According to the dictionary, an expatriate is “a person residing in a country other than their native country”—a very simple get-to-the-heart-of-the-matter definition. However, in the real world, this expression is far more nuanced and Wikipedia goes on to explain:
“In common usage, this term often refers to professionals, skilled workers, or artists taking positions outside their home country, either independently or sent abroad by their employers, which can be companies, universities, or non-governmental organizations. … They usually earn more than they would at home. … The term ‘expatriate’ is also used for retirees or others who have chosen to live outside their native country.”
An expat (shortened version) differs from an immigrant as further defined on Wikipedia: “Immigrant – A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.” Immigrants usually apply for permanent residency (normally requiring re-application every 5 years or so) and eventually citizenship. As a result, immigrants strive to absorb cultural norms and fit into their new country. Expatriates initially feel no such motivation.
Now that we have dispensed with the definitions—what is the issue here? Well, there are several of them. When Wayne and I ventured outside of Canada to work, first in Pakistan and then in Thailand, we quite easily donned the expat persona. We were living and working in foreign countries but we still firmly identified as Canadian, as did our children who went on to post-secondary education and eventual employment in the U.S. and Canada.
However, increasingly, as we spent more time outside of our culture of origin, the less ‘Canadian’ we felt. With each visit home, we felt more and more like fish out of water and, by the time we retired back to British Columbia we were in full-on reverse culture shock, feeling the unexpected distress and difficulty of adjusting to our home culture and values.
So who were we really? Our Canadian friends and family often didn’t want to hear about our adventures, travels or even day-to-day lives outside of Canada. But these were the stories that had defined us for 15 years or so. Besides that, some North American rules and habits just seemed outright foreign to us now. We began to question: “Who were we now and where did we belong?”
This is a phenomenon that affects a growing number of people as the world becomes a smaller place. Living and working outside of one’s home country is no longer an unusual occurrence. Frequently, as children of expat families are educated internationally and exposed to different cultures and ways of life they become ‘third culture kids’, unable to identify with any one country—a living, breathing jumble of cultures.
So how do we resolve this identity crisis in a world that has greater fluidity of movement and, at the same time, burgeoning ethnocentrism? I propose we create a new designation—global citizen! These citizens could bring the world closer together and help to end the burden of cultural confusion. Maybe we can set aside some of our patriotism and absolutism in order to enjoy the diversity of this gorgeous planet. Walking in other people’s shoes has never been a bad idea.