The no-longer expat identity crisis
Last march, after nearly 15 years living abroad, I took the life-changing decision to come home and settle down in my native Canada. Over the years, I have moved continent, country and home more often than I have changed mobile phone, and therefore assumed that moving back would be just like putting on an old pair of slippers. Surely, it couldn’t be as difficult as learning to make the perfect English cup of tea or trying to remember the name of each of UAE’s seven emirates. I was wrong. Nearly a year on, I can see how thoroughly unprepared for this move I was. What? I have to pay for my car’s license plate separately? It’s stuck to my car, surely it comes with it right? And I must get a family doctor? Except there are none available? How does this work?
Whilst I could bore you with the hundreds of small details that confused and amazed me, I have chosen to approach this milestone from a different angle. Being asked if I am glad to be back on a quasi-daily basis has forced me to think hard about my answer and realise, truthfully, that yes, I am. And no, I am not.
Yes, of course, because I am surrounded by friends and family. But no, because they have their own lives and weirdly, do not marvel at the miracle of my return every day. Yes, because I am now surrounded by people who have an obligation to help me build my IKEA furniture. No, because friends are everywhere, and moving back has meant leaving some unforgettable ones behind. Yes. Because of snowshoeing in the parks. No. Because -20C may look pretty on Instagram, but it gets old quickly when you have to spend 20 minutes defrosting your car. Yes. And no. So before I descend into a schizophrenic delirium, I have chosen, once again, to focus. Focus on the best thing about coming home. And the worst thing about coming home.
A once-in-a-lifetime sterile lab experiment
Before making the decision to decamp to Canada, I was living in Dubai and going through a difficult time. It seemed everything was… Ill-fitted. The extremely stressful job, the resulting unhealthy lifestyle, the lack of a support network, a social life, sleep. The weird daytime cocktail-drinking high-heeled stiletto-wearing brunch culture. It seemed nothing fitted my personality and I struggled on, month after month, asking myself, ‘Is it me? Have I failed at life?’
Coming home allowed me to start with a completely clean slate. New continent/country/city, new apartment, new friends, new job, new support network, new brand of toothpaste. Nothing was the same. Whilst this could easily have been overwhelming, I decided to treat it as a lab experiment. With everything being different, any remaining issue was undoubtedly, inherently mine. This allowed me to identify both my most awesome strengths and my not-so-great patterns, and more importantly, to work out a plan to capitalise on the former and remedy the latter. Never have I so clearly understood my own self as I have in the past year. The feeling of overwhelming confusion has now cleared, allowing me to focus on the right elements in order to become the adult I really want to be when I grow up.
A brand new identity crisis
Whilst living abroad, I stood out. I was the cool French-Canadian cat who fearlessly moved abroad and was having fantastic adventures by just going to a local supermarket. ‘What, you can get a cup of tea delivered there? How amazing!’ Every time I spoke, I attracted hoards of ‘Where are you from?’, starting conversations with strangers in the ATM queue. Here, I also kind of stand out, but mostly at the Christmas party when asked why the hell I don’t have 2.3 kids and a devoted lawn mowing husband by now. No longer defined by my weird accent and my casual ‘Oh, I just live here, but really I’m from Canada and moved 100 billion miles away on my own. No big deal’, I feel I am just blending in the crowd, but yet still trying to catch up. As I cannot base my identity on my oh-so-interesting expat status anymore, I have had to rethink what makes me me. From French-speaking worldly solo expat to… Well bear with me. This part is yet to be defined.
Whilst I expected my return to be a bit of a challenge, it has been a completely different challenge to what I expected. I spent ages worrying about whether I would understand how to do my income tax or figure out the recycling system, but none of these external factors have mattered much in the end. Moving home has had more impact than any of my previous adventurous moves to weird and wonderful countries, because it has shaken the very core of my identity.
So next time you ask me if I’m glad to be home, expect a short ‘Yeah, sorta kinda’ with a smile. Because the reality of no longer being an expat is much deeper and more complex than you probably want to hear in that split moment of kindness. But despite the existential questioning, there is something about being able to pop around the corner to see my nieces with a bag of chocolate bagels that will always trump being a cool trendy foreign weirdo. And I’m happy to report that I strongly suspect I will always be a weirdo anyways.