I’ve been an expat for over 20 years. The word “expat” is not a word I use to describe myself; it’s a word I use to succinctly explain my life in Florence and Paris. Being an expat for some people means living overseas and returning “home” every year. For me, being an expat means being a foreigner and a local all at once in a place that is your “home.” Living overseas is a big part of my life and is at the heart of who I am. It explains so much about me: not just how I live my life, but also how I interact with others and how I see the world around me.
Before becoming an expat, I always thought expats were rebels, artists, or writers like Ernest Hemingway. Expats, I believed, were people who chose to live their lives in exile as if they were taking a pause from their “real life.” I saw them almost as outsiders because they weren’t at home in their native lands or in a foreign land. I remember being struck by a scene in the movie “Tea with Mussolini” when the expats go to Florence to have tea. It appeared as if the expats weren’t able to integrate into local life and preferred to transplant their “home life” to Italy. It seemed as if they could survive in Italy, but that on the whole they kept away from the “natives.” So when I say the word “expat,” my mind floods with images that have nothing at all to do with my own life overseas.
For me, an expat is a person who lives overseas to build a new life. It’s not a temporary life, but rather a life that you dive into completely. You adapt to the world around you yet you still maintain who you are at your core.
I have adopted certain aspects of each culture and have allowed each country to affect me. My culture is no longer completely American after living overseas for so long, but it is of course my base. I feel as if my life is more like a painting where the American culture is at the base and each culture adds something to it: a splash of color here and a splash of color there.
It is partially because of the complexity of creating a home overseas that I find the word “expat” to be inadequate to define what this experience truly is like. When you are an expat, you are not just a foreigner living in another country. You are actually an adventurer, an explorer, and a student of life adapting to daily life in a new world. The culture, the language, and the people stimulate you every day so that you remain open to the world around you. What is wonderful is that there is always something new to learn and to understand. The life of an expat is definitely not boring. As an expat, you are always trying to balance your life as a foreigner and a local. Eventually you realize that you are never one or the other; you are always both.
For my American friends and family, I will always be an expat. For my Italian and French friends, I will always be a foreigner. For my expat friends, I will always be an American. But for me, I am a foreigner and a local wrapped into one.
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