Is Expat Still My Identity?

That Facebook memory thing is a pain. I joined Facebook in 2005, my first year of uni (back when you needed a university email). That’s a lot of years of memories to show me, and while it’s nice looking back on times gone by, boy do I feel old.

Memories informs me that it’s been around 8 years since I lived in Japan, and 5 years since I was in Germany. I’ve been in the UK 3 1/2 years and I can’t believe it. I came back to settle down, career up and live a more fulfilling life, and really it’s taken me 3 1/2 years to get somewhere near that.

It’s been tough. Not really knowing what I want to do for work, and feeling so many years behind people my age, I’ve felt like a massive loser these past few years. Building life for myself was fun and exciting abroad, but doing the same in the UK when I should know how to…live, wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.

I remember when I first came back and I was working at Big Crappy Japanese Company for a couple of months, I felt like such an alien having to learn how to live in the UK again. Everything from driving to booking trains or knowing to find the right information was all completely new for me.

Now I’ve settled down in my life back here. I still feel years behind people my own age, and feel like this is the “this is what you could have won” section of a gameshow.

Being an expat…or an ex-expat is very much who I am, it’s what makes me…me. I think about my life abroad every day, whether it’s remembering a time from before or explaining to students that they can have a life abroad if they like, or explaining a cultural difference. But there’s only so much people around you will take of “Exciting Tales From When I Was An Expat”.

And yet, it’s who I am.

I still feel like the person who dropped everything and moved across the world, then dropped everything and moved to a totally new country a few years later. I live my life expecting to drop everything and go somewhere else again – in fact “got to pack everything my plane leaves soon” is a dream sequence I get at least once a week.

Sometimes I do want to just go abroad again, just so I can claim back my expat identity. While my job is very much UK-centric, I keep coming up with elaborate plans to be able to work abroad in this field. The last one involved me living in different countries to study what skills gaps other countries have and how they are encouraging young people to fill them.

The more I settle here, the more I feel like boring Charlotte, who hasn’t quite got her life sorted yet because she’s a loser, as opposed to exciting Charlotte who can’t possibly have a house and husband because she’s too busy being EXPAT.

When I first went to Japan I looked down on those “lifers” who went over for a short spell abroad and just got stuck and stayed there, complaining the whole time. I once worked with a 40 year old man who had little to no Japanese and relied almost entirely on his poor ex girlfriend when he, for example, had a cold and needed medicine.

Looking back, I can see how bringing yourself back home would be the harder of the two situations.

I guess as I move on, and Facebook tells me it’s 15 years since I was in Japan and a decade since I was in Germany, I will feel less and less like Charlotte the ex-expat and will look on those memories, squinting to try and remember people’s names and how I knew them.

Ex-expats out there, come let me know I’m not alone!



  1. Wow, this post totally resonated with me!

    I remember reading your posts helped me out when I was readjusting to my life in the USA, because I finally felt like there was someone else who could understand what I was going through. Many of my friends in the USA could simply not sympathize with my difficulties in leaving the “expat” life behind… and it sucked.

    I have an American from who is an English teacher in Japan and has been for 10 years. He asked me if he should move back to the USA, and when I thought of him adjusting to car life, looking for a new job with nothing but English teacher on his resume and all the trials he would face… I told him to stay. He has a nice, affordable apartment in Japan; a cush job and lives in a fairly nice city. I knew he would really suffer if he moved back.

    On the other hand, I have a British friend in Shanghai and I keep trying to get her to move back to the UK before it’s “too late.” She’s almost 30 and she’s barely scraping by on underpaid private-sector jobs in Shanghai. I know if you wait too long, one may never fully recover from “expat life”….

    I also had to rebuild my life from scratch and, yes, like you I feel very behind. After almost four years of trials and tribulations I finally feel somewhat caught up, but holy hell… it was not easy.

    Anyway, thanks for the post. Glad I’m not alone.

    • I really think there is a time at which it becomes too late to go back. We have to be careful because sadly this abroad experience doesn’t always translate back home. Thank you so much for your comment, I’m glad I’m not the only one feeling this way!

  2. Well I hope you don’t look back in a decade and squint to remember how you knew me 😉

    I haven’t lived in the UK since I was a student so if I ever went back I would have no idea how anything works! Except booking a train… I have done that several times even while living abroad 😉 And I would totally still look down on those “lifers” who got stuck and stayed there, complaining and never learning the language. Maybe coming home is the harder choice, but if you’re going to stay there LEARN TO COMMUNICATE!! Grr.
    Confuzzled Bev recently posted…A die-cut card-making sessionMy Profile

    • …Sorry, who are you? 😉
      Yeah I still really get angry at people who don’t at least try to learn the language.

  3. Marisa Bouvet says

    OMG, I can sooo relate to this! Having two nationalities then moving around until recently I have had the same issues as you. We need to have a chat over coffee at some point, would love to share our experiences!

  4. Katie Underwood says

    I completely sympathise with this. I went to university in Cape Town, and lived there for 6 years. I did all my ‘growing up’ there and hadn’t ever driven a car etc in England. I only came back to the UK for a visit and I met a boy, who became my husband. For various reasons I didn’t ever go back personally to pack up my stuff or send it home, or sell my car etc. I used to live in an Afrikaans neighbourhood, spoke the language every day, and that life and that language are like a time capsule. I finally went back with my husband after 7 years, last year. I still feel like part of me lives there, and I’ve always thought of it as returning home. I still feel like one day, we’ll all pack up and move there. Even though I’ve built a life here, that expat identity is still a huge part of me. When I went back it was almost like I’d never been away, and hearing the language again… oh, such a good feeling.

    • I felt the same when I went back to Japan two years ago. The people were all there still, the restaurants I used to hang out in… I feel like I’ve only been back five seconds not 3 and a half years. It’s very much who I am.

  5. Really interesting post! As a Canadian expat who ended up settling in the UK and even getting British citizenship, I don’t think I could ever live in Canada ever again. Maybe in some provinces, like Ontario, where I lived for 10 years, but never back to my hometown of Montreal. Even though I was born in Montreal and lived there for the first 27 years of my life (as well all of my family still living there), I feel very much like a stranger when I visit Quebec. So fed up of the politics, corruption and languages wars, even though the artistic and culinary scenes are so vibrant and interesting. I think those who have lived elsewhere can’t rely on their birthplace or nationality as an identity. Home is where the heart is and I will go where it takes me.
    Pina at One Two Culinary Stew recently posted…Italian Sausage and Mushroom TortiglioniMy Profile

  6. You’re definitely not alone in this. I actually have a post brewing that is tangentially related, because I was at a family wedding last weekend, and I caught myself bringing up living in Germany again, and I just *cringed.* I’ve been back in the US now for longer than I lived in Germany. That part of my life was important and it definitely helped shape me, it’s also in the past. Every time I catch myself bringing up living in Germany in a casual conversation, I die a little bit inside- I can’t help myself, but I also worry that it means I’m boring and living in the past.

    You can expect this related post from me sometime soon, because it’s definitely on my mind as well.
    Steven recently posted…Two They Might Be Giants Shows, Twenty Years ApartMy Profile

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