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  »   On being an Expat

On being an Expat

Author: Sarah Johnson | Monday April 25 2016

Often there is the assumption that being an expat is a life full of nonstop travel, tourism and sightseeing. While expats (primarily those on a temporary assignment) do tend to take advantage of the access they have to various travel destinations, there are also some unique challenges in being an expat.

I don’t make mention of the challenges much. If you were to view my Facebook page or my Instagram account, you’d see I post pictures and updates from various places we’ve traveled to and am often singing the praises of the local culture. Sure from time to time I make reference to being homesick or missing people, but not very often. Not nearly as often or as deeply as it’s felt. And I almost never convey the heavy loneliness and isolation that is regularly felt. I am not trying to create a façade of any sort. It’s more that I feel I am not allowed to complain. I mean we were given such a wonderful opportunity to live abroad, I should just appreciate it, right?

I’m not supposed to express that I experience daily discomfort and awkwardness in being a “foreigner”. That I feel completely incompetent just trying to do simple mundane tasks like reading the mail or making a phone call. That I am embarrassed that my four year old translates for me. That I pretty much avoid any group situation because I feel incredibly guilty I don’t speak Dutch well enough to socialize. And even though “everyone in the Netherlands speaks English” I feel like an ass when a Dutch person speaks English to another Dutch person on my behalf.  I even recently commented to a friend, “I really appreciate that you don’t speak English in a group just because I’m present”. He thought I was being sarcastic. I wasn’t though. I was 100% serious. I don’t want to be the foreigner that everyone is always accommodating. I WANT to learn the local language.

When in my element and a place of comfort, I am chatty and friendly. I smile easy and laugh openly. I like making small talk with complete strangers. I enjoy meaningful conversations. I like listening to people’s stories. I like sharing my own stories. I thrive on engagement and connection. And yet that part of me is rarely expressed here. I am quiet. I am often in the role of observer; constantly scanning the environment for clues as to what I am supposed to do. In daily interactions I am slow to respond because my brain is working in overdrive to decode auditory and visual input in a new language. In social situations my rate of speech, my use of slang, and even my non-verbal behaviors are different. My personality is almost altered, to the extent that most of the time I don’t feel like myself. I only recently began to understand that *that* is where the loneliness and isolation reside; in being disconnected from myself. Which inadvertently leads to a disconnection with others… even with my very close friends and family members. There’s the obvious tension, of course, from missing one another and lack of physical contact. But there’s also a profound shift in relationships when one member experiences a sort of an identity crisis.

So beyond the excitement of exploring new places, the reality is: sometimes it’s really hard being far from “home”. In fact for a long time I haven’t even had a solid definition of home for myself. Until recently. I attended a yoga workshop in California where I witnessed a beautiful woman standing barefoot on a yoga mat. She was poised and graceful in her movements. I couldn’t help but watch her. Her breath. Her strength. Her flow. They drew me in. She was lovely and radiant. As my eyes traveled down her body, I noticed a tattoo on her foot. It was a word in gentle cursive that I couldn’t quite make out at first. And then I realized it said “home”.

And that struck me powerfully. It helped me put into words something I had been struggling with. Home is not a place; home is within you. Where ever you place your feet, wherever you ground yourself into the Earth, that space can become your home if you open your heart up and allow it. Slowly but surely, being an expat has taught me this lesson.

I recently ran the Rotterdam Marathon along with 19,999 other runners. There was an insane amount of spectators; pretty much the entire length of the 42 kilometer course is lined with people cheering for the runners. I arrived at the start line completely on my own. I didn’t know a single person there. Standing “alone” in a crowd of that magnitude, lost in a sea of strangers and not really understanding any of what was being said, could have been isolating. But somehow it wasn’t. This surprised and intrigued me.

Start lines of marathons are usually buzzing with energy that cosmically gets transferred between runners. Our nervous systems are wired to connect with others and without any conscious effort we, as humans, absorb the emotional energy surrounding us. In group of people that size collectively sharing a small space and experience, you can imagine the vibrancy! Add in the adrenaline rush that comes with running a marathon, and it is prime territory for attunement.

As I ran along the course….continually placing one foot in front of the other… over and over again for 42 kilometers…I felt as though I was imprinting “home” into the earth and onto myself with each stride. I may not have the word “home” inked on my foot like that California yogini, but it was there in my mind. And in my heart. I was home!

The desire for a tribe is more than merely a craving; it is a primitive need we all have. To belong. To exist harmoniously. It is the heart of attachment theory. When we belong to a tribe we are safe and secure. When we don’t, we are vulnerable to danger. Thankfully humans have the capacity to adapt. We develop coping mechanisms. We expand. We evolve. This journey of being an expat has impacted me way more than a collection of stamps on my passport…it has gifted me the ability to be alone. Confused. Vulnerable. And to welcome those feelings as opportunities to find myself. This expat thing isn’t always easy, but what makes you vulnerable makes you beautiful (Bene Brown, 2015).

What in your life makes you vulnerable? Seek it out. Embrace it. Be beautiful!


Sarah Johnson is an expat from America. She currently lives in a small Dutch village with her hubby and four children.