All the hubbub this month has been about Star Wars, and with good reason. The world has been waiting for a great sequel to the original Star Wars films, and the new movie delivers. It has great pacing, impressive skyfights, a dazzling light saber duel, and a female star who gets to do a lot more than wear a gold bikini.
But amid all the excitement over Star Wars these days, I can’t forget my first geeky sci-fi love, one that takes place not in a galaxy far, far away, but in our very own solar system a few hundred years into the future. From the very first time I was allowed to stay up late and watch an episode of the original Star Trek with my dad in syndication on a small TV with a floppy antenna, I was hooked. In the episode, a tall, sinister alien roams underground caves on a faraway planet and kills its victims by sucking all the salt out of their bodies. What nine-year-old kid wouldn’t love that?!
As it happens, my first introduction to Star Trek took place at the same time I was being introduced to expat living. In 1984 we were enjoying an “exchange summer” in England made possible by my father’s job as a minister with the United Methodist Church. In a transatlantic switcheroo, my dad exchanged jobs with a minister in England, along with our houses, cars, and even pets. For one summer we were able to live as the locals did, in a small town in southeast England called Chandler’s Ford, while an English minister and his family enjoyed the Arizona desert town we normally called home.
So it was the BBC that gave me my first taste of Star Trek, and that was the summer I learned how to be an expat, becoming best friends with the neighbors and accidentally adopting their British accent, picking vegetables for dinner out of our back garden with delight, and discovering that Penguin biscuits, Cadbury flake, and Smarties made up for the M&Ms I missed from home. I also wholeheartedly embraced the British tradition of “high tea,” because what fourth-grader is going to say no at 4:00 pm to a table groaning with layer cakes, biscuits, sweet scones, and an orange drink so sugary it could be used to bring back the dead? I loved living in England that summer, and I’m sure it paved the way for my expat adventures as an adult.
In homage to that first viewing, today I am using Star Trek as inspiration for the perfect wish list: all the things I didn’t get for Christmas but could really use for the expat life. After all, the crew of the Enterprise set out on a five-year journey to unknown lands, tasked to explore but not inflict harm or change too much about what they see. An appropriate expat model, no?
Upon closer viewing, it’s obvious that many of the items at their disposal would be very helpful for expats here in 2016. Here are a few:
1. A Universal Translator. Wouldn’t it be nice to just show up in a new country speaking the language with a flick of a button instead of stumbling your way through the top ten commonly used phrases, only to run out of conversation about thirty-five seconds in? Instead, it takes hours and hours to grasp even a passing familiarity with a foreign language, and when you leave you might never have use for it again. Setswana, the national language of Botswana where I currently live in Africa, is spoken by about five million people. That’s fewer people than live in the city of Athens (Greek being another language I don’t speak).
2. A Food Replicator. Much ink has already been spilled about the difficulties of finding the special food you love from home while overseas, and its absence is more poignant at the holidays when you’d like everything to be perfect. For me personally, it doesn’t feel like Christmas without cider simmering away on the stove filling up the house with its warming aroma. Rather than asking for “Earl Grey, hot” from that box in the wall, I would have demanded a gallon of real apple cider so cloudy and authentic you could hide a mountain of cloves and cinnamon sticks in its swirling depths. Instead we settled for homemade raspberry lemonade (which, I have to say, went down pretty easy on a ninety degree day).
3. A Holodeck. What I really want for Christmas every year I am overseas is a real Christmas tree. In Botswana and my previous post in Pakistan, the nearest live pines might as well have been a hundred parsecs away, so I’ve settled for scrawny fake trees that must be arranged “just so” to hide the metal pole shooting up the middle. They don’t have real Christmas trees on starships either, but (at least on the “Next Generation”), they do have the holodeck, where you can fit every sight, sound, and smell you are missing from home conveniently into a space no bigger than a yoga studio. Bonus: you can also simulate every potentially awkward cross-cultural encounter before you arrive in country so you can get your mistakes out of the way.
4. A Tribble. I can’t think of a better, fluffier pet with which to delight my kids on Christmas morning or wow the neighbors. Tribbles are much more portable than the yellow Labrador that our family actually has, who requires complicated transit paperwork and exorbitant pet shipment fees every time we make an international move. A tribble could slip easily into my daughter’s backpack across any border, and also entertain the kids every time we are waiting in line to pay our water bill or at the bank watching three tellers attempt to service forty customers. Sure, these fine establishments would be loaded down with rapidly multiplying Tribbles by the time our errands were done, but the kids would stay entertained and isn’t that the important thing?
5. A Communicator. The producers of Star Trek made a pretty uncanny replica of a flip phone more than thirty years before real cell phones actually existed. But real cell phones are subject to poor signals, roaming fees, and running out of minutes on your pre-paid mobile because you are a newcomer not willing to sacrifice the limb required to obtain a phone contract in a foreign country. On the other hand, communicators work on subspace frequency, giving you a reliable form of instant communication with your loved ones even if they’re in orbit around the planet. This would be much better than another alternative I’ve tried, which is to pop into a series of internet cafes all over a foreign city hoping my lost friend would do the same and receive my desperate emails.
6. Warp Drive. Anyone who has taken kids on a long international flight needs no further explanation on this one.
7. A tricorder. Worried about the quality of health care in your new country? Not in the mood to navigate an emergency room in a foreign city in the middle of the night for what may be either a serious illness or just indigestion? Enter the tricorder! With just the flip of a button and less complicated to operate than a television remote, Dr. McCoy’s trusty tricorder could gently scan your loved one’s head or body part to instantly reveal all manner of ailments from Rigellian Fever to Bendii Syndrome. Now that’s an invention you need to take with you on the road. And don’t scoff: a real one may be coming soon.
8. A Uniform. Everyone onboard Captain Kirk’s starship, or any ship in Starfleet, is dressed in the exact same tight-fitting synthetic bodysuit, helpfully organized according to color so you know everyone’s specialty at first glance: red for engineering and security, blue for science and medical, and gold for (of course) management. Especially after just landing in a new country, it would be so helpful for someone to hand me a standard-issue uniform guaranteed to be culturally appropriate, climate tailored, and with a skirt so short it would embarrass a cheerleader (okay, not that last one).
9. Credits. On any planet the crew happens to land, “credits” are acceptable payment for everything from Andorian Ale to a new holster for that phaser of yours (set on “stun” of course). I’m very happy to hear that the future has figured out the problem of multiple currencies, dispensing with cumbersome exchange rates and the highway robbery of commission fees. If we could do the same here on planet earth, I could throw out that massive dish gathering dust on my nightstand filled with everything from rand to rupees.
10. A Mission Statement. Remember those stirring words that began every broadcast? Every episode starts the same way, with the captain intoning solemn, inspiring words about “the final frontier” and the voyages of a starship whose mission is to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before” (changed of course to the gender-neutral “no one” by the time “Star Trek: the Next Generation” rolled around in the 1990s.) No, expats are not going where no one has ever gone before, but we are exploring what to us are strange new worlds, and doing it boldly.
Although these gifts are sadly not possible yet, I hope everyone got what you wanted this Christmas, whether your expat life has brought you to a tropical paradise like Risa or a windy frozen rock like Rura Penthe. For the new year, may we all live long and prosper!
A condensed version of this post first ran in Wall Street Journal Expat on January 1, 2015.
Photo: Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, James Doohan, with phasers, 1966-1969.Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection