Losing your identity when living in a country that’s not your own

Expat living

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The (often neglected) byproduct of living in a country that is not your own, is the occasional loss of identity. As much as we gladly take on the excitement and challenge of moving abroad; our sense of identity, view of ‘home’ and our sense of belonging can often be effected by being away from our ‘roots’. Throw in some other factors like a multi-cultural family, and these roots could be spread all over the world, leaving you with a certain sense of homelessness, not really knowing where you belong. Then comes the question of: When are you an expat and when should you start considering yourself as a resident? Is there really a difference when it comes to our sense of self and the way we view our place in the world?

We all have our own stories and cultivated skills on how to cope with the occasional identity crisis, which in the end is just another hurdle on the windy road of expat life. So here is mine..

Both my parents are Belgian nationals, who at the tender age of 22, decided to start their expatriation adventure. After getting a taste of the expat life in both the US and Middle East, they returned to Belgium for a few years before emigrating indefinitely to Australia (with a short-term stint in Cyprus and the UAE). I was 15 years old at the time, so you can imagine the teenage-angst-driven tantrum I threw when that decision was made. After spending over 13 years living in Australia, I met my French husband and happily followed him back to Paris; but not before doing some expatriating of our own in Asia and Europe.

The apple truly does not fall far from the tree … Safe to say my sense of identity has taken a few hits over the years where I’ve dealt with adapting to new life as a child, a teenager and adult. When explaining where I come from, I always feel like I need a brochure as supporting material. Essentially, my ‘roots’ lie in Belgium, but my ‘life’ was lived all over the place. My childhood has both American and European influences and my adolescence was spent pining over ‘the old continent’ while living in the new one. I soon got over the sullen teenage act and grew to love Down Under as I developed into a (somewhat responsible) adult. This Belgian Aussie now has her immediate ‘Belgian’ family living in Australia, while she raises her own family in France. When I say I’m heading ‘home’ I could literally be talking about 3 different places. For fellow expats, this short bio is nothing if not an everyday walk in the park; but for anyone who hasn’t been there, it seems to be a bit of an earful.

1. Home is where the heart is
Our core family is the first group that we ever belong to, so it’s safe to say that for many children, home is where their immediate family is. Then as we grow older and our group expands, home becomes the place for which we have the deepest affection, regardless of where we live. This can be an ever-changing factor for some who experience different ‘homes’ in their life. I compare my life to that of a turtle’s… I carry my home with me. Home is wherever I am with my husband and children.

2. What defines you is not where you are from, but what you have done
It is not the place where you come from that defines who you are. Its the places you’ve gone to, the things you have seen and done and the people you have met that have molded you into the person you are today. The good and the bad.

3. Our different selves
As we grow, ‘who we are’ grows with us, you don’t need to live overseas to know that. Everyone is a different self from who they were 10 years ago and will be a different self 10 years from now. Sure, our core personality traits might stay the same, but we change as life changes. Different context and domains trigger different impressions, attitudes and behavior. I believe moving around a lot, and adapting to new cultures/languages/routines, can significantly impact our already transient sense of self. We might be wittier and easy-going in one place and shy and more reserved in another (language often has a lot to do with that as well). Just like we have a ‘professional’, ‘social’ and ‘family’ self, there is nothing wrong with adapting who you are depending on where/ who you are with. If anything, it makes life all the more interesting.

4. Lost Moments
With living abroad come the endless missed birthdays, weddings, births, deaths, etc. Where you’re part of one event on this side of the world, you’re missing out on another elsewhere. Life abroad can really feel like a double edged sword sometimes where you’re always missing something or someone. It’s never fun when some relationships don’t stand the test of time or distance, but man, does it feel good when they do! Being away from ‘home’ (whichever ‘home’ that is) has made it easier to recognizance and appreciate the good and to let go of the bad. It’s all part of the game, and missing time with people only makes you relish it more when you do see them. In the meantime, let’s thank the tech Gods for things like Facetime, Whatsapp and email.

5. Identifying ‘the Norm’ and where we fit it in 
People who are living a multicultural life often experience the collisions of multiple worlds. We sometime face criticism for stepping outside the bounds of what is normally acceptable in our current country/culture. As much as multiculturalism has brought us awesome things like fusion cuisine, some traits we bring along are seen as adorable where others might be infuriating, depending on the situation. Whether it’s the time of day you eat dinner, the kind of clothing your wear, the events your celebrate, your work ethic or how you raise your children; it’s important to find ways for our own culture and our ‘new’ culture to align.

6. Own it!
Research has shown that being multicultural is a tremendously beneficial trait because it makes us more flexible, adaptive and creative in our thinking. As much as we occasionally feel lost, sometimes we need to loose our way to actually find it! This time abroad (be it for a short time or forever) should be considered as your own real-time ‘personal growth’ workshop. Feeling like the ‘eternal outsider’ is not forever and although we may never feel like a true local, being the person you are is what makes you interesting, not how long you’ve been here or how well you’ve integrated. There will always be times when you long for a life you had in your home country, regardless of the skills, opportunities and excitement living abroad offers. Embrace both the ups and downs of living away from parts of yourself … it’s a true privilege to be able to leave your mark all over the world… let’s use it the best way we can!

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About Stefanie Selen 11 Articles
A qualified Psychologist who started with trauma survivors and later turned to private practice. As well as a health and wellness professional, I’m also a mother of two, wife of one, veteran expatriate and self proclaimed ‘foodie’ (which is just another way of saying my favorite hobby is eating). I'm a blogger who started to write about everyday situations, share research and experience and offer helpful advice.