Do we assume Expats have to go home?
I read a fair amount in the expat blogging world. I enjoy the common themes and interesting people that choose to live like I have. Though I see one theme that almost bugs me. The question of “when you go home”. Not the condition, when you go visit or if you choose to return, but the idea that “when you can’t take it anymore as an expat and have to go home.” Is there an assumption that being an expat is just a phase?
There are lots of reasons to be abroad and an expat. Those that start the experience with a clear ending time in mind. Something like a two year post abroad because “hey it is a great opportunity”. Those that went abroad searching for something or running away from something else and just kind of got stuck in a place for a while. They may or may not get unstuck and move on again in a year or so. Those that are the trailing spouses or girlfriends or boyfriends moving abroad to be with their loved ones. These groups are based around motivations to leaving the home country and striking out. Each seems to have a built in trigger to “going home” as well. The relationship doesn’t work, the job is over, the self is found or the money runs out. There are always reasons to want to go home; but for some of us we beat all the reasons and stay.
I am often asked “how long do I expect to stay?” and “how often do I go home?”. There seems to be an underlying sense that assumes I will not stay forever and will eventually just “go home”. I admit fully that my initial plan was not to be here necessarily forever. I too thought I would get it out of my system somehow in a few years and just wander back to a different part of the US or wander the world. At some point though in the first year or so of being here I just felt so much at home that I decided I didn’t really want to leave. With my issues with airplanes at the time, there was a real sense that I may never set foot in the US again. This is not true anymore, but still I feel at home abroad. I finally found my people.
I have only been here a few years. I also unfortunately cannot read the future. However I have seen a number of expats move through the groups here. There always does seem to be a group that does return to where they came from for a bunch of different reasons. But there is a group of us that just seem quite happy in our expatness and would not be happy being back among the “normals”. I think I am one of these people.
Before this turns into a real solid rant, don’t get me wrong. There are some really excellent expat writers out there. Back to my original point, a fair amount of the expat websites seems to discuss integration into new cultures as well as what to do when you go home. I guess this is where the need is. These are the most stressful parts. There does not seem to be quite so much about how to just live as an expat.
Over the hump of integration to a great extent and nowhere near the turning point of going home. Nor the eternal nomads backpacking from here to there. We are home, just living our daily lives and frustrations in a different country.
As an American living abroad, there is another aspect. Almost all of our ancestors came from elsewhere. Many through Ellis Island from Europe. I have done the reverse heading back to Europe. I remember a documentary at one point about the immigration through Ellis Island, which talked about many if not most of the people that came to the US expected to go home. They thought they would make their fortunes and head back. I don’t know how true this is (especially through my memory), but I can imagine. I wonder if expats are all the same in that respect. We head out expecting to make it and come back a better/richer/happier person; and for whatever reason some of us just stay.
There is a peace to having someone listen and understand. I guess this is why I spend my time with my expat friends talking and online reading other’s stories. It helps me to feel not alone. It is also why I write. To show others my stories and say they aren’t alone either. So tell me your stories… especially if you would like to guest post of Grounded Traveler, let me know.
April 22, 2011 @ 12:27 am
We lived on St. Croix US Virgin Islands for 8 years and it kind of seemed like being an expat even though it’s still US. What about logistics like keeping the passport up to date or taxes? Haven’t quite figured out how we could completely cut ties.
April 24, 2011 @ 4:11 pm
Passport renewals only come around every 10 years, so it isn’t such a big deal and the consulates take care of it. Taxes is a bloody pain. Even though I make 0 dollars there, I still have to file. It is truly insane and apparently the only country that makes its overseas citizens do it.
February 13, 2011 @ 3:59 pm
I just stumbled upon your blog and this post instantly caught my eye. Great post. I’m caught on whether or not I’m an “expat for life” kind of girl. My beau and I are gearing up to leave Korea after two years and I’m actually scared out of my mind that I’ll end up somehow getting stuck in the U.S. I love the life of a traveler, being it a backpacker or a settled in expat. We’re already planning our around the world trip for July and then hopefully off to another country for a few years.
