Freedom of expression when living abroad...

Published 2019-10-31 10:46

Freedom of expression is important for most of us. Being ourselves is important. And being able to express our opinions and thoughts freely is a right we hold on to. When moving abroad, however, this can change. Whether because of laws that prevent freedom of expression, or because of unwritten rules which confine one to certain norms… one’s freedom to express oneself can change during expatriation.  When relocating to a new country, the freedom of expression is closely related to the need for acceptance. The old patterns of identification with the home culture slightly dissolve, and new ways of behavior and thought arise. How do expats deal with this?

Lorenzo is a 27 year old physicist who comes from Naples and currently lives in Hamburg. Lorenzo is openly gay, and is very comfortable speaking about it, claiming that he never perceived any kind of discrimination. In the Neapolitan culture, femminelli, gay men are predominantly present and who are not only integrated in the society, but are also believed to bring good luck. On the other hand, the Westernized gay culture present in cities like Hamburg brings a more mainstream side of it which behind the veil of support sometimes overlooks the importance of understanding individuality. Does Lorenzo feel that the different norms have curtailed his freedom to be himself in any way? “I am free of any social or political norm that the world could impose.”  However, Lorenzo does feel happier and more free to be himself in Italy, where he plans to live with his boyfriend.

Cindy is 42 years old. She currently lives in Bassano del Grappa, with her Italian husband. They met in her birth country, Hong Kong. Since moving to Italy four years ago, she has been learning the language and therefore, feels comfortable and accepted by her friends and family members in the country. As we all know, today Hong Kong is going through difficult times, as the people rise against an extradition bill. This collision of democracy and the persistence of the masses is what she finds confusing as it is creating an undemocratic environment. “If I were in Hong Kong I would avoid saying my opinion publicly because of pressure from many sides. I would not like my name to be known, as it can be dangerous”. In Europe, however, she loves her life more than ever before. Cindy believes that Italy is a relaxed country although knowledge of the language brings people closer and helps with expressing opinions. She likes her freedom and manages to find joy in being herself even in a small city like Bassano.

Federica is a 28 year old Milanese girl, who recently moved to follow her boyfriend in Paris. She is a model, working for important haute couture brands, but also a photographer, a traveler and a seeker for truth beyond beauty. She explains the ease to move from one to another European city, without the worry of losing herself: “I dress up the way I like, and I talk the way I feel. I am, after all a young, cheerful girl and I try to be as simple as I can be without losing my creativity.” She believes that Paris offers an international environment, where the people are not scared of differences. According to her, this is a symptom of large metropolises where artistic and cultural liberty is important, and that as a consequence, people are more open. “Surely not everybody is open-minded. I try to respect them and accept it as the reality of living in Paris instead of being irritated by it. I come from a similar culture, and as everywhere in Europe, it is important to accept some people’s rigidity without making a fuss. `` Understanding the temptation to adopt the collective identity in large cities, she does not feel threatened by it. Her prerogative is to learn and eagerly listen to other opinions without having to think inside the box. Her curiosity, originality and femininity remain untouched.

Rouben is a 60 years old engineer, who is about to retire in Quebec City, Canada. Originally from Douala, around the age of twenty he decided to completely move to Canada, leaving his past life behind. Shifting between two completely different environments for Christian was not an easy task, and the transition was not linear. Cameroon is a country located in Central Africa bordered by the Atlantic Ocean.  While it is a region with a relatively high literacy rate, since 2018 it has become the target of serious violation of human rights in the form of torture, burning down homes, and violence. Moreover it is an environment where gay people face legal charges and women rights are just starting to rise. 

Rouben was hardly influenced by the environment in which he grew, and his aspirations led him to continue his studies in Canada. Even so, moving to the new environment brought difficulties, and, with his Canadian wife, they still remember the painful moments when he had faced discrimination solely based on his skin color. One of the most democratic countries in the world seemed at times hostile. Nevertheless, he chose to never give up. He embraced hard work, and attracted people around him with his positive personality. Eventually he managed to find the subtle way to acceptance in the new environment, where he founded his home and family. For him the right to express was a difficult topic, but was ever-present through his diligence and character. For him the right to express was a difficult topic, but was ever-present through his diligence and character.

Understanding the complexity of moving from a democratic country to a one where communism still exists is complex. Countries like China have a reputation of being controlled, an information that brings fear among expatriates, who are used to expressing themselves freely in their country of origin. This seems to be in some cases true, as some of the attempts for an interview with European settlers in Asia were declined. “Expression is a delicate subject for me, especially here”, an expat said. Many of the foreigners confirm that discussing a topic concerning China and the surrounding areas such as Hong Kong and Taiwan would not sit well with the authorities. Some believe that often facts tend to be overlooked in the light of ideology. This though does not mean that opinions are not expressed, and many say that among individuals there is the liberty to discuss (which in democratic countries constitutes the public sphere). A chat with Marko, a 32 year old sport teacher from Macedonia, brings an understanding of how this freedom is perceived in the eyes of the people from the Balkans. Marco lived in China for five years, where he worked in international bilingual schools. “China is overall a safe country, and I have never felt in danger while walking or travelling. This is the reason why many people decide to come with their families“. He believes that the conservative values are slowly starting to fade away, and that people have become more comfortable with showing their individuality.