Each time I fly into England , I have to fill out a Landing Card. Name, address, passport, family, occupation: my identity. I usually put “Scientist”, not strictly true, I suppose, but it does describe how I think of myself and who I want to be known as.
I also define myself as I’m seen by others, a job title, personal relationship, or hometown, But, more deeply, I have a personal identity, persistent qualities that describe and define me, that set me apart from other people as unique and exceptional.
“I am an expatriate” is one of those qualities. I am someone who has chosen to leave home to live in another culture, to experience life and form lasting relationships away. It’s different than living an identity in my home community: I’m creating one in someone else’s. It’s not ‘fitting in’; it’s purposeful. I am discovering who I am and building who I want to become.
The heart of the paradox is that I also have to be tolerant and adaptable. The Big 5 Traits of Expat Success stress the importance of extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability. Very few long-term expats write about it, and little research has been done. But balancing conviction and change to preserve who I am is the most difficult and stressful part of the expatriate experience.
The long-term expats who I know, by definition successful ones, are curious, confident, optimistic, and committed to making a complete life within their adopted culture. But, to an even greater degree, I would characterize them by their rootlessness: the absence of strong ties to people, places, community, or jobs in both their adopted and their home countries.
And that leads to key questions about personal identity.
- Can expats define themselves by the absence of things?
- Can expats maintain themselves with a shipping container of personal effects and long-distance relationships over Skype?
I’ve taken on this challenge of building a new facsimile from the objects, tasks, routines, events, language, and history around me. I’ve sought out and committed to connections with local people. I became whole in my adopted home, with an image and a narrative that describes a vision and a future.
But it’s situational, fragile, too easily lost when an apartment ends or a connection fails.
‘just that simply.
The paradox, and the existential stress, is that expatriates are the most likely to need a strong personal identity yet least likely to have the means to sustain one. And that rootless search may be the signature characteristic, and the defining problem, of expatriate life.