So, You’re Thinking About Becoming an Expat? A Meditation on Distance and the American Theatre

There’s a lot of talk about leaving the country these days. I hear New Zealand and Canada top the list as attractive destinations. As a sensitive theatre artist, appalled at the state of the nation, perhaps you, too, are thinking of taking the leap (or plunge). I want to share my tale with you. It’s a cautionary tale. I don’t generally like to reveal too much about myself. But as I’ve been pondering the current situation, I’ve been thinking my story might have something to say about what it means to be an expat, as a person and playwright, and also, perhaps, a little something about the American theatre, as I have experienced it. 

I never meant to be an expat. It’s not that I had anything against it, necessarily, having spent considerable periods outside the country growing up. But it was not how I envisioned my life. And there’s something slightly unsavory about expats, isn’t there? For one thing, your accent changes, and you sound inauthentic and stilted, a bit pretentious. As if you’ve turned your back on who you are.

Cultural history is rife with expats.…It’s a loaded term, applied primarily to Western privileged immigrants. It implies the luxury of choice. Expats have chosen to remove themselves from their own culture, chosen another way of life.

What happened was I met a German woman. We had no rights to be together in America (a situation that remained in place until two years ago with the passage of marriage equality), so I left New York for Berlin where it was possible for us to live together. That was twenty-five years ago. Those were heady days. I was just starting life as a playwright. I had a couple of first plays and an enthusiastic young agent at a fancy agency. There appeared to be interest in my work. 

And I was head over heels in love. I won’t bore you with the state of my soul at the time, but meeting this woman pretty much saved my life. I gave up my New York apartment, breezily handed responsibility for my plays to the agent and moved to Berlin. Little did I know I had just committed professional suicide. But more of that later.

Painting by George Grosz titled Kaffé (Café), 1915–16.

Cultural history is rife with expats. I want to pause at the word, itself. It’s a loaded term, applied primarily to western privileged immigrants. It implies the luxury of choice. Expats have chosen to remove themselves from their own culture, chosen another way of life. They’ve not been uprooted by economic necessity or the sheer will to survive. These are folks who have sought and found a place more conducive to their sensibility and values. 

There are quite a few American expats in Berlin, as it happens. We came together as a group to protest the Iraq war on February 15, 2003. (Since that auspicious day, member-groups of American Voices Abroad have sprung up all over the world.) And I’ve found the expat definition holds true to varying degrees. Many left during the Vietnam war, others had a particular connection to Germany, its language, its philosophy, its arts, and came first to study and never left. There are soldiers who were stationed here before the wall came down who then stayed on.

Often, it’s love that seals the deal. But even when the love ends, the exile remains. After a time, it seems, you just can’t go back home. It’s not like Dorothy says. You’re too changed. You’ve gotten used to things, including not belonging. You can no longer envision belonging anywhere. In my case, the relationship that brought me to Berlin has lasted through many ups and downs. We both gave up a lot to keep it going.

That’s the personal history in a nutshell. What I want to address here is why living outside the country might have so determined my fate as an American playwright. Most obviously, theatre is community, and communities are not built in a day. Nor are they built in sporadic visits, when your life is primarily somewhere else entirely. I made a number of pleasant, hopeful contacts over the years, bonded temporarily while working on this or that project. Some encounters deepened into lasting friendships, but the fact of the matter is I was mostly not around. And I was far away.

Ah, if it were that simple. But over the years, I began to sense something else going on. Call me paranoid, but I came to sense a disapproval, even hostility from some quarters. I could share some pretty telling comments and reactions, but suffice it to say, I was admonished for thinking I could have a career from outside of New York or London, let alone another country. I began receiving responses to my work along the lines that both my work and I just didn’t belong. It appeared that my work lacked something indefinably American, and beyond that, contained something suspect (perhaps foreign). And because the work and the person are so intertwined, I began to feel that I was suspect, too. 

It all comes down to distance in the end. As an expat, distance has defined every aspect of my life…And given this, why wouldn’t distance seep into my work?

Was it arrogant to assume that I had something to say about my people and my culture from afar? I was pegged as “difficult” in some quarters, that most dreaded accusation. My positions were too critical, a trait I seemed to have picked up in Germany, where if you don’t say what you think you aren’t taken seriously. It began to dawn on me that my expectation for acceptance had been naïve at best. And then it hit me.

It all comes down to distance in the end. As an expat, distance has defined every aspect of my life. Not only is it my experience of life lived, but the way I’m experienced by others. And given this, why wouldn’t distance seep into my work? And if so, is it not possible that what I had been sensing all along was not personal at all, but anathema to distance in the American theatre? 

Which brings me to a short interlude on the question of presence in the theatre. We all know that the stage is a place of presence. Presence defines the art. But the perception of presence lives through its counterpart, absence, does it not? Without absence how can there be presence, after all. Is it not conceivable that in the space between presence and absence, meaning is found? And might meaning be the quality of distance? Brecht thought so, of course. His “distancing effect” was meant to create a space for thought and action, beyond empathy and emotion. But American theatre practitioners never took to it. And anyway, it was largely disproved in practice, audiences still felt sympathy for his characters. 

