The last few months have been mild with a chance of uncertainty. There have been lows of sorrow and confusion, with projected highs in the upper range of understanding.
I’m exhausted. Yet after a lot of wine and some self-examination, I’ve think I’ve finally managed to diagnose myself.
I’m having a mid-expat life crisis.
We left the U.S. in October of 2008 for what was supposed to be two to three years. I’ve written extensively about that first year abroad in Cyprus, about our time in Copenhagen. About the ups and the downs and the lack of decent black beans. I’ve written about friendships and hardships, guilt, burnout–every time I think I’ve nothing left to write about, something else comes up.
This though, this is a new one for me. I may be far from home, but I suspect I’m far from alone in what I’m experiencing.
After eight years away, I feel like I’m straddling two different worlds. One foot is planted solidly at home while the other is well outside of its borders.
I’m still an American, but after eight years away from America I no longer feel 100% USDA approved.
It’s not surprising. If traveling is enough to broaden your horizons, living outside your culture implodes them. It changes you; for better, for worse, for both. Whether you’re gone for six months or sixteen years, you’re a different person than the one who packed up and left.
It’s a strange feeling when the things that always seemed familiar start to seem unfamiliar, when the once recognizable become unrecognizable.
Broadband and streaming have allowed us to keep up to date with trends. Social media lets us keep up with family and friends. Those things make slipping in and out a whole lot easier. But while I’ve been gone I’ve changed. The folks I left behind have changed. The country I left behind has changed as well.
The fact of the matter is, I’m not there, boots on the ground. I can only read and talk and do my best to understand those changes from afar. In one sense, I feel fully engaged because I pay more attention than when I actually lived there. In another, it’s like reading an echo.
I’m not experiencing it. It’s all second-hand smoke signals.
The issues that affect the day-to-day lives of my family and friends don’t affect me. I’m not driving on roads that need fixing or trying to scrape together enough money for a prescription that isn’t covered by my insurance. I dip in and enjoy the good bits and then fly out again, trying to figure out how to fix the bad bits from somewhere else. Not looking down upon, but looking in, at.
I am from America, but living outside of the U.S. for nearly a decade has changed the way I identify with being an American.
In a global game of spot the American, I’m probably a fairly easy to target. It’s not just the color of my passport or the whiteness of my very straight teeth. It’s not even the way I will forever pronounce tomato (just like it’s written). It’s the volume of my voice and my ideas, the phrases I use, the small customs I cling to because they’re important to me. It’s a bit of gung-ho, a little chutzpah, some bootstrap pulling but…
…the longer I’m away, the less identifying these things become. My speech has always been supplemented by a few British turns of phrase, but recently I’ve found myself using words that my American friends have trouble recognizing…and not being able to remember the American term at all. I have seen policies that so many Americans swear will never work not only work, but work well. I have found my own balance between what Americans constantly refer to as ‘exceptionalism’ and the less stressed principle of ‘good enough’.
So much of our self-identity is tied up in where we come from. Yet after all this time I feel a strange disconnect from that where. Each year we are away I’m spooling out further from the zone in which I firmly identify as American. At the same time, I’m probably more patriotic and pro-American than I ever was living there.
At what point do you become introduce yourself as being “from America” (or from Britain, Australia, France) as opposed to straight-up “American” (or British, Australian, French)?
I am straddling two worlds with not only with my feet, but with my ideology and my heart.
There are still so many things I miss about the US. I miss big-toothed smiles. I miss small talk with strangers in my own language. I miss people wishing me a good day. Watching the reboot of Ghostbusters with my kids recently I was blindsided by a visceral longing for New York City. For a few minutes in the dark of a Danish movie theatre, I longed to be back in my spirit home. (If others have a spirit animal, then damn it, I’m going to have a spirit home)
I miss corn on the cob and really good ground beef. I miss Target and Labor Day sales and New England beaches. I miss New England. I miss the scale of my country, the grandeur, the seasons, the possibility.
There’s a lot I miss.
There’s a lot I don’t.
