On ‘Expat’ as Identity

My Shanghai office by ExpatEdna.com

(The office, Shanghai. 2009) 

In the early weeks of 2008, I set out on a six-month trip to China. It seemed so insignificant at the time — I was still reeling from the death of my grandmother over Christmas, and was entangled in an emotionally abusive relationship that, at the age of 18, I couldn’t see for what it was. (“You’re so overdramatic,” he told me when I couldn’t stop crying over my grandmother. Seriously.)

But everything had been booked and paid for — this trip that I’d originally planned in order to learn Chinese, in the hopes of getting closer to my grandmother and cultural heritage — so with my mind in a haze I boarded that plane, my life in two suitcases.

That was nearly eight years ago, and I haven’t stopped living out of suitcases since.

My first apartment in Singapore by ExpatEdna.com

My first apartment after college. Singapore, 2010

Within a month of arriving in China, I found a job teaching English, joined a Gaelic football team, and finally ditched that toxic relationship.

After a couple more months, I realized this life overseas, this person I was outside the United States — that was the real me. Expat Edna was outgoing, positive, and loved life. Pennsylvania Edna was quiet, pessimistic, self-loathing, and awkward AF.

Over the next two years I bounced between China and Pennsylvania, trying to spend as much time in Shanghai as possible and only going home when I absolutely needed to for university reasons. Every time I went back, I felt the shell creeping back, a specter emerging from the darkness.

My second apartment in Singapore by ExpatEdna.com-3

My second apartment building in Singapore, 2011

I graduated in May 2010 and said goodbye to the US two weeks later. I wanted to become a permanent expat — and in the 5½ years since, I’ve made it work.

Reality television in Singapore, tutoring English in Paris, even working the classic 9-5 corporate job in Shanghai: I’ve done whatever it takes to keep my proof of residence overseas.

So when I quit my job to travel this spring, I knew it wasn’t going to be permanent. I even called it then: this is not a forever thing.

My Paris apartment by ExpatEdna.com

My studio in Paris, 2012

As I come up on my sixth month of full-time travel, I have come to realize: my identity is entirely wrapped around being an expat. Hell, it’s in the title of this blog and nearly every social media handle I own. It’s who I’ve been for nearly eight years.

Being an expat, living overseas — it saved my mental health. In Pennsylvania I always felt like an outsider and it led to self-destructive tendencies. Moving abroad gave me the opportunity to finally meet like-minded people who welcomed, accepted, and loved me.

Even better, it taught me what genuinely healthy relationships look like, both romantic and platonic.

My commute in Paris by ExpatEdna.com

My commute, Paris 2013

But more than that, I enjoy learning the ins and outs of a culture, of a language, of a city. I don’t live for these drive-by experiences that come with only spending a week here, a month there. I want to know a metro map by heart, to be recognized at the farmer’s market; to be credibly considered an authority on a city.

I enjoy having a commute to a job, with a steady paycheck, and coworkers with whom to explore the city and a circle of friends to have brunch with on the weekend.

Even more, I enjoy sharing deeper insights on this blog, and not posting about seven different countries in a month. I loathe when bloggers spend all of four days in a city and think they’re an expert on the place — while claiming it’s illegal to drink in public in Paris and misspelling macaron!? — and I refuse to do the same.

It’s Culture Lite, for me, and I want to be able to provide more than that.

(Ever notice that I rarely use superlatives on this site? That’s intentional. If I claim something is the best in a city, I have taken the time to make sure I believe it is the best.)

My apartment in Italy by ExpatEdna.com

My loft in Italy, 2013

Being The Expat has been the past 1/3 of my life. So what happens when the expat no longer has a home base? I feel like I’ve lost my identity, and I’ve started feeling adrift. This full-time-travel-and-freelance thing is not who I am. Not long-term.

The solution seems simple: get another job, right? Move to another country and it’ll all be sorted?

Why, I’d love to — but this is the struggle being in the Games industry. I’m working to get to Rio, but that might not be for months yet. In the meantime I’d like some sort of steady income (because I’m running out of beer money) — but employers are reluctant to hire you when you could up and move to Brazil in six months.

(Just a couple weeks ago I had a job offer to move back to Paris, until I told them I could be in Rio for an unknown period of time next summer, and they decided they couldn’t take the risk.)