That’s because distance, at its most essential, has little to do with intellect or theory. I turn to painters for an answer. Painters, like Julie Heffernan, who writes:

Gaining distance, both in a painting and as I am painting, involves a series of gambits. I turn somersaults, sometimes literally, in order to gain distance, to be able to see the painting anew, as if from afar, the idea being that distance, with the perspective that comes with it, provides objectivity. I think we can all safely say that distance provides perspective, no? So, I look in mirrors, use reducing glasses and sneaking up on my work, all in order to see the painting from a distance.

The artist, it seems, steps back to see more clearly, but also further. Distance contains perspective, but also depth. I ask my sister-in-law, another painter, Suzanne Stryk, what distance means to her.

“As a painter, ‘distance’ makes me think of deep space, of things in that space getting bluer, softer, and lighter as they recede.”

Is it possible that distance, as a measure of time as well as place, is a kind of looking back upon a thing? Blue was seized on by early Renaissance painters to create perspective, but also something more. The author Rebecca Solnit, defines it like this in her essay on the blue of distance:

“The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there, seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go.” 

Distance is yearning, I can attest to that. 

Now, the expat life from outside looks pretty good, I know. And Berlin is quite the city. You might expect the likes of me to be found lounging in cafés with good beer or cycling down leafy cobbled streets. And you would be right. Life is good here, still relatively reasonable and social. I mean social in the sense that I have cheap artists’ health insurance and no matter what, will never end up hungry or on the street. 

But I have missed my country terribly and always will. I yearn for it. What I miss most, after loved ones, are the references. I breathe a sigh of relief when I am home. I understand the references without having to think about them. And the language of course. (Writing is my communion with English.) And American friendliness and the ease of connection. And I’m in a state of constant worry about the place, especially now. The idea that we expats don’t give a hoot about America is misleading at best. I am obsessed by my own culture and follow it as closely as any active and concerned citizen—perhaps differently from those inside its borders, in the way of distance.

It’s ironic, but a fact, that since volunteering at the local asylum seekers’ home, I’ve begun to feel a sense of belonging here in Berlin. I feel a kinship with the displaced, intuit what it’s like for a person to land in a strange world stripped of all bearings. And then there’s my allotment garden, acquired a few years back. Growing things on a plot of land helps to root you to a place like nothing else.

The author with zucchini. Photo by Lydia Stryk.

So, you’re thinking about becoming an expat? Personally, I’d opt for New Zealand, given half the chance. But if you should choose to give Berlin a try, I’ll be happy to welcome you. I’ll take you on a tour down leafy cobbled streets lined with cafés. We’ll stop off for a good beer. 

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i find that moving from one state to another has created similar distance and longings. I was raised in Michigan. It's home. It's where i belong. It's the roots of me. Michigan is what i understand, and it's where I'm understood. I'm accepted without question. I live in California now for 28 years and still feel as if i am a visitor. My Michigan accent still is perceptive and I'm continually asked, "where are you from?" "I'm from Michigan" i say, and feel the immediate adjustment of the listener into their preconceived notions of what people from Michigan are like. And then there i stay in their little compartment.

Lydia, It is lovely to hear your perspective, which has gained distance not only through miles, but through time. Something steely grabs hold of us when we struggle with the idea of leaving. Many of us didn't. Most of us didn't. And we look back on our selves after many years and wonder who we might have been had we settled elsewhere.

Quite touching and oh, so true. The fate of an expat, it seems, is to belong in the cracks of in-between. Always pondering of going back, never quite fully having arrived. Thanks for sharing.

Thank you for sharing your stories of distance. It's been fascinating reading responses here and in other places that reveal to me how distance affects so many people's lives in one way or another. Not only expats feel this distance, but also those who live at a distance from theatre centres within the country. Others have expressed feelings of estrangement, a sense of no longer being at home, in Trump's America. Someone wrote me about distance acquired in spiritual practice. And I've also been reminded that every artist relies on an innate creative distance to do their work.

I spent a week in Berlin for one of my vacations. Ich wohne in Pennsylvania. I live four hours from New York City so I can visit the city often but I can't really network. Many creative people love to travel because they crave novelty. Theater also offers novelty. Every play is a new world that the audience is invited to explore. I think of an expat as a great explorer venturing into the unknown while I'm just a tourist in the unknown.

I moved to Australia 30 years ago from NYC. I'm still here. I still miss "home". I still ache for it sometimes. I have a good life here, it's a good place to live, but I will always feel like I belong somewhere else. It's not easy to leave that place of belonging, no matter your motives, and you just don't replace it. For those fleeing war, persecution, or whatnot, it would be different,I'm sure, but for me, leaving America for Australia, it has been a long, tough road, albeit a sunny one.

I live in Southern Italy for a good part of the year and the rest of the time in New Jersey. The most difficult transition for me was and still is coming to grips with my East Coast 'let's get it done" personality. Here, things move at a much slower pace with much discussion. As a writer, I found myself forcing myself to write plays - forcing is the operative word here. One day it hit me - the blog that I started about living in Italy is the foundation of a memoir and a cookbook. The creativity has shifted in focus but it still peeks out at the Sannio Hills of Pontelandolfo. Thank you for sharing your tale. PS Democrats Abroad is very active

Thank you for this beautiful essay that touched me on many levels. Sometimes I feel like an expat but then I just moved to Pittsburgh and of course that means I live in Pennsylvania which often feels like another country to this girl from Queens. The longing that comes with distance as you describe it is something I understand though it has lessened somewhat as I've gotten older it will always be there. Writers need to be part of their community but we also need to be on the outside looking in. That tension is what keeps many of us writing.