The Ex-Pat’s Life…Where’s Home?

Postcard of McGill University, Toronto, Ontari...
McGlll University, a long time ago! Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a lovely blog post by a Romanian woman who has wandered the world, reflecting on the ten things she’s learned in her ten years away from her native land.

And a powerful set of posts from one of my favorite expat sites.

I left my hometown, Toronto, in August 1986 to move to Montreal, where I worked for 18 months as a newspaper reporter. While living there, I soon fell in love with a tall, thin, handsome medical student in his final year of medicine at McGill. I knew from the minute we met he was going to move to New Hampshire the following year for a four-year residency. Loving him (and we were discussing marriage within months of our meeting) meant leaving behind family, friends, country, culture and a well-established career.


I remember distinctly my excitement at obtaining my “green card” through my mother, who was then an American citizen. I also felt tremendous fear as I crossed that border for a new life, like a raindrop falling into the ocean. The U.S. has 10 times as many people as Canada.

How would I ever create a new identity for myself?

Here are five things my 22 years here have taught me:

Identity is mutable.

It’s a deeply Buddhist issue to detach your ego from your identity. By clinging ferociously to one specific identity, we shut off other possibilities of what we might (have) become. In my time in the U.S. I’ve swung wildly in income, now earning barely 25 percent of my staff salary from 2006. Scary? Yes. But I don’t define my value by my income anymore.

Trying new roles is freeing, fun and can lead to all sorts of unimagined outcomes.

In my years here, I’ve become a nationally ranked saber fencer; competed twice in a major national sailing competition; sold two books to major publishers; learned how to hit a softball to the outfield and seen one of my books sold to China. At home, where people “knew” me so well, I doubt I would have tried on so many new roles.

What won’t kill you does make you stronger.

I’ve survived being a crime victim several times; three orthopedic surgeries; divorce; job loss; the loss of several women I thought were friends for life. I’m still here and still fine.

Being an “outsider” is a huge advantage for a writer.

I’ve known this since I got my first New York City magazine staff job, thanks to my fluent French, a rarity in my field. Since then, both of my books have been well-reviewed and appreciated for their fresh eye on eternal and widely-accepted American verities — guns are good and low-wage labor is normal. Neither assumption is shared by many people outside the borders of the U.S. and it takes an outsider’s eye to see it, and call it. (Some of the nation’s best-known and most respected writers and editors have come to the U.S. from  elsewhere.)

Home is wherever you make it.

I think every ex-patriate feels a little lost after a while. You no longer fit, or unquestioningly accept, your former cultural norms and assumptions — but neither, necessarily, do you adopt them wholesale from wherever you are living. Home becomes your family, your friends, your nest, your passport.

If you’ve been an ex-pat, or are one now, how has it changed you?

25 thoughts on “The Ex-Pat’s Life…Where’s Home?

  1. I’m not even sure what I am anymore. I’m an American citizen who feels totally out of place in much of America, and spent all of her life outside of it. But wherever I’ve lived, I don’t think I’ve felt lost. Mostly just in transit. I’ve lived in my current location for 7 years, but it’s never felt like home and I can’t wait to leave – I only stayed after graduating from university because I found a job and my then-boyfriend proposed and I’d rather live with him even here than anywhere else without him. The great irony is, now he’s elsewhere.

    Home isn’t a place, it’s people.

    Can I call myself a citizen of the world?

  2. Sure!

    I suspect you are, then, a TCK…you know what they are, right? Obama is one…American by birth but NOT by culture or education having grown up outside its borders. Very confusing!

    I’ve lived in England, France and Mexico and the latter two often feel more home-like to me than the U.S. I was always “too American” for Canada (too aggressive, ambitious, direct) but too Canadian for America (too polite, too self-deprecating, too slow-moving)…and always more European in my love for the things French people seem to adore: beauty, literature, intelligence and a great style of living. Long delicious shared meals!

  3. We lived in Mexico for six years (Torreon, Coahuila… not a tourist or usual expat destination, or even a city with which many US citizens are acquainted). Because there were not adequate educational options for our children, after a wonderful sixth grade year in an all Spanish speaking Montessori school, our son rejoined our daughter boarding at our former US Montessori middle school and then they both attended different US boarding schools for high school. After completing the job assignment for his company, my husband and I returned to the same general area but have found few people who can understand the choices we made, much less the insights we have gained by living outside our passport country. Although I believe my children feel, to some extent, “American,” they both spent terms abroad in Europe in high school, and our daughter is currently perfecting her Arabic in Jordan for a college semester, while our son, totally fluent in Spanish (having lived in Mexico, plus studied in Spain) will probably find a way to at least study in a different part of the US at some point, if not abroad, so I’m fairly certain that their global outlook is significantly different than that of many of their peers. While I believe all of this is a positive, I have to admit that there is a degree of loneliness when you discover that the people whose friendships you value the most and who seem to understand you the best are all an ocean or continent away. Thankfully, Facebook, blogs, Skype, and email exist.