My Shanghai apartment by ExpatEdna.com

My apartment in Shanghai, 2014-15

The 20-year old me (the one who decided to move to Singapore on a whim) wouldn’t give a damn about logistics and say, LET’S MOVE TO COLOMBIA I HEAR THEY HAVE GOOSEBERRIES.

I’ve always picked a country first, looked for a job second. But I’m 26 now, getting weary and cautious.

With age I’m finding that security is comforting, that being comfortable is not a bad thing, and maybe now I do want a job before moving somewhere.

But who knows — when push comes to shove, maybe not. I’m 26, not 60.

Either way, going back to the US is not an option. Schengen rules keep me from staying in my beloved Paris for longer than three months at a time, and of the few countries where Americans are able to get working holiday visas, New Zealand and Australia are my only options.

I’m saving Australia until 2017 for career reasons, so that leaves New Zealand. But is now the right time for the land super way down under? Something is telling me not yet. 

So who am I right now? What’s in store for the next year? This chapter of my life has made clear that I’m meant to return to expat life: it seems the only question is, where — and how?

Dalian 2008 by ExpatEdna.com

Dalian, the city that started it all. 2008

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Comments

  1. – I completely agree with you about having a home base. I love living in a city long enough to really know it, and I hate “ultimate guides” by people who have spent five days in Paris. Thanks for not giving us “culture lite.” Recently I saw a guide to Lyon by a big travel blogger, and I thought that was great because Lyon often gets overlooked, but then she mixed up the Saône and the Rhône rivers (kind of understandable, but anyone who lives here can tell the difference immediately).

    Good luck finding your next step! And damn the cruel cruel Schengen zone.

  2. Man, I couldn’t agree more with the sentiments you’ve expressed in this post… I am the same way; I just want to give a place 100% and are soooo bothered by the bloggers who go to a city for three days and speak like an authority or better yet, write “best places in Europe” only of the handful of countries they’ve been to (rantrantrant).
    What if you got a job teaching ESL in Brazil (or elsewhere in South America) and quit it when it was time to head for the Olympics? I had a colleague that taught in Rio for about six months or so and enjoyed it a lot (good climate for the early half of the year!)
    One more thing: I sooo love all of your apartment photos. I get so attached to my apartments that it starts to become the main reason to stay, hah. (as an expat, the feeling of wanting to be settled is a nemesis for me!)

  3. Hi Edna,

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this topic, I cannot agree with you more on so many levels! First of all, I am going through a similar process of restructuring my cultural identity, but in the opposite way. I grew up in China, and the I’ve been living in the States for the past 4 years. Every time I go back to China, the quiet, restrained and awkward Meiyi comes out, I am taller and bigger than an average Chinese girl from the East China region, even my mom kept picking on me when I was a kid. I struggled with my identity as Chinese for a long time and I am still trying to make sense of it given that I do not agree with a lot of the political decisions that the country has made and is making. And living in the States, the expressive, creative and adventurous Meiyi takes over and has grown tremendously. And now, my other cultural identities are yearning for growth, I am ready to leave the States and to continue my journey as an expat. I cannot resonate more with your feelings on cultural identity as an expat!

    As for home base, I don’t know exactly how I will feel yet since I haven’t left the States, but I’ll find out in a couple of months! It’s interesting to hear your how you feel because we’re around the same age. It’s also interesting to hear you talking about the lack of choice for destinations due to visa and work. With a Chinese passport, which almost bottoms the passport power rank, I always felt that I am the only one in the nomad/expat community to experience so much difficulty with visas because the majority of the nomads/expats I know all have a convenient passport from Europe, North America or HK/Singapore etc. It’s good for me to learn about your experience to know that I’m not alone :P

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for not being a superficial blogger, you’re awesome!

  4. Really interesting post, Edna. I like your style and totally agree—-it is definitely more meaningful to really get to know a place over a time period. I feel like that’s the only way to get a true cultural understanding of the place.

    All the apartments you’ve had, by the way, have been BANGIN’

  5. I still don’t know how I feel as an expat. But I suppose part of that feeling is that all my friends in Taipei moved out of Taiwan within a month of me permanently moving here (plus my steady work hours kinda suck).

