An Expat Confession

“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.

Like sneaking into the infinity pool in Singapore (with a bottle of champagne, no less)

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).

…because I’m too busy making egg faces at home. Seriously, this was my life.

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.

It’s no wonder he hates me.

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.

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Comments

  1. I can understand where you are coming from. Sometimes, where we come from can also come with a lot of baggage. There is something liberating about being abroad where no one knows who you are and you are free to reinvent yourself to a certain degree.

    I always wanted to go to art school, but my Asian parents put the kibosh on that! I went on to major in literature and philosophy . . . which they totally supported even though in hindsight, I probably would have made tons more money with an art degree :-/ In any case, when I had the chance to study abroad in Africa, I was so far away from home and my family. Not only were telephone calls ridiculously expensive, but they were not very reliable. Furthermore, there was practically no internet and letters took between 3 weeks to 2 months to arrive.

    I felt so free though. I learned how to carve wood. I apprenticed myself to a wood sculptor, and had a great time exploring the parts of me I had to give up back home.

    I think the real trick is trying to figure out how to make ex-pat us part of back-home us too!

    Great post, Edna!

  2. I feel the same way! There are definitely two sides of me. I have noticed that every time I return to the US I bring a little bit of the Abroad-Erin back with me though so it’s not so bad.

  3. Ashley Bruckbauer says:

    Great post, Edna! I have a similar transformation between the U.S. and abroad, though perhaps not quite as dramatic. It seems like it is easier to make friends in expat communities than randomly in the States; you have the commonality of being ‘outsiders’ after all. Also, life abroad (at least in China) often feels like a continuation of the stereotypical college experience sans homework: eating out every meal, meeting for coffee in the middle of the day, and tons of parties on the social calendar. My boyfriend and I talk about this all the time; he does so much more as a young professional in Beijing than I do as a grad student in North Carolina. Of course, personality can contribute some, but just like you, I am much more the social butterfly when abroad. For some reason, it feels like the stakes are lower. Maybe because people are coming and going all the time, you meet friends of friends, and the friend pool is replenished every few months with a group of newbies.

    Also, my personality really shifts in Asia. I tend to be much more laid back and expect and accept things will go wrong. This is completely contrary to my type-A personality in the States and is the one thing I really want to implement back home for good. I think this is all akin to a lot of things we change when we go abroad like accepting that we speak the native language like a 5-year old (me with Chinese) and that we will ALWAYS be stared at (once again, me total white girl in China). Thanks for opening up on this!

    p.s. Do you find this expat personality is the same in Paris as in China? I always felt like a much more toned-down version of ‘Expat Ashley’ in France. Paris always felt more like the ‘real’ world.

  4. I totally get this and agree; I have my own persona, Travel Rebecca, who’s way more confident and waaaaaayyy more fun. Please tell American Edna that both American Rebecca and Travel Rebecca don’t even need to meet her to know that we already 100% know that she’s not a nobody; she’s a Somebody for sure – in France, in London, in Singapore, in Pennsylvania or wherever. We know her friend Abroad Edna and we think she’s pretty awesome, so that’s all we need to know. :)

  5. I just love you. Your posts give me confidence and relatable reality in a well spoken package.

  6. Amanda Slavinsky says:

    Wonderful post! I definitely act different abroad. I’m more confident and less worried about making mistakes, even little stupid ones that would probably not bother other people ever. I loved the past line. So, so true :) But, I’m sure you’ll never be a nobody, even if you are making late night Target runs. Which are awesome.

  7. gregorylent says:

    america’s so weird anyway, no sense going there again … and besides, what actually does the word “abroad” refer to? one world.

  8. I think perhaps that it’s America that’s the problem… not you! America appears a lot more critical about people than Europe/Asia. I’ve never been so I can’t judge, but most US films/TV shows seem to depict that image too! x

  9. Oh, it’s true, it’s true! I have an expat personality too, one that makes me much braver, more curious and adventurous. But as much as I love living overseas, the place that makes me the most comfortable has been (and will always be) New York, the most diverse city in the world. I feel like the city accepts and understands me in ways that Europe or Asia never could.

    As for being intimidated by American women — don’t forget, Edna, that YOU are an American woman, too!

  10. WHAT?! You being shy?! No, I’m just teasing – I get it. I’m different people around … well, different people. It’s not so much the place that changes me, I find, but the groups of people and the culture that I find myself in. I read a study once that talked about how children behaved differently in various groups depending on the ‘overall personality’ of the group (was it an outgoing group? a shy group? a rebellious group? a follow-the-rules-by-the-book group?). I think not much changes when you’re an adult.

