The Loneliness of the Long-Term Expat

There are expats who bounce around like global jumping beans, serial movers, making home sweet homes wherever they go. There are one-shot Wandas who live abroad for the turn of an Earthly axis or two before they replant themselves, a year or two of fond (or dismal) anecdotes and lots of  holiday photos to share with the neighbors. Then there are people who stay put, semi-rooted, hunkering down for an indeterminate time. Folks who answer the question “When are you moving?” with a thoughtful scratch of the chin and this:

“Not right now, but some day.”

People like…me.

So when is an expat no longer an expat?

I wish it was the start of a joke rather than the start of what appears to be an expatriated existential equation.

****

Surely there’s an expiration date for using the term “expat”? Is it five years in the same place? Seven? A well-rounded decade? After this long it seems odd to refer to myself as an expat in Denmark and yet I’m no more “Danish” than I was when I got here, stepping off a plane armed with jokes about winter coming and expecting streets full of long-legged lasses with lusturous, blonde hair. (Neither stereotype is true for what its worth, at least not completely). I’m not invested enough in my local community to feel local and if I’m brutally honest, I’m not sure how much I want to be. After all, there’s that pesky “some day” part of the  equation. We pick and choose the cultural traditions we want to take part in and conveniently come up with excuses to avoid the rest.

We’re settled, but not. Moving, but not yet.

It’s a mid-expat-life crisis.

After this long we don’t do any the things newbie expats do. And while I love living in what I’ve taken to calling my Goldilocks city–not too big, not too small, but just right–we don’t take advantage of the city like we used to. We’re not excited by tripping down sidewalks and exploring new neighborhoods like we were those first few years. The things that thrilled and amused us–kanelsnegls! castles! Tivoli!–has had their shiny sheen well and truly tarnished. The Little Mermaid? Snore. One more kanelsnegl and the button is going to pop off my jeans. Suggesting a walk through the vaunted ceiling hall of yet another royal estate brings groans not just from my kids, but from me as well. Hell, we didn’t even bother getting passes to Tivoli this year.

Some of it we’ve simply done to death. Sure, Tivoli is lovely at Christmas, but after seven of them, the fake snow starts to look…fake. More of it is psychological–our excitement at newness has faded into jaded.

Increasingly I feel we’re entering a new stage. We’re not expats in Copenhagen. We just live here.

And yet we’ve always got a foot–or at least a toenail– out the door.

We just live here. Except, of course, it’s not the same as living “home” because at home we’d be surrounded by the familiar, a safety net woven with a language, traditions, quirks and foibles that we understand without too much effort. Or at least we used to.

Perhaps we wouldn’t feel at home even at “home” either.

We’re solidly planted in the “long-term” expat category. We’ve said goodbye to so many friends I have trouble remembering which timeline we all inhabited. One by one our gang of couples has moved on, leaving just a handful.

It’s this weird no-woman’s land. We’re here, but not. We’re there, but not.

Just when you think you’ve got it figured out something new comes along and trips you up.

The loneliness of the long-term expat.

I expect it’s something I’ll have to do a fair amount of thinking about. Unless we stay. Or go.

 

 

 

 

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12 thoughts on “The Loneliness of the Long-Term Expat

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  1. We left Hong Kong after 12 years. I get exactly what you are saying. I’ve been back in the UK for almost six years now and am still confused by where home is. Who else understands the roots you put down in a far away place better than another long term expat.

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  2. Back in the US after more than 20 in the UK. Totally get the ‘how long are you staying/head scratch/never thought of buying because we always thought is was just 2-3 more years’ thing. While I wasn’t looking, I became more British than I realised. Now I feel the same unrootedness and think about ‘going back or going somewhere else. Politics in both countries is driving me to tears. MJ

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    1. My husband’s a Brit, so we’re getting the political shit storm from both angles all the time. All the more reason to stay put, right? But the longer we stay put, the harder making any other decision seems to get and the more I feel that I belong both everywhere and nowhere. Most of the time it’s fine. Sometimes it’s overbearing.

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  3. HA, as if you wrote this (feeling) for me. I feel you. So until the new adventure pokes its head around the corner, focus on getting out other way….book maybe? 😛 I say that with love, of course.

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  4. So true. Now I am back to my home Country (repats) but still, in residence as expats in another Country as we haven’t formally EXIT yet not until my husband say so as he still have work there and we have to go back even for a visit before our visa expires. It is confusing especially for a child.

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  5. Sadly so very true! Now almost 20 years abroad and no plan to change. I tried home and knew three weeks in it wasn’t going to work. So 14 months later I arrived in Qatar and now I am starting my 8th year here.

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  6. We came to Chile saying “3-5 years” and 10 years later we’re saying “oh about 5 more years”
    Home is where we aren’t, is the best way to describe it. When we’re here I call Edinburgh home. When we’re on home leave I talk about going home to Santiago.

    Ask me again in 5 years. I’ll probably have my permanent residency in Chile by then!

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