Thursday, September 12, 2013

What "Expat" Means To Me


When I started blogging back in April 2010, I was preparing to submit my visa application to move back to the UK.  I'd lived abroad twice before, for eight months as an undergraduate in Paris and for a year while pursuing my MA in London, but this time I knew I was embarking on a very different experience.  I was expatriating, not just studying abroad; it's a distinction that's entirely semantic and subjective, but one that made a big difference in how I approached my new life.

I've been reading post after post recently from other bloggers who live abroad - and those who hope to live abroad - about moving elsewhere because they want to travel.  They pour over guide books, practicing their "please" and "thank you" in foreign languages and scouring the web for deals on flights.  In a way, I'm jealous of their enthusiasm and their energy.  The world is their oyster, and they can't wait to devour it.

That's not me.  Of course I like visiting new places and exploring new cultures, but that's not me.  I've been to 11 countries besides the United States, which is a lot compared to some but only a drop in the ocean compared to others, but if you saw the crammed pages of my last passport, you'd assume I've been to many more.  The thing is, though, that most of the stamps were accrued on trips between my two homes, DC and London.

Here, let's go back to the very first post on this blog to try to explain it better:
I suppose I should begin with this: I have never had wanderlust. I have never felt the burning desire to be on the move, to be on my feet, to be on the road.
My travels, therefore, have not been the result of a longing to be elsewhere. Rather, they've been the result of a longing to find a home. I certainly love my parents’ house in Washington, DC, but recently I’ve been feeling pulled more and more by the need to make my own home. That pull is tugging me to London.
As I've discovered new-to-me expat/travel blogs, I've been introduced to completely different examples of what it means to live abroad.  I hadn't thought about it before, but everyone has their own definition for expat, traveler, and tourist.  (Tourist seems to be a bad word these days; I totally disagree, but that's a post for a different time!)  It's made me really examine my own definitions - and where better to share them than my blog?

What "Expat" Means To Me

It means wading through the frustrations of opening a bank account, signing a mobile phone contract, and having your estate agent on speed dial.

It means making multiple trips to Ikea to start furnishing your new house - but also saving up for investment pieces to make it a home.

It means finding your local pub or café where the bartender or barista might not know your name but always remembers your order.

It means understanding the nuances of current events in your adopted country and complaining about the politicians even thought you might not have the right to vote.

It means making a family out of people who have different origin stories and cultural references than you.

It means being able to laugh at yourself and say thank you when you use the wrong word, wrong pronunciation, or wrong phrase and someone corrects you - and being invested enough learn for the future.

It means having your heart constantly in two places and feeling guilty about prioritizing one over the other.

It means missing celebrations and tragedies in your native country because you can't put your life on hold to go back all the time.

It means not wondering when but if you'll be seeing your family over the course of a year.

It means being able to hop on a plane for a weekend in another country in theory but staying where you are because of previous commitments to your job, your friends, and/or your new family.

It means being known as "the American" in your new country but going back to your hometown and being told you've developed an accent.

It means feeling secure in your identity as an American abroad but mindful of the need to assimilate to your new country.

It means finding the balance between the exciting and the everyday, making every moment count while appreciating that this is simply your life now.

my mother, sister, father, and me behind Bruisyard Hall (Suffolk, England) two days after my wedding.

I'm over on Belinda's blog today talking about what I've learned from being in a long distance relationship, which is unfortunately a byproduct being an expat for me!  If you've come here from there, welcome - I'd love to meet you, so do say hello in the comments!  And if you started here, make sure to visit Found Love, Now What? to see the vlog and Q&A I shared there.

39 comments:

  1. Love this. And love that image at the top "dream about the days to come when I won't leave alone." I felt that feeling so many times when Nick and I were living across an ocean, and believe me, when you guys finally get back together, when this long distance is over, that feeling of being able to not have to say goodbye in airports, that feeling of flying with your partner instead of to/from them, believe me, it's an amazing feeling and one I still cherish today!

