Much research on couples and migration focuses on marriage migration and tends to examine how the migrant partner integrates (or not) into the native partner’s country (Koelet and de Valk 2014). What I’m finding with the couples I’m interviewing, though, is while they do make connections with the local community, they are equally interested being in an international community. This has the effect of the local person becoming part of a global community, rather than just the migrant partner being absorbed into the local.
Jessica, Canadian, and Boris, Belgian were both already quite disposed to international travel, Boris having lived in several countries when he was young, both of them having done exchange programmes at university. Boris had friends from different countries, but his social networks in Brussels were largely made up of local people. When Jessica, moved to Brussels, her desire and need to establish friendships of her own led her to meet people from elsewhere. She made friends with people from many different countries and her husband became involved with these networks too. So for them, creating social networks in Brussels has not just brought Jessica into Boris’ networks, but she has played an important role in creating new opportunities for both her and her husband. In this example, Boris was already quite internationally connected, but a similar thing happened to Frank, who had not had much international experience.
When Frank, a young Belgian met Aranxta, a young Spanish woman he said it ‘opened his eyes’. He had not travelled a great deal before he met her, and his previous girlfriends were local. Meeting Arantxa exposed him to her culture, and way of life. He feels that because of this, his life trajectory has changed from what was quite a predictable course. Since he began a relationship with Arantxa different options are open to him, and there is less obviousness about his future, in part because there is no precedent for this in his immediate family. They have lots of friends now from the international community in Belgium and their relationship has made him feel part of an international community.
Not wanting to be Local
Couples who have different nationalities, but neither one are Belgian, have talked about needing an international environment because they don’t want to be local. They actively seek out an international community, and living in a country that neither of them is from is one way of doing this.
Sophie, a German woman mentioned her concerns about moving to London, her partner David’s home. She was worried about having to ‘integrate’ into his world, and about losing access to an international lifestyle. London is a very international city, but Sophie felt that by no longer being on ‘neutral’ ground they would become too easily absorbed into local life. She would be positioned as the foreigner, among a host of locals, which would include her partner, and their nationality would be more salient than in an international context, where it matters much less where you are from. She wanted not to be local above all else.
Having an international viewpoint is important for Kirsten, a Belgian, who has lived in the U.S. for many years. David, her husband who is American talked about how he was finding that now they were in Belgium, if he criticises the country, she gets defensive. Kirsten said she doesn’t feel particularly Belgian as she hasn’t lived there for much of her life, but is disappointed that her husband couldn’t adapt easily to their new environment. So when David criticises the country, he reveals himself as someone who is not adaptable, not a ‘world citizen’ which is at odds with her view.
Embracing the Global
An international community is similar to, but subtly different from an expatriate community. A typical expatriate community is mono-national or mono-lingual and tends to live in an isolated niche, avoiding the locals, seek out home comforts and want to return home (see for example Eric Cohen’s work). The couples I’m interviewing speak a number of languages, enjoy meeting people from all over, often avoid co-nationals, and want to extend this outlook to their children.
For these couples, being an international or ‘world citizen’ is not about rejecting the local, nor is it about one partner becoming an undistinguished part of the other’s world. It seems what it is about, is embracing the local and making it part of their own global, cosmopolitan outlook.