“What Happens When You Live Abroad”: Thoughts of a Repat.


I came across a remarkable article, and I feel the urge to reply to it with more than just one Facebook comment.

Chelsea Fagan’s “What Happens When You Live Abroad” on Thoughtcatalog describes the expat mindset, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who has lived abroad not to recognize themselves in at least every other line.

My very own idea of complexity and relativity

I am not sure how people that have never shared this experience read the text. Do they understand that having lived abroad is one of the most precious things one can do in their lives – not despite, but because of all the ambivalence, the constant feeling of being torn between two lives?

Claiming how differently I would deal with life if I hadn’t spent a fifth of it as an expat is nothing but useless speculation, of course. Yet, I do believe that a certain perception of complexity and relativity is one of the major benefits from my years abroad. Not at all on a superior level to non-expats. Just in a very specific way.

The “Blame It On The Place”-Syndrome

There are a few more aspects that came to my mind while reading the article. First of all: a phenomenon that I discovered very soon after moving abroad for the first time and that I refer to as the “blame it on the place-syndrome” ever since. It’s no big news that life is not a candyshop, that sometimes the sky turns grey unexpectedly, that things get rough at work and rush hours are crowded. And externalization – in other words: blaming someone or something – is a common, probably very natural, reaction on minor inconvenience. However, I get the feeling that expats are particularly likely to use the country they’re living in as object to blame. And it’s exactly what I did over and over (and still do). It’s not an act of serious, bitter accusation. It’s more like making digs at a partner or co-worker or roommate when in a grumpy mood.

“Not being Dutch” – my strongest point of identification

That observation based on my own behavior, however, led to another question that is still bothering me. I always considered myself as the “most privileged foreigner possible” – university graduate, summoned to the Netherlands through a governmental initiative to attract desperately needed foreign language teachers, the cultural and linguistic gap as narrow as could be, well paid, eagerly welcomed and helped by everyone. And yet, how could it be that a need for dissociation became so prominent almost immediately and increased throughout the years? That “not being Dutch” became such an important feature of identity to me (whereas I never considered being “Austrian” as a very strong point of identification). And here’s the question: If I was experiencing this on a noticeable level – how would it feel for less fortunate “foreigners”, possibly having left their country involuntarily (or for less sophisticated reasons than finding themselves or a huge expat allowance), without a pronounced passion for language learning, feeling distrust and the open request to assimilate wherever they go.
I am not offering solutions or suggestions. I am asking a question that has been bothering me ever since I started living abroad.

I know I will always be able to do it again.

And here’s the last thing I would like to share. I am not an expat any more, at least not in a literal sense. Once again, I live in the country I was born. Even in the city I was born, although I never really lived here before – which made it technically another completely new environment to adjust to. I wasn’t nearly as anxious as I had been when I settled in the Netherlands. Not because it was my “native country”, though. But because I had done it before. I knew I could do it, and I know I will always be able to do it again – understanding the pulse of a new city, getting used to shop hours, subway lines and how to behave in an office in order to get what you want – and finding the local expat hangouts. Because you never cease to be an expat. Because, frankly, you don’t want to cease to be one.


About Sophie Lenz

I like: towns, books, web 2.0, web 3.0, linguistics, computer sciences, autumn, gin tonic, sarcasm, trains, Harry Potter, blogs, theories & concepts, square numbers, purple, green & turquoise, llamas, polar bears & owls, verbs & prepositions, agglutinative languages I don't like: spiders, heat, celery, handicrafts, TV, adjectives, salsa music, chickflicks, beach holidays, ironing, clubbing, motorcycles, slow people, the countryside, whiskey, talking on the phone
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