I’m usually a few years late to the party when it comes to pop culture. I’d like to blame this on living overseas, but the truth is I didn’t start watching “Lost” until Season 4, and I still haven’t seen Avatar, Crash, or Million Dollar Baby, even though I was living stateside when they all hit it big.
So it is no surprise I hopped on “The Americans” bandwagon just a few weeks ago. But as soon as I did, I rode it hard. I was hooked from the pilot and binge-watched my way straight through dozens of episodes, enjoying the finale of Season Three when it aired a few days ago.
I love the premise: an average American husband and wife with two kids and a home in the burbs are actually badass Russian spies gathering intel on the U.S. and trying to weaken capitalism from within. I also love the 1980s, so the kitsch from the era strewn through every scene is a happy bonus. (My family had that exact same yellow smiley face cookie jar.)
And sure, they’re communist spies: but first and foremost, Elizabeth and Philip are expats. So instead of considering those hours spent glued to the TV as wasted time, I’d like to call it “research.” In the spirit of rebranding my idle entertainment as useful study for my overseas lifestyle, here are ten things “The Americans” taught me about how to thrive abroad:
No, you don’t have to remove all traces of your native accent and drop the caviar like a hot potato (or any other any item that reminds you of your home country). But even before you leave, it’s worth learning a few key phrases in the local language and making sure not to offend any cultural norms. When I was living in Pakistan this meant no bare legs, and here in Botswana it’s a no-no to get visibly angry in public places. If Elizabeth can wear high-waisted jeans and tacky earrings to fit into ’80s America, you can make a few adjustments too.
2. Be tough.
Elizabeth has a mean roundhouse kick that she can deliver to any foe or FBI man that steps out of the bushes, while Philip can take a blow to the face and keep on ticking. I don’t have martial arts training, but I have developed a thicker skin from living overseas. You’ll need this toughness to survive 16-hour flights with a toddler in economy class, co-workers openly pointing to your belly and saying “you’re fat” anytime you’ve gained a few pounds (this is a compliment in Botswana), and being 100 yards away from a suicide blast that decimated a hotel in Kabul (=worst job interview ever).
3. Be resourceful.
When you’re a spy for the KGB, you have to do a little of everything: plant bugs in briefcases, hot-wire cars, and keep your daughter away from organized religion while running a successful travel agency. When you’re a busy working mom living in Africa, it helps if you can rig up an entire meal for six without power, conduct a Skype call with Washington while simultaneously putting the kids to bed, and circumvent the usual two-hour wait at the water utility without starting a riot. My husband has been forced to become a semi-professional electrician, carpenter, pool cleaner, and plumber in order to keep our household running. Jacks and Jills-of-all-Trades do well abroad.
4. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
For the Jennings, it’s idle backyard barbecue chatter and the “opiate of the masses” that give them the heebie-jeebies about living in America. In Botswana, it’s showering under a cold trickle three days per week and the smell of chicken livers at every restaurant that give me that downer feeling. Security lockdowns and my driver getting interrogated by the ISI made it hard to rest easy in Islamabad every so often. No matter where you go, some things will take getting used to.
5. Be prepared to go without.
Yes, the Jennings moved to consumer-friendly America where the electricity never shuts off and there is food aplenty. But they can never again see their friends and their families, or even use their real names. No matter how posh or developed your destination country is, it won’t have all the comforts of home. I miss Thai food and fast internet the way Phillip and Elizabeth undoubtedly pine for ice-cold vodka and common ownership of the means of production.
6. Find your handler.
Phillip and Elizabeth’s handler looks like a friendly grandma, but Claudia is more ruthless than any assassin on the Kremlin payroll. Most importantly, she’s been in town longer than they have, so she makes sure the pair benefits from her wealth of experience. You’ll want to find someone similar in your new home: an older, wiser expat who can show you the ropes (and who, ideally, won’t kidnap and torture you one night just to make sure you’re loyal.)
7. On the other hand…Make firm ties with locals.
Philip’s relationship with Martha the secretary grants him access to the FBI and some of the best intelligence available, but it requires serious effort and hours and hours of commitment. I’m not suggesting a sham marriage is the way to cement your place in a new country, but it’s certainly worth putting in the time to make real friends and connections. You can’t truly understand a country or its people if you only hang out with other expats. Colleagues at work, playgroups, and artsy societies are good inroads into the culture.
8. Don a new wardrobe.
Elizabeth and Phillip have a stash of costumes that would make any drama club envious, and they know how to put a wig on so tight it won’t fly off during knife fights or vigorous honeytrap lovemaking. Pretending to be someone else overseas is not advisable, but you should be prepared for different threads than you’re used to. A new climate, social scene, and local customs may require unusual additions to your wardrobe; my closet has expanded to include shalwar kameeze, kurtas, and capulanas from my travels and is more interesting because of it. Try to enjoy new outfits as much as Elizabeth enjoys wearing those thigh-high boots. It’s fun to put on something different.
9. Don’t let your kids forget where they came from.
Even before Elizabeth decided to turn her daughter Paige into Mini-Spy, she was subtly implanting positive information about Mother Russia into her brain. (“Walking on the moon is okay, but some people think getting into space is the real thing.”) Your children will soon feel more at home in the new country than you do, so it’s worth keeping up the traditions of the motherland to give them a sense of their roots. It’s why we take our daughter to Fourth of July picnics at the US Embassy, teach her how to make Mexican food, and never ever let her say “zed.”
10. Work together.
Mr. and Mrs. Jennings have each other’s backs, whether while convincing their son Henry to do his homework or breaking the arms and legs of a corpse to fit discretely into a suitcase. It’s easier to go overseas with a partner who understands how much you miss Pandora and hate watching the Superbowl without the commercials. Take advantage of this resource if you can: it’s nice to have at least one person who really knows where you came from and will go back with you someday when you leave. And lucky for you, when you do return it won’t be with the CIA hot on your heels.