    All I have to say is – you are an AMAZING person, no matter where you are. And really, you should never forget that.

    x Milsters

    (http://littlepiecesoflight.blogspot.fr/)

    PS Unfortunately, there will be no Ethnic Dinner Night this week, but I will let you know when my friends manage to get their act together and host one! In the meantime, what are you doing this Saturday evening?

  11. I can relate with a lot of what you wrote here. I never went to night clubs, sang in front of people (with my guitar, not karaoke), or was as confident in myself as I was when I was abroad living in China.

    What’s interesting is that I’ve moved back to the US and have been able to bring a lot of what I gained abroad back with me. Life and work are thoroughly enjoyable in the US. I miss life abroad at times, but am mostly happy with where I’m at. My extended time in China helped me in so many ways to be a better person back in the US.

  12. It’s so funny that you talk about insecurities and where you came from – I grew up as the tall, awkward white girl surrounded by Asians who would constantly stare up – way up – at me, making me feel even taller and more awkward. I guess you just can’t away from insecurities no matter who you are. ;)

    I must agree with Louise above in that American’s tendency to be critical of one another – especially amongst women! – often makes those of us more on the shy side become even more introverted. I am a much happier, much less-stressed person in my life in Germany, so I’m going to stick with what works for me. No fault in that!

  13. I’d like to meet US Edna.. I think she and I would get along well at home. :)

  14. Yeah, I’m a bit more outgoing when I travel (but that doesn’t only apply to travel outside the US). But it also has made me a different person at home.

    So, which Edna did I meet in NYC?

  15. Just came across your blog and after reading this post I definitely understand how you feel. I spent 3 months in England last year and it was the best 3 months I have had in a very, very long time. Unfortunately, I had to return as I couldn’t find work. Is it weird to feel more at home in another country, across the world? I grew up in Newfoundland and have been living in Calgary the last few years. While I never really enjoyed living here, when I went to England I had the feeling of home, perhaps because it is similiar to Newfoundland. I, like you, was more outgoing, had a zest for life and did more things in those 3 months then I have living in Alberta for 6 years. I hope I get to go back someday, the wild wild west is not for me. Thanks for the post:) Enjoy your day!

  16. So interesting! I definitely had the same experience the first time I was in Barcelona. I loved my ‘abroad me’, and life was exactly how you described – a huge social circle, constant invites, ‘Oh, YOU’RE that girl’, and lots of flirting.

    But for some reason, I’m having a hard time tapping into that lately I’ve had such a stressful year, and I’m having trouble finding my ‘abroad me’ again. I’ve got to get her back…somehow!

    It’s funny how big of a difference there is sometimes between ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ personalities!

  17. Edna, the joys of living, of growing up, of traveling, and such is getting to know your self more and more each day. Knowing who YOU are can be a lot of challenge for you and for many of us, but the important thing is to always be TRUE to yourself.
    Who you are before back in high school or junior high may still be or may no longer be who you are now. Maybe the REAL Edna is the Edna who is outgoing, who loves to party, who forms large social circles after all, and so embrace that. Allow people, both abroad and the US to get to know the REAL Edna. Maybe your insecurities from the past has prevented you from opening up to Americans, has prevented you from letting them get to know you. And so people continue to assume that you’re a different kind of Edna. But open up; you’d be surprised how Americans are just the same as the people abroad. Maybe it’s not even America, maybe you’ve never given America the chance.
    Knowing who you really are is the most important thing, because that secret you just revealed to the world about “feeling like running away”, is probably for real. And that’s why you’re in this wonderful journey, to find and get to know yourself better, because if you don’t you’ll spend the rest of your life running away, not from America, but from yourself.

  18. I have found that each place has its own energy/vibration/culture and if I live there for years it starts to affect me too. Or to look at it another way I start to belief in the social conventions there. When I am abroad the local social constraints don’t apply to me. The locals already think that all foreigners are strange, so any additional personal weirdness from me is judged no differently – they still don’t think of me as one of them and their social rules just don’t apply.

    That frees me up to be more of myself. Yippeee! I have been traveling since January 2011 – mostly in South America – and what an adventure it has been. Prior to that I lived in US for 21 years, Holland for 2 years and grew up in UK. I am not sure how many years it took, but after a way living in the US felt like home and I became less outgoing. Travel has opened up that part of me more.

    Thanks for sharing your inner process and keep having fun!

  19. andiperullo says:

    I can absolutely relate! When I’m at home I’m really focused and concentrated on putting down roots. As soon as I travel I don’t have a care in the world!

  20. I’m intimidated by almost ANY women I meet! Home or abroad, it’s much more hurtful when a lady doesn’t want to be my friend than when it’s a dude.