One foot in the door, one foot out. It’s a bizarre place to reside, but ultimately not nearly as scary as taking one foot out altogether: From either place.
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After living abroad for 12+ years and changing multiple places of residence, I understand your feelings. I always have motherland blues when I go back. However, if you lived in the U.S. again (/when you live in the U.S. again), you might find out that you miss this life abroad, that people are all the same, that the sky is low and the world around is very small, even if you love it a lot. Once you are an expat, you stay at expat. Even if you come back home 🙂
Oh, I’m sure you are 100% right–and that’s part of the problem I think. I’m not sure which way to go!
Well, the thing is, it doesn’t matter where you go, at this point. Whenever you are, you carry your world in you. It sounds like a cheap movie line, but it’s true in this case: living abroad shows you that there is more than one reality, more than one set of beliefs about what’s wrong and what’s right, how things should be. It doesn’t happen right away when you move abroad but grows with time. It gives you freedom to think for yourself and to decide for yourself, since you understand that there are different ways of being, more than one. In a way, that makes your reality ways bigger than that of any country, even the US. It might be frightening at first but you get used to it in some time and will celebrate it soon.
It’s all true and it’s been the best decision we’ve made as a family for sure!
Gosh do I understand you and your feelings!!! German born and raised and having lived all over the world, settled down now happily in South India. But, of course I find it easier to talk and write in english, I dream and count in english, completely lost with german politics etc. etc., but now that I am getting older, I suddenly so miss my Birth Country, so many wonderful places I want to show my husband and our daughters. I think I have to agree with your Reader above “A Girl with….” when she said “once you are an expat, you stay an expat – even if you come back home”
It’s true and I find that thought comforting. I think about that a lot, the things my kids are missing out on, but also the benefits they get from this life. I think the benefits outweigh what they are missing. I hope–otherwise we are going to have some serious therapy bills in our future!
I’ve never been a ex-pat, unless living in Oklahoma for a few years counts. But I’ve traveled enough to understand the solemn truth in your words.
And stop calling me Goose when I want to comment.
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There are times I think Oklahoma would be more foreign to me than another country! (And, are you old enough to get the Goose reference?–it’s a definite Gen. X cultural reference!)
I’m assuming Top Gun, not something Goosebumpy.
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Indeed! (Goosebumps waaaay after my time ;-). )
So any people are searching for their place and we may even for a bit feel like we’ve found it . . .but honestly home is not here at all. It is where we began.
I think home is where we are together, whether it’s a hotel room or a parent’s back bedroom or wherever we happen to be paying rent. So in that, I feel lucky that I’m not actively searching–I just sometimes wonder if I’ve lost part of myself or just gained an additional bit.
Vert thought provoking! I believe living in Aussie I will always now be straddled in 2 worlds. As much as I miss small things like English countryside and pubs, M&S, decent clothes, cheap food, real chocolate, (a lot of which is now imported to Australia). I always consider that’s it’s really the people in the UK I miss and if they weren’t there I am not sure I would go back as frequently. The reality is there is always a part of me that remains there and if I were wealthy I would spend the 8 weeks of british summer there and return for Christmas as Xmas on the barbie will never be the same. I wonder how my children will feel when they are older and not been brought up seeing their millions of relations frequently. With FaceTime etc they can though not the same! I doubt the feeling of straddled between 2 worlds will change as when I went back to the UK did not think I could stay! I doubt the feeling will change, I’ll just get better with living with it!
What are these 8 weeks of British summer you speak of? ;-). I keep thinking it’s not that I keep stepping outside my comfort zone, it’s that my comfort zone widens. I think the loss of extended family time is the biggest drawback and the one that keep pulling me ‘home’. I think our kids will know no different–to them, this is normal and by default, will become their norm. Otherwise, as I said to someone else, lots of money in therapy bills!
True, should rephrase, 8 weeks of long days and light!
