“I don’t…I don’t know who you are,” my friend from college said slowly. It was his very first night in China and I was introducing him to my friends over dinner.
“What do you mean? What’s Edna like at home?” asked a close girlfriend. She knew me only as a fellow expat in Dalian and Shanghai.
“Well, she works in the library every day until after midnight. Sometimes I see her eating alone in the cafeteria. And she never goes out.”
Everyone at dinner stopped and turned to look at me.
“Who ARE you?”
People often tell me I’m brave for moving abroad at such a young age. I sometimes want to correct them and insist I’m not, because I have a secret:
I feel like I’m running away.
I have dual personas: America-Edna and Abroad-Edna. Imagine them like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — though instead of being a wealthy physician, Jekyll is a shy, quiet, boring Asian chick; and instead of a deformed and cruel criminal, Hyde is an outgoing, self-confident risk-taker.
As soon as I leave US borders, I become a different person.
People who only know me from my days in Pennsylvania cannot believe the crazy adventures I get myself into — often willingly, and with great enthusiasm (and a few tipples) — overseas.
Those who’ve met me abroad refuse to believe me when I say I am NOT very confident at home; I don’t make new friends often and rarely go out (…drinking, that is. Now late-night Target runs, that’s another story).
I first discovered this other personality at 18, when I moved overseas for the first time. I fell in love with Abroad-Edna and the life she lived; somewhere during that year I realized I wanted that life to last forever. So I decided, back in 2008, that after graduation I was going to stay abroad as long as possible, and do whatever it took (even if it meant teaching English until I was 40) to never live in America again.
When I’m abroad, I’ve got endless pools of confidence. I love striking up conversations with strangers; I’m not afraid to go on road trips with people I’ve just met. When I move to a new city, I quickly form large social circles and find myself with an unending calendar of parties and events. I get hit on (not that it matters anymore, but it’s still flattering), and people I’ve just met tell me they’ve heard of me. In Gladwell terms, I’m the epitome of a Connector. Abroad-Edna is popular.
When I’m in America, I’m the opposite of outgoing. I get flustered easily; I’m hesitant to approach strangers. I rarely drink. The only guys who hit on me have yellow fever and still live with their mother. I don’t plan parties, because I know from experience no one would show up — so I simply wait to be invited. Which doesn’t happen often. And even when it does, I’d still rather spend my nights watching reruns of Scrubs and chasing my cats around the house.
Why the outrageous difference in personalities? Part of it is the feeling that life abroad is never truly “real” life. At any point, I can move and reinvent myself in a new city — which gives me the confidence to be whoever I want to be right now. The Asian look/American accent combination also helps: people expect me to speak with an accent, so when the fluent English comes out, it’s an automatic conversation starter.
I’m also slightly intimidated by other Americans, especially American women. Growing up as the ignored Asian in a small, mostly-white town has left me with insecurity issues the size of Jupiter. I feel more free to be outgoing around other nationalities; in a group of new people I’m much more likely to talk to the girl from Italy than the girl from Florida. (To be fair, most of the Americans I’ve met abroad are wonderful people and surprisingly, the majority of my expat friends are American. But initiating that first chat with an American abroad still takes more effort than normal.) Even though in some ways I feel the most accepted in the US, in many others I don’t feel like I’ll ever fit in.
So that’s why I’m where I am today. I feel like I’m somebody out here. That’s why after China, I went to Singapore. Then Australia. And now Paris. I do love to travel, and it’s absolutely a factor in my serial expatriation — but I’m also running away from the US at the same time. I’m scared of returning to my old life and becoming a nobody again.