    1. How funny…my new husband’s grandfather fled Torreon after the Revolution, so I am familiar with it. I loved introducing Jose to his own country…I speak fairly decent Spanish and we spent three lovely weeks in May 2005 visiting DF, Queretaro, Patzcuaro, Cuernavaca, (where I lived) and Oaxaca. It sounds (sadly) pretentious to “miss” a country that is not the provider of your passport, but one does!

      I hear you loud and clear on the ironic loneliness of the global citizen. One of my realizations as I blogged this is that my tribe — and my husband’s — journalism and news photography — is populated by many, many men and women who have been, will be or are now ex-pats. It literally comes (to the ambitious) with the territory! So I also have the comfort of many friends and colleagues, locally, who “get it” — from a friend who lived in France and married a Frenchman (they now live here in NY), to ex-pat friends working in — to name a few spots — Kabul. Cairo, Paris, London, Hong, Kong, Beijing…I love having lived this life (as I am sure you and your family does as well), but know it must be very hard to come back to the U.S. where people can’t even locate their state on a map, let alone other nations overseas….

  4. Thank you very much for mentioning my article in your blog post! I am honored you were inspired by my words.
    As for your lessons, I especially love #4, about being an outsider as an advantange for the writers. Interestingly enough, I didn’t really think of my ongoing foreign-ness as an opportunity to consciously write from unconventional perspectives. Or maybe I am already writing like that and don’t perceive it.
    Once again, thank you and appreciate you sharing your lessons as well!

  5. I have not lived abroad, but I grew up all over the country and sometimes still feel like an expat in the south where I have made my adult life. I like reading your perspective on the advantages and not just the struggles.

  6. I was an expat while living in Ireland for 12 years. Also had the opportunity to visit other countries. It was interesting to experience other cultures, especially while living in another country for so long. I learned to see my own country, America, through the eyes and ears of others. I learned that America is not perfect, that like people, no country is perfect.

    There is much to learn of and enjoy in other cultures.

  7. Diana, thanks.

    Ann…the things I learn about you all! Where were you in Ireland? You must know it very very well. I’ve been four times and loved it every time; my great grandfather came from Rathmullan, Co. Donegal and my Dad, for a few years in the 1990s, owned a house in Athenry, just outside Galway City.

    1. Diana, I started out in Dublin then moved to Balbriggan when I married an Irishman. The marriage didn’t last and in the 90’s there was still no divorce; and unemployment was 20% so I returned to the U.S. to live, get the divorce, and get a job.
      Sorry to say I had never been to Donegal, but travelled around the rest of Ireland and did visit Galway.

  8. Great post – I love the what won’t kill you will make you stronger – I’ve been living abroad for 12 years with three year period back home in between, home home is the UK, other home is Portugal. Interesting I wrote home home there! Hmmn I’m not even sure I’d want to go back to live but I still love the place! And I guess this is what happens once we catch the living abroad bug! its challenging and at times even tough but as you say we learn and grow and become stronger as a result.

    For people now back in their home countries but yearning for international and globally minded people – why not join internations – they have groups meeting in so many cities all over the world, online forums etc. Not just for expats! Just an idea – no connections.. I just think its a great concept

    1. Thanks very much for the suggestion…I had not heard of them. I really appreciate the friends I have, many of whom — most of them journos and photographers — are expats or have been or will be, or have spent significant time away from their home cultures. I go back to Canada 2-5 times every year and am happy to see friends there…have only lived back there for 3 weeks in my 22 years here. I have mixed feelings about the U.S. and about Canada…so nowhere is a perfect fit for me.

  9. As an expat, I totally relate to this! Especially as I get ready to move within my new country, I am really considering what “home” means. I love your comments on identity and defining yourself. I think this is a great message for people who are starting out in career-land, feeling like they have to get on a certain path and stay with it. I am finding that life is taking me in very unexpected places, and it’s much more fun if I can relax and enjoy the unexpected rather than worry over how far I might be from where I thought I would be!

  10. So true…I have been able to re-define myself (not without some initial agony!) in the States. I am still a writer, and have some nice success…but it took 20 years, not the 5 or so I expected. Ouch. But along the way I had a lot of fun playing sports and competing at a high level (sailing, saber fencing) so always had an identity I enjoyed.

