Expat Identity Crisis: on Privilege, Mobility and Belonging. A Personal Essay.

Lately, there have been a few articles circulating on Facebook describing life as an “expat” (here and here) and the book club I recently joined just picked “The Expatriates” as our next read. So I have started to think a lot about what it means to be an expat—and this has brought on a bit of an identity crisis for me.

When I moved from West Virginia to Germany at the age of ten, no one considered my American mother and me to be “expats”. In a village with a population of 3,000, we were simply “the Americans”. My mother had married a German, and we had settled into a very rural (and very German) way of life. Of course, there were no other Americans in the village, nor traces of a significant international “expat community”. As a pre-teen, I was quickly absorbed into life in the village and picked up German in no time. By the end of our five years in Germany, my mother and I spoke fluent German and fit seamlessly into our community: she worked at a nearby clinic and was a member of a local choir; I attended a German school and spent my evenings with the Katholische Landjugend—a successful story of integration, you could say. In fact, having spent a third of my life there at that point, I even began to feel a bit German. So, what were we back then? Foreigners? Immigrants? Certainly not expatriates though, leading the modest life that we did in rural Nordrhein Westfalen. (Yet we were also different from the Turkish or Russian migrants with regard to how we were treated and what role we occupied in society. I didn’t realize any of that then, but looking back, it is quite obvious now… but, I digress.)

When I later lived in Vienna for a year on a fellowship to complete my dissertation, I sensed immediately that though I spoke German fluently and was working on becoming an expert on Austrian culture through my research, I would remain an outsider. Since I didn’t speak German with an Austrian dialect, I was immediately “outed” as a foreigner and I underwent an unexpected culture shock during the first few weeks. I clung to the other American graduate students on fellowships and we formed our own microcosmic quasi-expat community. We, like many expats, remained an insular group, ensconced in our archives and libraries, laughing about the “The Daily Show” and eating cheap Döner on study breaks, and gathering to celebrate American holidays like Thanksgiving. But our status as students (and our rather small stipend) separated us from the professional world of “true” expatriates in Vienna. We attended a welcome party at the U.S. embassy and shook hands with the ambassador, but were clearly of a different status than the diplomats and dignitaries gathered there to honor us.

How funny that now, five years later, I find myself a part of that very world. Language and cultural barriers aside—I am now in a role that I am not yet accustomed to and feel a bit odd in. In academia, we often joke about “imposter syndrome”, the feeling that we are hiding behind a thin veil of intellectualism and that any moment, someone will discover that we aren’t as smart as we claim to be. There is a sense that you keep questioning your right to be there. And I feel similarly about my life now here—that the veneer of a black passport glosses over many parts of my identity that are at odds with this lifestyle.

A little over a year ago, my husband and I, two working professionals from West Virginia, fresh out of graduate school, and living in a basement apartment in D.C., found ourselves suddenly propelled into a life of stature and prestige through my husband’s position. I know that when I drive here in the city with my blue license plates (read: diplomatic plates), that others perceive me as wealthy and as a member of the upper-class—something I am entirely not accustomed to and that I also don’t identify with (hello, student loans). This is where the imposter syndrome comes in. And I still feel strange having someone clean my house every week. When my babysitter complimented me on our decorating style and I replied that most of the furniture is supplied by the embassy, I wondered whether that makes me seem more or less privileged? If you look like an expat, walk like an expat, talk like an expat (in most cases, that means English), does that actually make you one?

So what does it mean to be an expat? To me it means, first and foremost, status, class and security. It means upward mobility in the metaphorical sense and global mobility in the literal sense. It means having household help and affordable childcare. It means urban living, chic social clubs, lavish vacations and (often) rent-free housing. It means having the comforts of home a mouse-click away on Amazon (or at the commissary). It means forming communities with people from all over the world who work in aid and development, global finance, government, military, etc. It means, unfortunately, life in a bubble if you’re not brave (or interested) enough to go beyond that. And all of that admittedly makes me a bit uncomfortable, perhaps because I have never identified with any of those things before, despite (or because of?) my other experiences abroad. But I have also learned that it means a loss of home and stability. It means lack of a family support network; it means moving every two or three years. It means learning a new language and navigating new cultural norms. It means mountains of bureaucracy and logistics. It means constant uncertainty of location and little choice in destination.

But all of that is still relative, right?

And this brings me to my last observation–when we moved to Brazil last fall, I was closely following the refugee crisis unfold in Europe, as thousands of Syrians turned to Germany to seek asylum from the horrors of their war-torn country. I thought to myself how vastly different their reality must be to my own. Any parallels you might attempt to draw become irrelevant in the face of the trauma and utter despair they were experiencing. That is what separates a refugee from an expatriate: the socio-economic and political circumstances of mobility, the unfettered vs. the restricted movement across borders, the state of one’s home left behind. I was ashamed and guilty of our newly gained privilege, a feeling I have yet to resolve. Some might say that it is futile to make such comparisons, but I find it necessary to keep questioning our place in the world, the social relations we are bound up in, the roles that define us.

Maybe over time I will grow more accustomed to this role, maybe it will become a more comfortable fit. But maybe the discomfort is also necessary for remaining grounded in this ever-shifting lifestyle.


3 thoughts on “Expat Identity Crisis: on Privilege, Mobility and Belonging. A Personal Essay.

  1. Loved reading this post. And I’d like to thank you for ‘labeling’/bringing out a feeling I’ve frequently experienced: ‘the impostor syndrome’. Would love to chat with you more… (likely over a decent cup of coffee!) picking up your brain on ‘the perceptions/misperceptions’ associated with being an expat… You have a great writing style, which is engaging and intriguing. 😊
    Abraços, RM


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