  21. I can’t even imagine you shy.

    I was hoping to find a new fabulous alter-personality in France that wasn’t a shy homebody, but I’m still me. I think I feel most changed when I go home and tell people what I’ve been up to the last year. I’m not the same person I was when I left two years ago, but I don’t notice until I’m around people who know me well.

  22. I had to do a leadership assessment for work about two years after I moved to China and I was astonished how I was viewed and how my personality compared to my own self-assessments before in the US and at university. I know that I have become much less of a perfectionist and also more relaxed in “what people think.” When you get stared at every day you either become more relaxed and less self conscious or you go the other way. I think (though I’m not sure), these are pretty big shifts for me, so I anticipate they will continue if at some point I move back to the States. Great post.

  23. It’s interesting because I’m a bit of the opposite. When I originally moved to Japan, it was for only 10 months and I made the decision to focus on befriending Japanese people. I found it terribly hard to balance my real personality while blending in enough that I was never labeled as “The American.” 3 years later, I still find that I am more outgoing or “popular” back in the States, or around English speakers, partially because I’m less afraid that I’m going to break any social rules. For example, at a restaurant in Japan, you either pay at the table, or at the entrance, depending on the establishment, but they don’t necessarily tell you which. I used to get so flustered that I’d do the wrong one that I would just refuse to try new places on my own, or when I am the only Japanese speaker in the group.

    That’s not to say that living abroad hasn’t changed me, though, as has having a blog. I’m a lot more laid back and chill, though perhaps I’m starting to get a little too laid back these days. :)

    It’d be interesting to see what would happen if you tried a more international city in the US, say New York, or the West Coast, where Asian-Americans are definitely not uncommon.

  24. I can completely relate to this too, Edna.

    They say that when you do eventually return home, even if it’s just for a short period of time, people don’t really care where you’ve been, what you’ve seen, and for how long. So it’s easy to slip into that “I’m a nobody” persona. When you live the expat life, you explore, take chances, try new things – you have to or you’ll sink.

    I’ve also become more adventurous since living abroad, eager to get out there and appreciate my new home. And I’ve probably seen more of my various expat homes than my homeland. It’s so interesting how expat life changes you. The tricky part is figuring out if you can combine one day returning to the homeland with this new person you’ve become…

    Great post.

  25. This is an awesome post, Edna! I’m not sure if I’m really that different abroad from how I am at home – honestly I don’t think there’s much difference. Although in my current city, I have NO social circle – I’ve met nobody in my neighbourhood and can’t WAIT to leave in March.

    I get what you mean about “real” life to an extent. I think expat life is real life, but it’s just a different version of real from what we usually associate with the word. It’s easier to get up and go, but what’s so “real” about staying put in the same town your whole life anyway?

    That picture with your cats is HILARIOUS! Also, you need to teach me how to make egg faces.

  26. This really hit home for me! I feel like a whole new person outside of America. I’m going back for 6 weeks later this summer and I’m interested to see what it’ll be like to see old friends and family…but also to see what *I’ll* be like. It’s my first trip home for more than just a few weeks in over 2 years!

  27. Yes, I know the feeling. Living abroad gives you the opportunity to reinvent yourself, to try on new hats, to be more bold and confident (sometimes because you simply have too!).

    I’ve also struggled with the “am I running away” card and up until a few days ago was debating whether I was being “irresponsible ” for another year in Spain, new region and town! It’s been an interesting mix of commentary from my friends- from encouragement to aren’t you just putting off the inevitable?
    But running away or not, there are so many things we learn from being abroad and sometimes I think it’s harder than people think, easier in other ways… (definitely putting off the 40 +hr rat race)!

  28. Hi Edna! I’m finally home for a handful of days and am catching up… so be prepared to get peppered with my comments. :) I am still going through my emails as well, and just read yours! I’ll reply in a bit, but yes, I’d love to!

    Now, as for this blog post, it’s really hit home. Especially this: “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,” and “I’m scared of returning to my old life and becoming a nobody again.” You’ve expressed a lot of sentiments I’ve felt these past couple of years, and though it’s sometimes hard going through the emotions and occasional frustrations of living abroad, we also have to deal with knowing that there are other frustrations that would arise should we ever return home. In an optimist’s point of view, we are citizens of the world. In a pessimist’s, well, we just don’t belong anywhere. I suppose the trick is allowing the optimist to win most of the time. ;)

    It’s a relief knowing I’m not the only one who feels the same way. (P.S. I love your egg faces!! I’m totally going to make my future kids egg faces!)

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  1. […] someone who has grown up in different countries and traveled quite a bit, I really relate to An expat confession by Expat Edna, in which she explores the different personalities that we may take on when away from […]

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