February 13, 2011 @ 11:00 pm
Welcome Tawny. It sounds like you have already made up your mind about whether you want to be an expat for life. Actually with your description you are on the road for being a serial expat, moving from one country to the next every few years. Welcome to the lifestyle. How long are you planning for your RTW?
November 27, 2010 @ 10:28 am
We have just returned home from being expats in different countries for the past 8 years. We returned home, not because we wanted to, but because it was a necessary choice at the time. We love living as foreigners and are always searching for the next expat home. I love the fact that I have so many different countries that I can call my home.
November 29, 2010 @ 9:24 pm
Thanks for the comment. The expat life does seem tohave an addiction to it.
November 23, 2010 @ 9:59 pm
It’s funny because like Jen said, I don’t really lump myself in the “expat” category but I have been in Italy now for almost one year (it doesn’t make it any more believable no matter how many times I say it), although I believe that this desire to stray from the word is because I don’t plan on settling down anytime soon.
I have no idea where I’ll end up, it’s something that my boyfriend and I talk about; the pros and cons of both the US and Italy and then usually we just throw up our hands and shout “Australia!” in unison. My time in Australia has been my best travel experience so far and the entire five months was spent with other travelers and expats, I just get some kind of connection with the group that I haven’t quite grasped anywhere else.
As for “home”, the longer I’m away from it the more home-y it becomes. But not like a place where I want to raise my kids, more like somewhere to go and get spoiled at the holidays (like how much I’m wishing I was there now!). So far, so good for this one. We’ll see where we go from here.
November 23, 2010 @ 10:27 pm
I remember that one year mark. It is pretty special, if somewhat arbitrary, mark of success. Yes I can do it and have surpassed the casual traveler time.
That is cool that you remember your trips in Australia. Travel, and expat life in a bigger way too, is about connecting with people. Place means less I feel. Places have people and affect people, so not completely unimportant. I ended up in Germany because of all the memories of good travels, even though given what I know now I probably would have picked an english speaking place.
I know what you mean about “home” changing. I listen to folk music from the US that I would never have done there. It makes me less homesick somehow. I’ll get back next year I think to see how it feels.
Luck to you on your journey and country choices.
Jack and Jill Travel The World
November 23, 2010 @ 5:26 pm
I’m still not sure what the difference is between an expat and an immigrant. I moved to the US for study, ended up marrying a local and have lived here for close to 10 years. My family’s still back home. Am I an immigrant? Or an expat? Does it matter? I don’t know…
November 23, 2010 @ 10:20 pm
Last question first.. nope probably doesn’t matter. It is a word. Pick which one makes you feel good about it. I took a stab at a definition in another comment above; being that the immigrant leaves more of his/her own culture behind. Though reciting it in those terms makes it sound wrong too.
Dunno.. but a real great question. Thanks for the comment.
November 23, 2010 @ 5:22 pm
I consider myself an expat-for-life. When I moved to Japan almost 4 years ago, I didn’t think that. I thought I’d stock up money, gain some work experience and eventually go back to the States. But, then, I found myself writing again — something I hadn’t done regularly while living in the States and something I missed terribly. While I liked living in the States, I never felt “inspired.” While in Japan, I always felt like I had something to write about — something was always striking me as funny or strange or beautiful or weird.
Since leaving Japan nine months ago to travel, I’ve discovered that I may not be a natural traveler (in fact, I may be the world’s worst traveler), but I am a natural expat. I’ve started to miss my old expat lifestyle — my apartment and friends and steady routine. I told myself I would use this year to only work short-term jobs so I wouldn’t be “stuck” in one place too long… but I’ve found myself “accidentally” applying for long-term positions and secretly hoping I get “stuck” again.
