Story of an Expat, Part I

Here’s where my story starts.

Almost twelve years ago, my husband and I were sitting up in bed on a sunny, Sunday morning. The kids were blissfully and, unusually, asleep; it was a rare moment of quiet. And as we lay there, this man I loved with all my heart told me about a job. But it was not just any job. It was the job of jobs. An opening in a far-away place where usually the only openings occurred when someone dropped dead. What did I think?

Twelve years later, I’m still thinking about it.

****

Most of us have a decent idea of who we are.

We know what we like, what we don’t. We have goals: weight to lose, muscles to tone up, places to visit, novels to publish. That’s the easy stuff. The stuff of checklists and online security questions. But what about how we come across to others, and just as importantly, to ourselves? 

What about our identity?

Who am I? Who are you? 

The fairy tale answer is that like snowflakes we’re all individuals, made up of traits and quirks, decisions and luck. Woven together those strands of individuality make us who we are. Some are decided for us, like eye color or nationality. Some are chosen, like being married or becoming a parent. And others? Others are born of a single moment on a sunny Sunday morning when your children are sweetly snoring. 

Whenever I meet someone new, I introduce myself as Dina. But that’s just a name. I’m also a woman, a wife, a mother, and a writer. Until 2008, I was a New Yorker. And then with one decision, one sea shipment, and 7000 miles, I was suddenly something else I’d never expected to be: I was an expat.

****

Have you ever been caught in a wave at the beach, the kind that tumbles you around when, for a frightening moment, you can’t tell which direction is sky and which the ocean floor?

That’s what moving abroad was like for me. I couldn’t tell up from down. At a time when I needed to be the most grounded, I felt completely untethered from everything I knew. I was still me, mother, daughter, wife, smart-ass in motorcycle boots. But I suddenly wasn’t *me* either–because everything in my life changed in one, fell swoop. Including my choice of footwear.

When we moved, I didn’t just move from my Brooklyn neighborhood, I also moved away from a lot of the stuff which had, until then, defined me. An ocean away, I had to unpack not just boxes, but my ideas of who and what I was. 

That Brooklyn mom of two? She was comfortable. She was confident. She could sling a baby on her hip, fold a stroller, and run down the subway steps to catch the L train. She knew where to get the best bagels, how to hold a cup of coffee on a moving subway. But when we moved? That “she” went from working mom to housewife. She went from knowing the ins and outs of the NYC subway system to learning to drive again. She went from a circle of close friends to knowing absolutely no one. She went from take-out to vacuum-packed goat-heads in the refrigerator section of the supermarket. It was not exciting. It was not adventurous. It was terrifying, depressing, and hard. 

That “she”? Everything she thought she knew about herself changed, almost overnight.

And then? Then she had to set about rebuilding herself.

****

Here’s something I wasn’t expecting: Being an expat colors every, single aspect of your life.

It affects your job–or your lack of a job. How many of us know doctors who can’t practice in the place they land because the licensing laws are different? Or women or men who’ve given up careers? Sometimes there’s a language barrier, or tax regulations. There’s red tape and residency hoops. Sometimes this opens the door to a welcome change, a breath of starting fresh. Sometimes not so much.

Being an expat affects your relationships. It affects your marriage. It affects the way you parent, how you raise your children, where and how they go to school, what type of schools they go to.

If you’d told me fifteen years ago my kids would be going to private school I would have laughed in your face. We are not private school people. And yet…here we are. Private school is all my kids have ever known.

Being an expat affects what you eat, how you shop, what you wear. It affects what you do with your free time, where and how you travel, how you spend your vacations. It affects your relationship with family, nuclear and extended. It affects your friendships, it affects the way you make new ones and maintain old ones.

It makes you think about your home country differently. 

It affects how others see you and by default, how you see yourself.

How can living outside your country not become part of your identity?

For me, living in another culture is now a fundamental part of who I am. 

****

So how do you nail down the idea of identity when it’s always shape-shifting, depending on where you are, who’s around you, where you might be next?

I guess my answer to that question is: Why do we have to? 

If you’re brave enough and strong enough, being an expat allows you to take yourself apart and rearrange all the pieces until you get a version you’re happy with. It allows you to do that in an environment that’s more open to change than if you’d stayed at home.

As for the moving itself? We add a chapter, or a verse, a different kind of footwear. 

We build onto ourselves higgledy-piggeldy as needed, like the Weasley’s house from the Harry Potter movies. Working parent to non working? Add a room. Doctor to entrepreneur? Build a floor. Shy bystander to PTA president? Slap on a garage. 

It might not be designer pretty, but whatever you end up with, it’s yours. It’s you. 

I’m not telling you to go out and find the things you love because then I would sound like an motivational poster. This shit is complicated and hard and it’s not linear. That “she” from before? The smart-ass one with the motorcycle boots? She has good days. She has bad ones. Mostly she just has just normal days where she still can’t find the right cut of meat and after eight years still marvels at the unwillingness of the Danes to respect a line. Days when she’s still trying to figure out how she feels about it all. 

She does still have the motorcycle boots though.

Even if the current version of her doesn’t wear them much.

 

 

This post was part of a talk I gave at the invitation of The International School of Helsinki’s PTO. A huge thank you to them for having me, and for the many conversations it generated!

 

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