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Gosh I know exactly how you feel! I have slowly – and never really intentionally – hit the 20 year mark. Back and forth between London and Hong Kong and always “just for a few (more) years”… Three kids were born outside the US and don’t identify as Americans (but not as “English” either,) and also make it harder to go back: Once they cross that primary school line, changing educational systems, countries, schools (and friend circles) becomes much harder – and once they get near college age, this IS home. What recently struck me is the startling realisation that I might never go back to live there. You live overseas always presuming that someday you will go back… but now I am not so sure… It is not just the cultural shock of living in the US, but after all this time, my kids do not consider the US home. They are comfortable in the US (and in HK, and in Europe, and in Asia) and are true flexible, worldly, ex-pat kids, but after 10 years here in the UK, this is “home” for them and I am cognisant that if I go “home” it might well be without them.
That last sentence of yours is the one that scares me the most–the idea of going ‘home’ to a place that isn’t ‘home’ for your children and them chasing to stay behind. I’ve always assumed we would go back, it’s still not palatable for me to think we may not–I haven’t reached that point. Though I easily see getting there eventually. (And depending on the election results in November, it could force my hand, at least for the next 4 years…)
Have to agree about the election!! 🙂 Once your kids get to about 14, moving (either onward or “back”) becomes much harder, unless they’ve spent every summer grounded in the US. We left HK when the oldest was about 10 for that reason. My grand plan (should I be able to afford it) is summers in London, where my kids feel at home, winters in (maybe) Florida where I get “home” (and sunshine) and then I’ll move to where ever the grandkids turn up. As a career mom, I want to re-live my missed motherhood years though my grandchildren someday!
There’s the rub–it used to be “I want to be back before the oldest hits middle school.” Now it’s “I want to be back before he hits high school…” (he’s in 7th). But I can see “I want to be back before the last two years of high school…”. They have spent every summer there, though not in the place we’d go back to. They do identify with being “American” as much as they can (especially the younger one, which is odd because he’s only lived there for 5 months of his life). None of this is making me feel any better!!
Home will always be the place you spent those formative years (I think this is true for most people), but that place probably doesn’t exist any longer. I grew up in CA and have gone back a few times looking for it. It isn’t there any longer. It has been replaced by shopping malls, gang tagged buildings, and fast food restaurants. My new home will never have the foggy days of Christmas, the heat of summer, and tacos that drip grease when you bite into them, but it will be the home my kids remember.
When my parents sold the old family house in CA they asked all of the kids if they should stay there and keep the house. I thought it was funny because I didn’t want to keep going back to that place, but now it would be nice to go “home,” to that place that is kept in my head more than in the world.
But…there have been those times when I’m driving through CA and the windows are rolled down and I smell something that takes me back to being 17 and full of life. It’s there, it’s just elusive I guess.
That was a very poetic comment, Jon. I worry about my kids not having that quality of ‘home’, elusive or not. But then, I only have my experiences to go by. Theirs are going to be something completely different. Houses are funny aren’t they? They are like giant memory boxes. I can wander around the house I grew up in and I am almost instantly transported back to a certain time or place. It saddens me to think about not having that place to go to ground. Which is why I’m in the state I’m in to begin with!
Life goes one direction and we’re pulled back the other way…our kids will have an even larger history to navigate with all the technology that has documented their every move. I’m ready to move to the Matrix, where’s my blue pill?
Ha, I just wrote about a Matrix moment. I don’t envy them that heavy history. My paper and ink one weighs enough as it is.
I disagree that home will always be where you spent your quote-unquote formative years. The phrase formative years has very much lost its meaning in a fast changing world. Who stops growing in their early 20s anymore?
You’ll know you’ve truly become a global citizen when you don’t miss anything back home, because you are home. Home is certain clothing items. Home is the 5 closest people to you (literally and figuratively). Home is your internet identity. Home is that great meal you had last Thursday. Home is comfort in your own skin. Home is where you’ll be three years from now.
I think that’s just it–home is not yet what you describe, though I can see it becoming that if we stay outside of both our countries. So it gets confusing sometimes, especially where the kids are concerned.