November 23, 2010 @ 10:18 pm
Hey, thanks for the comment. I love your blog and stories. I’m like you, long term traveler is not me. I need routine and the same stores and a bed i can call my own. But I am happier doing all of that in a foreign place.
Putting ourselves into the difficult situations seems to bring out that creativity. I never really did write before. Always brimming with ideas and never getting anything out. 2 years into life here and I am now happily 85 posts deep here and still thankfully brimming with ideas.That whole tortured artist thing.
Good luck in getting stuck.
November 23, 2010 @ 5:07 pm
I really enjoy reading your and several other ex-pats blogs. It really helps me gain insight what to expect as I will soon be a ex-pat myself as of Dec 23. My wife is German we met each other in the states and have been married for almost 12 years. She is to inherit her grandmothers farm home, and wanted to be closer to her family. We have two children 14 and 7, that she wanted to have the oppourtunity to have family around. We are not very close with my side of the family, and having been to Germany to visit several times to get close with her side of the family I was more than willing to make this move. we decided rather than both of us leave our jobs she would go over first to see if she would be able to find work and to see if the children would be able to make the adjustment. She left in April and found work rather quick, as she is a dental hygentist, and the kids have adjusted wonderfully, especially my 7 year old son. I was worried how he would handle the language, but he has picked it up like a sponge. Also both my kids used to come home from school and plop in fron of th TV and watch it till bed time. Now they are outdors all the time, and because they are living in a small village outside Berlin the can play and roam without worries of danger. Now it is almost my turn to come over, I lok forward to the laid back lifestyle that Germany offers compared to America. It’s interesting by reading blogs I have found that no matter where you live there will always be pro’s and con’s the only constant is family. So maybe home is what you make of it wherther you move all the time or stay put. I do have some fears of moving the top two being, learning and adjusting to the language, and finding work, both which concerns me. So reading the blogs and seeing other going through the same things and succeding really lift my spirits. I just know I have been away from my family way to long and long to be with them again.
November 23, 2010 @ 10:14 pm
“home is what you make of it”.. yes indeed. Whether you carry your sense of home around in your head or rest it in four walls.
Wow, I think the way you are moving is almost harder than my leap of faith with a backpack and a hope. I wish you all the best in it. Having a positive attitude and support will go a long way. The children will adapt, for that is what children do.
Hah, I wouldn’t really call Germany laid-back as much as anal-retentive with proper priorities. Everyone relaxing in the squares on a Sunday is nice, until you absolutely need something from a shop, when they are all closed. The relaxing is forced. The society is more rigid, but I think the priorities are indeed better way around (better not perfect). And your line about everywhere having pros and cons is a VERY german thing to say. “Alles hat Vor- und Nachteile.”
As a suggestion I would make sure you find a social circle of people to hang out with. I like the english speaking expat world myself. Depending on how far out of town your village is, it could be much quieter and nearly boring. Family is important, but so is your wellbeing.
November 23, 2010 @ 12:32 pm
My husband and I sold everything and moved to Prague at the end of 2001 because we wanted to experience living and working abroad together (I had done it on my own previously). The plan was to find jobs and stay around 2 years. This turned into five years and then we realized that we wanted something new and challenging so we sold everything again and started traveling around the world. We make trips back to the States every couple of years to visit family, but each time we return “home” feels a bit more foreign to me. And it’s not that I really have a home abroad these days – we’re on the road constantly – but there is a familiarity of home in certain places that I like. We’re constantly asked, “When are you going back?” While I do love the United States and may end up there some day, it may be a while.
November 23, 2010 @ 10:07 pm
So you thought it would be a short time and ended up turning into a longterm thing. I actually think a lot of expats end up like this. It just occurred to me that perhaps it is something to do with caution. I was always taught to be cautious and maybe that leads to trying it on before falling for the life. Overwhelming the caution.
The inability to really go “back” is another highlight of this world. Once you see what is out there and what you can accomplish it is kind of hard to slip back into the “old life” again. Maybe that is why the question bugs me, by assuming I will go home they are doubting that I can handle it.
