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How to Face That “Expat Identity” Conversation

“Where do you come from? Which country do you consider your home? Which nationality do you identify most with?” No matter your age, gender, nationality, or birthplace, if you live abroad or grew up between different cultures, you will be asked these questions. Having grown up among three cultures and lived (short or long-term) in four countries, finding an answer hasn't always been easy. But the question remains, does it really matter?

It’s Okay to Be a Mix and Feel Like One

The number of expats around the world is constantly growing and, due to today’s technology and opportunities, we also get to travel a lot more, explore the most remote places, and experience different cultures. Even so, we tend, and want, to identify ourselves with one nationality and culture and think that we need to sort everyone else into these categories as well. It sure is nice to be born and raised in the place where your parents were to live where you collected your best childhood memories. This is where you know every little hidden spot, and where you can share life with the people you grew up with.

It must be nice, that feeling of having one place you can call home, without the “struggle” of having more than one. Sometimes I wish I could experience that as well. But there isn’t always a clear answer to all the questions about your background. It’s okay to be a mixture of cultures and to feel like a mix. Trying to put yourself into a pre-set and labeled box you won’t fit into will not make you feel better. Instead, create a new one that suits you!

You’re Gaining More than You Are Losing

Something that is often said about being an expat is that it might be accompanied by a moment of identity loss. It is true that moving to different countries changes you and that you might struggle with the question “Who am I now? Which is my culture? What are my traditions?” I had to face these questions, too!

I wanted to be part of just one country and culture. I felt like I never had my own cultural identity and that I lost the little I actually had each time I moved somewhere new. Sometimes, even if I tried to adapt, I still felt like a foreigner in every country. However, pretty soon I had to realize that this was a negative way of thinking. What I have, and what you have, is a gift. As an expat, you get to experience how people from around the world live their lives, instead of simply reading about it: isn’t that a privilege? Instead of losing anything, you are gaining knowledge and awareness; you get to choose which aspects you want to add to your assortment of traditions and culture and, consequently, to your daily life. This means you can also choose which ones aren’t a fit. Your personal identity is just different from the one others have — it is made of many little ones, which is great and makes you a beautiful whole, and you shouldn’t turn this positive opportunity into a burden.  

Don’t Let Other People Make You Feel Insecure

All these questions people keep asking, along with all the labels they try to put on you, might be frustrating. You know that they’re only trying to be friendly, as not everyone has had an expat experience and knows what it’s like. Even so, you once again start doubting who you really are, you question the balance you had. You may even think that you are always going to be the foreigner anyway, and that living between cultures is just hard and tiring. However, if you’ve reached that stage of accepting the fact that you have many little identities and that it is actually a unique and special thing, don’t let others destroy that. Be aware that questions will always be asked, it is inevitable, and happily explain and answer them. People usually don’t mean you any harm, they are just interested in and curious about your story. In the end, you might even inspire them!

So, at the end of the day, be thankful for what you get to experience as an expat. That “expat identity” comes with struggles, like everything in life, but don’t focus on that. Discover, enjoy, and embrace every part of it. It makes life great!

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