Skip to Content

The Trouble with Being an Expat

The Trouble with Being an Expat

I looked around the table at the people I was dining with. Left hands under the table, right hands holding their forks that jabbed at their food as it skirted around the plate.

I looked down at my own hands, a fork in my left, a knife in my right. I pushed the food gently onto my fork.

Although only a small and insignificant moment, it was in that instant that I realized how much I have changed.

Not at Home Abroad

When I lived in Korea, I was truly foreign. It was obvious in the way that I looked, the way that I dressed, my constant fumbling with the language and culture. I did my best to fit in, but I certainly was never going to blend in.

Then I moved to the UK for six months. It felt so much easier. I didn’t immediately stand out, I didn’t have any trouble understanding the language. I’ve also lived with Luke, my British boyfriend, for five years now. I’ve watched British TV shows, I understand British phrases, I know where obscure places are in the country, where people go on holiday (not vacation) and I understand their culture to an extent that allows me not to fumble and make a faux pas.

But it’s not my home. I didn’t have my childhood there. I don’t understand 90’s references. I didn’t grow up eating Sunday roast dinners. My mom doesn’t have a Yorkshire Pudding recipe. Bringing children to the pub still seems a little bit weird. I don’t like putting u’s where they don’t belong.

And of course, I sound nothing like a British person. I can use their colloquial language, laugh at their banter, and make similar jokes, but I am American. Z is pronounced ‘zee’ not ‘zed’.

Not at Home at Home

Then I came back to the US and I realized I’m not all that at home here either. I haven’t lived here since I was 22. I have never had a job as an adult here. I have no idea how much rent should cost in New York or how much gas and electricity should be. I feel overwhelmed in the grocery store with all the choice. No one recycles. The dryer is on even when it’s sunny and 80 degrees. There are so many flipping commercials on TV that I can’t even enjoy Anthony Bourdain’s Part’s Unknown for more than three minutes at a time (THREE MINUTES?).

I’m an American. I’m not embarrassed about that. I never tell people I’m Canadian. I never try to intentionally hide my accent or my passport in public.

But when I tried to get in the passenger’s seat the other day, I accidentally got into the driver’s seat. My dad made a right on red and I nearly had a heart attack because I thought he was driving on the wrong side of the road. I hate that I have to drive everywhere and people laugh when I ask about why there aren’t any sidewalks.

My views on so many things have changed since living abroad, since leaving home six years ago. People tell me I talk funny. I called the mailman the postman the other day and I genuinely couldn’t even remember what we call it here in the US.

Wherever I’ve lived, whether it’s New Zealand, Australia, Korea, or even while traveling in between, I’ve met so many people who love to travel, people who love to move around and live in different countries. It’s become my norm. When I return home and I talk about my life, I can sense the people around me losing interest. Instead of having conversations about other countries, about mutual places we’ve been or want to go, I end up sounding like a braggart and having to change the subject.

I’m not rich, I’m not particularly well traveled, especially compared to many people I have met. I just care about different things. I value my time in different ways. Things that people want to buy, that they want to experience, that they find totally normal in this society, seem so absurd to me now. I can’t imagine living their lives, just as I know they can’t imagine living mine.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with their way, or their life. They are happy and that’s all that matters.

I guess I’m just trying to figure out where I belong. Isn’t that all we crave as humans? Acceptance? Love? Community? I guess I’m just reminded every time I’m back home, that this isn’t the person I am anymore, and it feels kind of jarring.

I’m just trying to find a place where there’s a community of people, no matter where they’re from, who care for each other, for the planet and it’s people. I’m just trying to find a place where my norm is the norm.

Why you feel like a foreigner in your own country when you visit home

Tuesday 5th of October 2021

[…] only so much you can divide your attention between two countries. It’s cognitively a very taxing task to do on a daily basis. Trying to live a normal life in a […]

Peppur Chambers

Tuesday 7th of September 2021

I hear you loud and clear! I was an expat in the Czech Republic for three years. I never "belonged", but I longed to, until it was time to come home ... and had to learn to belong again.

You're blog reminded me of something I wrote once I landed in Prague: https://penandpeppur.com/2014/05/19/longing-to-belong/

(Saying hello from LWS! :) )

Miss Footloose

Wednesday 4th of April 2018

Reading your post was like listening to myself. I understand your feelings completely and I've experienced this sense of not "really belonging" anywhere for most of my adult life. I've been a serial expat for many many years, have lived long term in 8 countries. I'm Dutch, I married my American husband in Kenya, our three children were all born in different countries. I never again lived in my own country, the Netherlands, but I have lived for years in the US. I'm 'comfortable' in the US, but I didn't grow up there, and don't have my roots there. In the Netherlands I'm 'comfortable' because I speak the language, but because I haven't actually lived there I feel like a strange sort of foreigner. This will never change. So where do I belong? Where do you belong? We're global people and we're most comfortable in an international setting with people who've lived a global life. So instead of 'settling' in the US, where we had trouble finding like-minded people (as you described as well) we decided to be 'expats' again and now live in France, where we have a circle of foreign friends (including French, of course) and feel more at home here because nobody thinks I'm strange or bragging when I say, "When we lived in Africa..." So, there you go. You'll never go home again, but be happy with your interesting life and eventually you'll find an international setting where you'll belong (with the people, rather that the place).

Drew Guttadore

Wednesday 29th of June 2016

I totally get it, been in the life for 15 years. Home is now not defined at all. Every country just has its pluses and minuses. Di sing people to relate becomes more difficult. I'm constantly questioned as to my allegiances and why I'm different. Find a partner? Hah! But I'm going to keep on and live my life, though few understand it. Nice to hear a kindred spirit

Kate

Thursday 9th of June 2016

Really great post! I've definitely felt this way as an expat - not at home abroad, but not 100% home at home. Thanks for sharing your experiences and feelings!

Kate | http://www.petiteadventures.org/

Laura Bronner

Thursday 9th of June 2016

Thank you so much, Kate! It's definitely tough, but I really appreciate your kind words! x