    As for beer money, you still need to pitch airline magazines. I’d be happy to look over your pitches. And there is some satisfaction in a steady job, though I’d prefer the nomadic life sometimes.

  6. You have had some amazing apartments! Expat life is awesome, although I have never landed an apartment quite as stylish as in your pictures :-(

    Sometimes I feel like I want to try out the digital nomad life, but I would miss my expat salary way too much – I am a little intrigued by the previous comment about pitching airline magazines though, something to try perhaps?

    I love reading blog posts about cities that the writer knows initimately. Of course, I understand that bloggers will write about places they have only visited for a few days (I’ve done the same), but it grates a little when you read misconceptions about a city you live in, and you know fully well that the blogger never even left the main tourist street. I read an article about Stockholm once that made my blood boil it had so many inaccuracies. Hey ho!

    Do you have any ideas on where to next? I handed in my resignation at work today (eek!) and so begins the process of deciding which country to go to next!!

  7. Absolutely love this post and it’s so relatable too… Especially the being awkward AF part ;-)
    I hope you find opportunities in a country of your choice to tide you over to Rio because Rio sound pretty darn incredible! It’s amazing how much an identity can change depending on the culture your surrounded with xo

    PS) THOSE BLOGGERS ARE THE EFFIN WORST!

  8. Edna, You put words to how I’ve been feeling the last 2 months. For 4 years I’ve been living abroad and recently came “home” to pursue a masters. While my identity is wrapped up in being an expat and living abroad, I don’t see how I’ll be able to reconcile the lifestyle with a career & partner (we spent 2 years abroad and I was in his hometown for 2 years) in the next four. It’s quite the crisis!

    By the way, gorgeous flat in Paris. People always seem to live in such sh*tholes there – ha!

  9. Yes to all of the above. I’m in exactly the same place right now. I’ve been home visiting family and friends and am about to spend 2 months in the UK to visit my bf’s fam, but we don’t know where to next. After five months of travel and now two months of kind of floating around, I want roots. I want to have local shops and learn a new language. It’s when I feel happiest. Traveling is great, but it’s exhausting.

    ALSO – SO exciting you’re thinking about Australia. I wish I had another working holiday visa or any other kind of visa.

  10. Lovely post, Edna (and apartments. An inside spiral staircase?! My dream). I hope you find a place soon. Meanwhile, I’ll be enjoying your roaming snaps! :)

  11. I completely understand where you’re coming from in this post! I was also never happy in my home country and I felt best when I was an Expat abroad – I’ve never been a long term traveller because not having my own place would make me feel a bit unhinged :) My job in the UAE finished recently though; and I’m now back in my home country, looking for a job. I’m actually happy to be back because The Netherlands will be a good base for me to travel from – France, Germany and the UK are at my doorstep. However, I’m careful about getting too excited because back in 2010 I was only too happy when I moved away.

    Let’s see what the future brings for both of us! :)

  12. This was such a relatable post that I felt I wrote it about myself! I have also been my happiest and most genuine self while being an expat. I am in US and it is crushing my spirit since moving here 2 years ago, so I know what you mean. The final point that hits home is moving to AU for holiday work and hopefully longer because I really don’t feel US is an option ever! If you got to AU any sooner, then do tell! It was so comforting to know that I am not the only “travel outsider” out there! :)

  13. I had to step back and really think about this before commenting because I resonated with it so well.

    I definitely feel like my confidence took a boost when I became Ceri the Expat. Then again, it seemed to disappear entirely when I became Ceri the Expat Who Lives in Korea. It definitely feels more natural to be living abroad than it does in the UK though. As much as I miss things from the UK, I know that I couldn’t live there. My life is infinitely better as an expat.

    I think you should just go to Brazil now. I know you’re not keen on teaching but I always see short-term teaching roles crop up for Brazil so it seems like an ideal place to be while you’re waiting for Rio.

  14. I’ve been an expat for three of the past four years and also think I’ve finally stumbled on the real me. I revel in the day-to-day challenges of going through life in a foreign culture and language. It forces me to step way out of my comfort zone and to do things I never dreamed I could (like chat with little old ladies in Latvian!) I love the USA, but I’m not keen on living there again anytime soon.

    PS – how much longer will you be in Ireland? I’m heading to Dublin this month and it would be awesome to meet up!