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  2. Great post Betsy.


    For me, an expat is defined as someone who resides in a foreign country. I also tend to tack on the idea that it's temporary as if someone permanently moves to a foreign country 'immigrant' would be a more fitting word. Aside from semantics, I agree, we all associate different things with words and many of those that you listed fit with my understanding.


    I find your explanation above really intriguing. I suppose I sort of have that insatiable wanderlust which keeps me not only traveling but moving to new countries. I actually worry that one day I'll have to settle down and that it'll feel like a disappointment or worse, like a prison. I could care less about the number of countries I've visited (in fact, I couldn't even tell you my number because I don't keep track) but it's that excitement of being somewhere new, seeing things for the first time.

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  3. I definitely agree about everyone having their own definition of "expat." I'd say that for me, being an expat is half wanderlust and half home-wanting. I want to make a home, but I just happen to want to make it in a different part of the world. I came here, originally just for a year, but I'd like the chance to pick Scotland as my home. And to me, that might be a more powerful way of deciding what home is. It's not just somewhere I was born and raised, but it was a conscious decision to make a certain country home.
    Also, I totally get the guilt factor. Whenever I skype my family, my 91 year-old grandmother asks me when I'm coming home. Thank goodness I have 23 years' worth of Catholic guilt, or that would bowl me over and send me running to British Airways.

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  4. You know, I think expat is a state of mind! I didn't feel like an expat when I studied abroad in Paris, for example, but I did start to feel like an expat the first time I lived in London (as a student). But I'm not sure that it has to do with length of stay - at least not for me. Maybe you can be an immigrant and an expat at the same time? That's actually something I talked about with Belinda when we Skyped last weekend! Hey, I smell another post coming...


    Speaking of another post, I'd LOVE to hear more about wanderlust as a curse - I'd never thought about it that way! Something you might be interested in tackling?

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  5. EEEE! When I came back through IAD after our honeymoon, the couple behind me in the customs line was international - he had a British passport and she had a US one. I got all butterflies-in-the-stomach thinking that we'll be them soon :)

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  6. YEs! It will all be worth it. Every time Nick and I travel together now, after being apart for those couple years, I still sort of get giddy that we're going places together now!

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  7. yeah, this is the first time since 2006 that I don't know exactly when I'll next be in the UK - it's such an uncomfortable feeling. (This comment turns my post on its head, in a way, because that's my adopted country, but it goes to show how much it is home to me now!)

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  8. PICK. YES. THAT. I think part of my definition of "expat" must have something to do with choosing to make the country you're in your home as opposed to just a place you live. Definitely. You are a wise woman.

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  9. I love this post so much, I have struggled with this in the past. I read many expat blogs and do feel often a big difference in why they are abroad vs why I am and if I am even an expat at all. I am for sure an immigrant but that is not really a blog title and name people really like to take up so I float along under the expat umbrella for now. I have actually written two posts about this I will teet to you.

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  10. YES! Before moving abroad I was all over buying a house & spending weekends at Home Depot making it 'ours.' Now, when someone tells me they've bought a house my first thought is, "Congratulations," followed quickly by the silent thought, "Oh, but now you're stuck."
    That being said, I feel like I have a really easy time making a place feel like home. Every time we get off the plane in Stavanger that feeling of 'home' washes over me. It did in Gabon too. Obviously, it does in Canada as well.

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  11. haha I am totally in that mental place - it scares Jon a bit because he definitely has more restlessness in him than I do, but I am really looking forward to being stuck. (We probably won't be living wherever we'll be for the rest of our lives for the next 10 years or so, but... ) I want to be able to visit somewhere cool and buy a trinket to bring home and then put it on a shelf - so I can look at it and remember that adventure - where it will stay for YEARS. It just happens that the shelf might not be in the US!

    I totally get that that freaks people out, but its my idea of heaven.

