I’ve spent nearly eight years of my adult life living abroad, and I hope to spend many more experiencing other countries and cultures. This is not a result of negative feelings or experiences I had growing up in the United States. I could write pages of pros and cons for all 3 countries I’ve lived in, and will always love the USA for what it’s given me and my family. I view my attraction to expat life as more of a personality trait. It keeps me stimulated and challenged, and I feel renewed and energized by the dramatic changes to my environment every few years. In a recent conversation, I was told, “If you want to learn about other countries, watch travel shows. If you want to learn about yourself, travel.” I wholeheartedly agree. However, I do often wonder how my time living abroad affects my national identity and my relationship with my native country.

Eighty percent of the UAE’s population are expatriates. I spend my day’s tasks speaking with people from the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and numerous Arab and Western countries. We communicate in the UAE’s own brand of English, with varying degrees of success. When taxi drivers or others who hold me as a captive audience ask where I’m from, I often claim Ireland rather than America because it’s about as neutral a country as I can think of. I get a few comments on a past cricket-related tragedy from some of the Pakistani drivers, but that’s about all people can say about the place, and many don’t know where it is. Cricket is very serious to a lot of people, but pales in comparison with Guantanamo, Israel/Palestine, and whatever bombs America has recently dropped on the native country of the person I’m speaking with. Some Americans reading this now might be shaking their heads in disgust or disappointment at my lack of patriotism, but sometimes I’d rather sell out to a stranger than suffer through an unwelcome political tirade after a stressful day at work or at the start of a relaxing evening out. And for any Irish readers, don’t get too angry with me. I do hold dual-citizenship, so I have slightly more legitimacy than most Americans that claim to be Irish ;-).

(Can you see the teddy bear?)

(Such a huggable, friendly nation.)

When I visit home and speak with family, friends and others, I often feel unusual as an expat. Only 2% of Americans live overseas, compared to an estimated 10 and 20 per cent of the British and Irish populations, respectively. The opportunities available due to our size and economy have allowed most of us the luxury of remaining cocooned in our own country. For most Americans, life abroad is restricted to a college semester, or a week volunteering with a church. Unless you are in the military, spending extended periods of time abroad is usually a lifestyle decision rather than a necessity.

Does spending long periods of our lives abroad make us less patriotic, or just different? Do we owe our countries more by virtue of our birth and experiences there, or in today’s global community have things changed? As an overseas resident, I’m not required to pay taxes, so I’m not contributing anything to my country financially. At the same time, I’m not paying into Social Security, so if I return here for the later years of my life, I will not be able to rely on much financial support from the government. Dollars aside, I don’t feel that my individual absence is robbing the US of much. We are a nation of immigrants, so I’m not contributing to brain drain, especially with a degree in Political Science. The US is more like a brain vacuum. Most of our best and brightest stay, and we attract many of the best and brightest from other countries. 

Living abroad has definitely reduced my activities as a politically involved and informed citizen. Again, this stems from my own personal choices and preferences. While many expats from the US and other countries seek out detailed news on their home countries from their families and media, I tend to shy away from a lot of it. I’m constantly frustrated by my country’s domestic and foreign politics, but while social media provides a myriad of opportunities for activism, I’ve found myself using my expat status as an excuse to sit back and watch events that disgust me with a sense of disconnect. When it comes to voting, you’d better believe I have my absentee ballot ready. Beyond that, my attempts to keep up with current affairs back home are mostly restricted to watching The Daily Show. Somehow, since it’s thousands of miles away, I have found it preferable to choose blissful ignorance over activism on a number of current events that upset and anger me. Friends back home post articles and discussions on Facebook about an issue or disturbing development, and rather than looking into how I can change it, I quickly click onto something less upsetting. This not only lets my country down (well, those with the same political views that I have), but makes me disappointed in myself. I take a shameful comfort in the fact that I live far away from these happenings, even though in my heart I know I should take a stand, even from across many miles. 

(You should be ashamed of yourself, young lady!)

That said, living abroad has made changes to my heart and soul that I would never dream of reversing. One of my favorite travel quotes states, “Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living (Miriam Beard).” When a person lives abroad, it is impossible for their personality, their views, and even their ways of thinking to remain static. If we do not adapt to our surroundings, we will not survive, and will fly back to the comfort of our home and its familiar surroundings. When we move into a new culture, we must immediately become active observers rather than passive participants.

We are bombarded by the sensory overload of new sights, sounds, smells and tastes, and there is much to be learned from each. The language barrier is obvious and expected, but gestures and facial expressions may have subtle differences that carry important meanings. Voices of our host citizens may be louder or softer than our own, and we may need to change the methods by which we get the attention of others. In many countries, the expat will always stand out simply by our physical appearance, but we learn how to dress and behave to appear as one with awareness of and respect for our host culture.  