  11. Lewis

    My most bizarre experience in life had to do with an expat lifestyle to the extreme. In the French Foreign Legion the majority of us were non-French and by tradition we were given an alias and background and were not able to contact anyone from our past for the first three years of service. So we were soldiers from all over the world with a mixture of religious faiths, ethnic backgrounds and levels of education. But we all came together to live and fight for France
    for only that purpose. A bunch of strangers who became a family and would have done anything for our comrades. The concept of “us” made our tightly knit units “home” since it wasn’t a geographical location. It was more of a sense of
    being amongst those you cared about. We moved barracks, countries and we were all allocated one small shelf for personal
    possessions. So home wasn’t a location with
    familiar surroundings or posessuons. It was
    wherever we felt safe and sheltered and
    It was an unspoken code but we
    rarely spoke about our pasts, as if they never existed. So we lived for the moment since we didn’t think we had a future as part of an elite unit that was spearheadung all of France’s overseas interventions. “Home” could have been a transport plane or an armored personnel carrier, as long as we were in it as a unit.
    I eventually returned to my native home-NYC but my apt. seems like just a shell without the family needed to make it “home”.
    “Legio Patria Nostra”

    1. WOW! Lewis, what an amazing story. It makes me realize I need to open my mind regarding my own personal landscape. Your story of never being able to contact family and friends for 3 years, and your life during that time……!
      So you have no family near you?

  12. The word “expat” is a loaded one for me. Coming from Singapore, the word smacks of over-privilege, wealth, fat paychecks, generous allowances, prestige etc. I’ve come to realise it isn’t an exclusive definition, just one that happened to apply in that time and place.

    I was born and raised in Singapore, and buggered off to Australia at the age of 18, allegedly to get an education. Got the education, but more importantly, out of the motherland. I wrote a thesis on the Chinese diaspora and how this is expressed in film and text for uni, and now, I find I am living what i used to refer to as my “f**king thesis.” (I fought academia from day 1, i’m a horrible student).

    Having lived in Perth for 12 years now, and fairly well immersed in Australian culture (at least, its melting-pot aspect), it still doesn’t feel like home, simply a place I got stuck in transit longer than expected. All the homes we’ve lived in have always been set up to be packed up quickly and cleaned out. I’ll always be torn between the motherland and the adopted nation, identity in flux for the history, the future, and what’s happening in the present.

    I still find it hard to think of myself as an expat, although I tick all the basic boxes. I’m very much an immigrant, still in migration.

    1. I don’t see myself as an immigrant or an ex-pat…Immigrant sounds like I’ve abandoned my home country (which I have, although I go back a lot, 2-5 times a year) and ex-pat, I agree, smacks of CEO-land. I am never going to be very American and never felt sufficiently Canadian…

      What (if anything?) would make Perth, or Australia, feel (more) like home for you?

      Here I have managed to replicate the basics: friends, work, a husband, an apartment and town I really like….Toronto is really expensive, has a horrible winter and not a lot of jobs, so NY fits me better in these respects. Friendship has proven the most elusive: NYers are workaholics who seem to value it much less than Canadians.

      1. I have often wondered why I don’t feel at home here. I guess for the most part, I’m not into what people here are – socialising, partying, sport, TV, corporate ambitions, checking out the latest and greatest… general city-related activities. I was raised in a city and have always lived in one but more and more I think I’d do a lot better living away from it – the city just doesn’t… i dunno, feel right. Like i’m ridiculously out of sync with it; everything that matters to most people here, doesn’t count much in my head, and vice versa.

        I’ve just come back from a week camping out bush, and while I was uncomfortable for most of it (it usually takes about a week for me to settle into that mode), I’m always amazed at what that does for my perspective. The simple act of having to conserve water with everything we do, owing to being limited to only what we can carry, rewrites priorities very quickly.

        There’s something about being on the road, in motion sans the superfluous, that sits right with me. I think I’m just restless. Been stuck in transit here too long. Time to go.

  13. I’ve just discovered the splendid Broadside while searching for themes for a blog of my own…I’m from Los Angeles (suburbs) but living in Glasgow for about thirty years now !

    “Eeeek ! ! !” is the conventional response, *BUT* – I do love this town. It’s got great beauty, parks all over the place, and a very clear-eyed, cosmopolitan, and hip outlook and approach to life, music, art and essentials. And I’m often in London for work, a city I also love.

    For the stay-at-homes wondering what it might be like to be out in the world, I can report from my own personal experience that a recurring wave of homesickness would well up periodically – every year to eighteen months – for the first eighteen years I was here. I was only rarely able to get back to L.A. . But that longing eventually just…evaporated. And I thank God for it.

    Four wonderful children – two grown, two nearly there – who are, without taint of parental pride, world class humans, also make me feel it was right to come here and stay for so long.

    And you are right. Identity is – or can be – mutable. I’ve found that – by will power or maybe really by *heart* power – I can be the best ‘me’ I aspire to be right here, or wherever I find myself on Earth – despite being so far from the time and place of my youth.

    Thanks for your writing – It’s swell !

  14. Wow! I love the old image of McGill. I moved from Philadelphia to Montreal about ten years ago. It can be difficult being an American abroad, and I definitely feel a bit out of place when I got home.

    Lovely post.

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