The Dilemma of Belonging Everywhere, and Nowhere

01 Jul 2015 6:14 PM | FIGT Blog Editor (Administrator)

How do expats grapple with the need to belong when we seem to belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time? Can we ever go “home”, even after repatriaton? Jonelle Hilleary ponders the question.

By Jonelle Hilleary

Expats, by and large, tend to be team players. The nature of our work and assignments almost guarantees this.

We are people who like to be part of something.

When faced with challenges we look to our friends and colleagues for help finding answers. We solve problems.

And, from what I read, expats find great satisfaction in belonging. I know I do.

Expats also tend to self-identify in groups fairly readily. It isn’t very long into any conversation when you find out “who has seen the elephant” and who has not.

Being an expat is certainly more complicated than this, and not everyone is a cookie cut with the same cutter. But these are a few of the qualities, or mindset, that differentiate expat personalities from others.

The expat experience marks you as unique

That’s the effect of belonging. It’s like having a tattoo or a brand-mark that says “You’re one of us.” There’s a security in knowing you’ll be understood, that there is this common language somewhere between two.

I think the need to belong is a strong one — and by “belonging” I mean experiencing the peace that comes from being a part of something bigger than ourselves.” (Maria Latham-Foley)

“The Land of the Midnight Sun cannot escape the inevitable Noon Moon. Twenty-four hours of daylight in the summertime; twenty-four hours of darkness in the wintertime. To cope, residents of Norway put up black-out curtains just to fall asleep in July. In January, light box therapy helps some fend of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). We know two seasons: summer and winter; celebration and survival. These are things to which only people who have lived in-country year-round can attest, an invisible line which binds us together.” (Audrey Camp)

“Living now in Uruguay, a country made up of mostly immigrants from Europe, we fit in a little better.  We are surrounded by people with German, Swiss and Italian last names.  There is some blonde hair and plenty of pale skin.  People are used to those who speak Spanish poorly since everyone has a grandparent or uncle who never really got the hang of their new language. After years of living abroad in countries where we really didn’t fit in (India, Japan, Mexico) Uruguay feels just about perfect.  I am now at peace with my “outsiderness” and understand that if I fit in perfectly it would not feel quite right. Home is where I am a little paler, mostly misunderstood and look like I am wearing someone else’s clothes.” Tom, Expat Alley

Is there a place like home? 

Once part of this expat experience, can we  really “go home again”? (If only we had those magic ruby slippers to make it easy.)

Can we find satisfaction striking out on our own? What is it about coming home, repatriating that gives us so much trouble?

Part of the difficulty in repatriation is the loss of community, like being the only one with a particular tattoo or brand-mark. Being on the outside looking in. Alone in a sea of people, having no group to belong to.

Being identified as one of the “others,” the one that doesn’t fit, that doesn’t talk or sound like a different group called “us”.

The dilemma of belonging everywhere, and nowhere

We can go anywhere; just want to be at home somewhere; yet truly belong nowhere.

For me, being born into a Navy family meant never being at home anywhere. I am from a family of Texans, but being born on a base in California meant the Texans didn’t “claim” me, and being Texans meant the Californians looked sideways at us as well… Being from everywhere meant belonging nowhere.

I finally found a place in a temporary and unlikely corner of the world called Baku. I had work to do that was rewarding; independence that meant confidence; and my own money which meant freedom. I was part of a small core of expats who ate together, played softball together, raised money for charity together, and cared for each other.

Until it was time to leave.

Living with loss, being better for it

I never really understood what it meant to have a group like that.  And most expats will tell the same story about their own corners of the world, each one as special as mine, if not more so to them.

Here’s what Maria Latham-Foley said in a post about expat loss:

“The revolving door. It never fails: you move to a new country and make a friend. Not just any friend, but a great friend, the best you’ve ever had. Once you’ve arrived at the point where you’re swapping clothes and finishing each other’s sentences, she packs up and leaves for the next assignment. (Or you do, which is just as bad.) … As an expat, it’s understood that saying goodbye is part of the deal… but that doesn’t make it any easier.” (Maria Latham-Foley, I was An Expat Wife)

“I can totally relate to the part about the loneliness and missing a friend when they move. One of my dearest friends had moved abroad and I miss her so much. It’s also much harder to make friends when you’re older.” (comment posted by ‘bookjunkie,’ on I Was An Expat Wife)

It wasn’t until I had been home 8 years that I finally started to figure things out.

(Had I known there was a real process for doing this, I might not have transitioned the Hard Way.)

It was only by reading and sharing with other expats, both still abroad and recently repatriated, that I was finally able to put the pieces together on what had been happening. And to realize I was not alone. And neither are you!

Through groups like the Expat Partner Coffee Online, Project World Colors/World Colours, conversations with other bloggers, learning new social skills (the “new” kind, not basic comportment skills… smile) through others willing to teach, I enjoyed the camaraderie that was missing. I gained confidence in my place “at home” (this new home I’ve chosen, though at times it still seems like a new expatriate assignment!)

Others have also commented how valuable new groups are, that they’re replacing the loss of community. It’s gratifying for me to look back and see how much progress I have made over the past year.

As we start this New Year, 2014, unbelievably I will be marking 10 years home. And I can say for the first time, “this is beginning to feel a lot like home.”

I’d just like to know what took me so long?  (smile)

Jonelle Hilleary writes about My Life lessons on her website What the World Taught Me.

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