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.