November 23, 2010 @ 9:14 am
Thought provoking, as usual! 🙂 For some reason, I have a hard time with the word “expat” when applying it to myself. I’m just a person who is living in another country (which is, technically, an expat…LOL) – it’s hard to explain. What I’m curious about, though, is when one has lived in another country long enough that they start thinking of themselves as an “immigrant” and not an “expat.” To me, the way the word “expat” seems to be culturally used, it seems to imply something short term or open-ended, as you’ve mentioned. But an “immigrant” to me seems more like someone who after some years has really rooted in and adopted their new homeland. I don’t know if that makes sense… LOL.
I often reflect with a little smile about what my Germanic mennonite ancestors would think, after they struggled so much to get to the U.S. to build a future for future generations, and yet here I am, desperately trying to get back to the original homeland, a place where I really feel somehow at home, in my soul. 🙂
November 23, 2010 @ 10:01 pm
That is indeed an interesting point. The word immigrant never really seems right and expat feels better. The distinction is one of attitude I think. An immigrant, like you said, tries to adopt and be a part of the host culture. An expat always seems to hold back and live in the between. Maybe it is just the connotations that I picked up around the word immigrant living in the US for so long.
That is cool that you are coming back along family lines.
Andrea and John
November 22, 2010 @ 11:35 pm
I think it just depends on your circumstances. I became an expat because I met my husband and moved from the US to Australia. We are now an “international” couple and don’t really feel like anywhere is “home.” I posted a piece about this a few months ago on our blog. We’re off travelling again in a few weeks and after that we plan to choose a new country to live in, both as expats this time. I thinkmit would be great to move back to the US at some point, but it doesn’t look likely for us in the forseeable future. Even if we did go back there, though, there is no one city that I consider home. My family are spread out all over and I don’t know anyone in the city where I grew up anymore. I think some of us expats are just bound to roam about forever. And that doesn’t bother me a bit. -Andrea
November 23, 2010 @ 9:58 pm
Oh great story. That is cool that you can roam and feel good about. I wouldn’t like that life. The routine is important to me, but still need to feel like it is traveling somehow. Almost traveling without leaving. I love to leave town and go places and see things, but I like being able to come home too.
November 22, 2010 @ 9:08 pm
No, you are not alone 🙂 I’m German and have been living in the US since 2004. My boyfriend is Italian. We both like living as an expat. I admit that sometime in the future I would like to live closer to the rest of my family in Germany. These transatlantic flights and jetlags are getting to me. However, it doesn’t have to be Germany. In fact, that is actually highlly unlikely. Who knows what is going to happen in the future, but I like being an expat and I live hanging out with other expats. My ideal place? A warm, sunny place with easy access to travel. Oh yes, and a language I speak or could pick up fairly easily. And there would be an expat community there too… Oh oh, that list is starting to get longer and longer, isn’t it?! Oh well, we’ll see 🙂
November 23, 2010 @ 9:55 pm
Sounds like a great idea. At the moment it is freezing in Germany, could use some sunny.
Thanks for the story. The expat mindset really does seem to be different and interesting somehow. I find it a bit odd to think of expats living in the US, even though I know it is perfectly normal. Just shows that the US feels to much like home.
November 23, 2010 @ 11:14 pm
I can imagine that it’s weird to see the US as “expat country” if that’s where you’re from. That’s one of the reasons I like your blog. Seeing Germany as “expat country” is very interesting to me as a German who lives in the US 🙂
November 25, 2010 @ 6:52 am
A lot of Germans don’t seem to think of Germany as a place someone would want to come to. They ask “Why here??” in a tone that implies they would rather leave. But yeah, I like your stories for the same reason, to see the US as an outsider. To try to get a glimpse of how the Germans might view me.
BTW I like your little series on Foods that don’t come from where the American’s think they do. I might do a post on American foods the Germans don’t understand.