  15. Good luck with your next adventure, wherever you end up! I’m currently applying for a visa and it’s such a pain!!

    Also, I love the term Culture Lite haha!

  16. If this comment gets eaten I am giving up on blogs FOREVER but fingers crossed it appears and this sentence just makes me look slightly absurd.

    Just, yes, to this whole post. Being an expat becomes part of your identity that I don’t think you can ever shake. If I ever moved back to the US I think I’d still feel like an expat, even in my home country. And the tricky thing is that as soon as I start to feel comfortable in a place, then I get itchy to do it all over again somewhere new. The good part is that the more I do it, the more confident I become in my abilities to figure things out as I go.

    I also have this weird feeling that you are going to move to Australia right when I move to France (not that I am planning a move to France, it’s just something I’ve always wanted to do) and the irony of our never quite being in the same place at the same time is going to continue.

  17. Absolutely loved this piece, Edna! You articulated so well how many of us expats feel. Glad to have stumbled upon your site and I look forward to reading more! Cheers!

  18. Edna,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic. Having a home base, whether an expat home or your hometown or somewhere else, provides such an incredible feeling of stability. For me, I feel that stability whether or not I’m freelancing or have a steady paycheck. If I’ve got the apartment, I’ve got the stability. That said, my apartment has long been in Pennsylvania and traveling has been done from this base, so it’s easy to feel stable in my home country (though not my home state and Pittsburgh has a really different culture from where I grew up).

    I’m excited to see what’s next for you and where you call home next.

    Erin

  19. Yep- I can relate to this expat as identity idea a lot Edna. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, actually. I just moved to the US, I’m British, but I just got my permanent residency here (my husband is American- so at least one of us is always the expat haha!). So now I’m thinking- well, what am I? Am I really an expat now? But I’m not American, but if I live here permanently I’m not an expat. But I always enjoyed being an expat haha! Also agree about blogging as an expat- I, like you, have lived in a few different countries (five) and I always liked that I got to discover them on a different level. Everyone is welcome to do their own thing of course, but I trust the opinions most of the bloggers who spend a significant amount of time in a place.

  20. Beautiful apartments! You’ve really lucked out with your living situations. This most made me think a lot. I’m on my second year of being an au pair in Paris and trying to decide what my next move is (as you say Schengen…) I, too, debate between finding a home-base or traveling around the world, but I don’t want culture lite as you say.

  21. How indescribably inspiring!

  22. I love this post, Edna, and can relate with so many of your sentiments! Despite having a close-knit group of friends back home, I often felt like an outsider and had become a version of myself that I didn’t recognize at times. Living abroad has been like a breath of fresh air, and has made me so much happier. Good luck with whatever comes next for you!

  23. Your article is really inspiring! I am going to live in Berlin. I am moving next month. Wish me luck! Greets!

  24. Fabulous post, Edna! Damn, but you’ve had some great apartments- and views! As one who is about to embark on her own expat journey next month, this post had a great amount of resonance for me. I too, have always felt like the real me when traveling and abroad. I feel somewhat trapped in the US and the beastly rat race is just not for me. I look forward to see where your smart head and lovely heart take you!

  25. Expat as an identity makes so much sense. I’m coming up on my fourth month living this way and I don’t think I can ever really go back. It has become such a deeply ingrained part of me that began long before I even left. Great to know there are other people out there that feel the same!

Trackbacks

  1. […] This post from Edna @ ExpatEdna was great, and one that really entertained me. I am someone who loves to travel, but I believe I am much more of a short trip girl rather than a long term traveler, although the thought has crossed my mind at times over the years. Edna talks brilliantly in this post about how she lives with having Expat as part of her identity, she has lived in four different countries and visited 26 and counting in eight years and she shows no sign of stopping. I loved the complete honest she shows in her writing, on exactly why she chooses to travel, but also why she enjoys doing it as an expat rather than extensively as a long term traveler moving from place to place. […]

  2. […] On ‘Expat’ As Identity, Expat Edna– I’ve been reading Edna’s blog for many years so this is a great introspective post on how traveling has brought her best self out. […]

  3. […] Posts: On Expat as Identity, Encountering Racism […]

  4. […] posts all over the web. Some of my favorites this month were about being an expat by my friend Expat Edna, which talks about how living abroad has made her into her best self. And while I never made it to […]