As we observe, we must constantly question, “why?” But here lies the key to true gain from traveling or living abroad. We as expats or travelers must decide How to ask Why, and What we will do with the answers.  This determines the speed with which we pass through the stages of culture shock, and brings about profound change.  The answers may surprise, please, or infuriate us. We may learn something that upsets us, confuses us, or excites us tremendously. We may see errors or injustice in a particular practice, or we may want to adopt it as our own. We may, heaven forbid, face the realization that the way we have always done something is not necessarily the best way. Sometimes, we may just accept the difference as what it is: difference. Isn’t this what life is about no matter where we live?

It’s the constant observing, questioning and adapting that makes me feel so alive when I travel. Life is more about the moment than the past or the future. I don’t always have time for deep analysis. The newer and more alien the environment, the more aware and reactive I must be. I become more conscious of the social dynamics of my immediate environment and empathetic towards the moods and motivations of others. If I can successfully navigate my way through an unknown city and make a purchase in a different language in a busy market, months or weeks later, my first days in a new workplace in my own country and culture will pale in comparison. The survival skills I develop as a traveler translate to sharpened social skills when the journey ends.

Time to return to my original question. How does living abroad affect my national identity and relationship with my home country? My country won’t miss me that much, but what happens to me as I spend more time away from it? When others question me about my country, can I offer less insight as someone who has spent an increasingly smaller percentage of my life in the country of my birth, or more insight as one who has experienced the practices and beliefs of other cultures? Can I effectively and accurately attempt to translate American ideas and practices into a context a non-National can understand?

Living abroad has certainly broadened my outlook compared to a typical US Citizen. Watch an American news broadcast. How much of the broadcast is dedicated to domestic stories compared to foreign affairs? Very little. In most countries, this ratio would be far different, or even reversed. I’ve been blessed by the opportunity to experience other cultures, practices and other religions. I’ve spent the past year and a half being reasonably content and successful in a place that is ignored, misunderstood, or even feared by the majority of the US population. I’ve seen first-hand just how much media influences American perceptions of the rest of the world, and I’ve also experienced just how much of an effect tiny decisions in our country have on others.

As I become less familiar with the subtleties of American pop culture and the latest fashion trends, I become more aware of US Foreign Policy and the strong effects it has on the rest of the world. I’ve seen the magnitude of our place in the world, and how little we know about it. The media doesn’t give us much of an idea what’s going on outside our borders, and we spend most of our lives inside our daily bubbles of work, family and sports. The rest of the world doesn’t have such luxury.  They are forced to be aware of us because our decisions affect their sovereignty.  

There is another world beyond our borders. We can’t ignore it. We affect it daily. We build allies and burn bridges constantly while our lives go on and on. Our policies affect those in places the average American has never heard of. This, in turn, creates political allies and enemies that affect us. My identity as an American has indeed changed significantly. I see myself as a global citizen. My actions, all our actions, affect more than just ourselves. Here is where more shame lies in my current political apathy. My vague idea of America’s involvement throughout the world should encourage me to be even more informed and active in the decisions my government makes. I have the opportunity for dialogue with those from other countries affected by my government’s daily decisions. What are their experiences, opinions and desires?

Questions: If you have lived or traveled extensively abroad, what was your greatest benefit from the experience? How do you think living abroad affects your relationship with your country of birth? For expat readers, what would it take to make you go home?


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Anonymous
    May 09, 2012 @ 01:36:34

    It is a very interesting one indeed, I totally agree with what you have said. I am another global citizen as you are, I was born and raised as an expat , did my school in another country, Further studies in another country , living in another country and working in UAE.

    As an answer to your questions I think no matter how far you go beyond you country of birth you can never totally wash it out from you identity but as i have lived abroad extensively It is more easy for me to get along with people from different culture or understand them and i guess i have become much more
    pateint human being than i would have if i would have that is one of the greatest benefit of travelling extensivley or living in different country then you belong to.

    The way I have lived or spent my life so far I dont think there is any specific thing which would make me go back infact I guess I would need to keep on changing my location in coming future to keep it interesting.

    Really enjoyed reading your article as always!



    • The Overthinking Expat
      May 11, 2012 @ 22:02:20

      Omer, you must have experienced so much after spending years in so many places. I agree that a person can never wash their country of birth from their identity and I am very happy for this. However, I think that consciously and subconsciously we adopt parts of the cultures that we are exposed to, whether it be from countries we live in, or the countries of those we spend the most time with. This is part of how travel makes us a richer human being. Each time I return to the US, I feel more and more split, as if part of me will always be “at home”, but other parts of me will always remain in the countries I’ve lived in. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!


  2. Bex
    Dec 05, 2012 @ 16:27:45

    I love that you’ve chosen to spend time learnng about different cultures. It’s the only way to understand the world around us – not rely on being fed by the media who’re often economical with the truth and promote propoganda.
    Bravo you…although I have to say, as a Brit living abroad it has never crossed my mind that I may be being unpatriotic…that’s the differences in our cultures I guess.


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