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  12. You got it. Not always glamorous jet-setting. I also never reeeally wanted to travel... in fact, I wrestled with moving for 3 years til I finally had peace about it and we moved shortly after.

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  13. I'm not saying we won't do that someday (also hopefully not in the US) but I know there will be some momentary panics of "crap, this is iT?!?"
    Probably helps that we move everything with us everywhere, so we have longterm furniture, trinkets, etc?


    Jay- I say Atlanta is Home (capital H) and where I live is home (lowercase h). It helps, even in my head, since Atlanta will always be my I-grew-up-there Home, regardless of where my bed is located!

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  14. oh I love this. Betsy. Especially having your heart in two places!

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  15. Loving this!

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  16. peace is a precious thing when you're an expat!

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  17. UGH and the "one" and the "other" switch places CONSTANTLY.

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  18. I love this. I haven't been an expat per se since I was a kid and we were wandering around the land Down Under, but after years of having to move every two to three years and having spent some quality time in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa thanks to Uncle Sam, a lot of the expat discussion resonates, but none so much as when you say you move and you travel because you're looking for a home. I think that's exactly what drives me to get out and see places. I'm looking for the places that feel like a home.

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  19. I spent three years living in Australia straddling middle school and high-school, so I've felt some of these things but from an obviously different point of view. At the end of the day, it's interesting because I still feel a distant kinship and connection to Australia. It's been fascinating to read your experiences and see the expat experience through someone elses, more grown-up, point of view since mine is limited by a) memory and b) age.

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  20. Betsy, this is beautiful!!!


    www.thehassanity.com

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  21. Such a good post, and so true! I have many memories of Ikea from when I first moved to London :) Oh and the guilt? It is so strong, always.

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  22. I loved that post of yours, Jess! I thought of it the other day as I came across another anti-tourist post.

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  23. My fave one was the finding a pub (so true!) and the feeling of guilt (also couldn't be more bang on the head.)

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  24. This is just everything I ever felt living in Greece and flying between Florida and London. Nailed it as usual, Betsy

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  25. This is great and totally accurate! Although I travel a lot and have lived in quite a few countries, these are definitely the realities of being an expat!

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  26. thank you for sharing these thinks! I'm really looking forward to reading your thoughts - sorry I haven't had a chance to yet :/


    It's sad that immigrant has such a negative connotation, at least in America, especially when you think that most of our families for here by immigrating!

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  27. it makes me SO happy that you've fallen in love with your new home :)

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  28. I have NO understanding of what it feels like to grow up an expat! I'm really mad at my parents for that...

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  29. haha I hear that - the first flat that Jon and I got together was mostly furnished and I felt cheated out of a home-making activity :/

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  30. haha I hope you actually gave him the side eye when you wrote this :P

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  31. Yes! I remember when I was living in Paris - which I don't technically count as an expat experience but it's where I learned a lot about what it might mean to be an expat - there were kids in my program who could count on one hand the number of weekends out of a whole semester that they actually spent in Paris. They had fabulous adventures in countries I might never go to, sure, but I was singing in a choir every Sunday and going to markets and throwing dinner parties for friends and babysitting and... and it felt like real life, in many ways, and that's exactly how I wanted it.

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  32. ALWAYS THE GUILT. compounded for me by being Jewish :P

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  33. DID YOU GO TO THE ONE IN CROYDON? I HATE CROYDON.

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  34. Haha, yep! I lived in Wimbledon so we would take the tram to Croydon, what a nightmare!

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  35. Happyeverafter_BrideSeptember 13, 2013 at 6:39 PM

    It feels every bit as real as my experience leaving home at 18, I just need to substitute America with Malaysia, but every bit rings true. Now I get the joys of experiencing it all over again and I don't know how I'd fare. :)

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  36. adventuresofalondonkiwiOctober 20, 2013 at 3:29 PM

    Love this, spot on!

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