we meet someone new, if 'Where are you from' or 'What do you do' would not reveal anything meaningful?

When I mention I am from Finland, the reaction I usually face is either 'Ah! Nils Holgersson' or 'Oh, it must be very cold in there!'. Parents tell their children that Meri comes from Frozen. As a response to these comments, I nod and smile, because although they are mostly positive and even flattering, my genuine, authentic self wants to hear about you rather than talk about me.