Recently, I was contacted by HiFX and asked to contribute to their expat tip campaign. Even though technically, I am no longer an expat, I still feel like one and it caused me to think about what exactly is the “expat persona”, ie., what are the qualities in a person that cause them to leave their home country and live in a foreign one?
I lived in the Dominican Republic for 8 years and only begrudging returned to my home country, the United States. As soon as I could afford it, I moved to the closest part of the mainland U.S. to the Dominican Republic: Miami. My power does not go out and the streets are cleaner but my neighborhood now is nearly identical to the one I left in Santo Domingo. Why is this, why do I feel a longing to surround myself with a culture that is not my own? I thought about this for a long time.
First I looked at the origin of the word “expat” which come from expatriate or “ex-patriot”. If a patriot is a person that is devoted to, and therefore loves, their home country, an expatriate, by contrast implies a person who is not a patriot, who in fact has been banished or exiled from their home country. Of course this definition is antiquated and expat now mostly means someone who lives in another but the stigma is still there. This is especially true when you move from a developed, relatively prosperous country to a poor one like I did as an American living in the Dominican Republic. People wonder why you left your country behind, what is wrong with you that you don’t love it the same as them?
It is a hard question to answer because truth be told, the majority of expats are passionate about their home countries and use every opportunity to brag about it. In my own experience, I came to truly appreciate the United States after living abroad but not in the way you might think. Of course I appreciate that in America the power doesn’t go out, the wages are higher, the schools are better and so on. But none of that mattered to me much overseas. No, what I came to appreciate was my persistence, my ability to forge ahead, to advance through sheer determination, all very American qualities, qualities which pushed American pioneers across the continent, which drove the early American settlers to overcome huge obstacles and become an independent nation. After years of living in the United States and feeling like I didn’t belong, my life as an expat has taught me how American I really am in a way that has made me proud.
An aside: Ironically America was founded by British expatriates, in fact nearly all countries were formed by expatriates in the beginning, yet now, centuries later, we Americans have a hard time understanding why one of us would want to follow in our historical heritage of expatriatism…
You see, choosing to be an expat rarely has anything to do with lack of national pride. Instead it has to do with the desire to see what is new, to be surrounded by different experiences, to be uncomfortable, misunderstood and frustrated on a daily basis. Why would anyone want that you may ask? The same reason an oyster has a grain of sand in it: the irritation, the discomfort produces a beautiful pearl. This blog was started as a way to express the pearls of my experiences abroad.
So if you think you have the expat persona and want to try it out, know that it will be wonderful and awful, thrilling and frustrating, rewarding and exhausting…but if you can do it, the experience will be priceless. Before you take the leap, do your research by reading tips like on HiFX and connecting with other expats who are already living in the country you want to move to. That way your transition will be easier.