I believe that most original expats have a strong flee instinct, paired with a pinch of adventurousness and naivety. We move because we believe it’s going to be so much better there than here. We move because boredom scares us. Because we enjoy being the underdog. We need to explore and challenge ourselves and, above all, experience.
When talking about original expats, I mean people that move across countries more than once. That don’t move for the love of a person or because their employer asks them to. I’m talking about all the people that move just for the sake of moving. Apparently, this is rare or used to be rare, as often times when I end up in conversations about my moves, people keep asking me about the ‘why’. There is no simple answer.
Sometimes, when I’m lazy, I’ll give them a why – I wanted to study this specific university program, I wanted to work for this specific company, I wanted to be closer to this specific person. These are satisfying answers to most people. It’s what they expect to here. They can somewhat relate to it. However, for most people relating to the real why is hard.
The real why. The real why is, that we’re addicted to new experiences, strong experiences. Experiences you can’t find around the corner of your grandma’s house. There’s a certain thrill in moving country. There’s a thrill in learning a language, or in the beginning, not being able to communicate properly with anyone where you now live. It’s exciting to meet all these new people, from a different culture, and see how they react to you or the you, you chose to be this time. It’s exciting to not feel home, it feels special.
Who are you here?
For this is one thing I learned in my early childhood. My family used to move a lot. Between countries, within countries. I quickly learned that besides the sadness of leaving behind friends, there was this sense of opportunity. I could be someone new. I could be less shy this time or less loud, or I could decide to go for the ‘class clown’ role, be more eccentric. And I did. Many of my childhood friends, especially the ones I wasn’t too close to, would each describe me every differently. At the core, I was always the same, I was me and I was authentic. But I became an expert in presenting myself in different facets. After a while it became fun.
This still applies, to some extent, today. And it’s natural. The people we meet when living as an expat will automatically perceive us differently than the people that meet us in our home country, simply because being an expat changes how people perceive one. It doesn’t take much effort to showcase a few more features on top of that.
But is this worth all the trouble of moving?
Do hard things.
Of course not. There’s more. Our generation is hooked to challenge. Most of our parents have raised us to do great things, to want more and to always go that extra mile. For some of us, this leads to us wanting to go back to our roots, wanting to settle down, build routines and safety. For others, it leads to a constant struggle of ‘what’s my next challenge’, a feeling that nothing is ever enough. We see all these opportunities in front of us – traveling wherever we want anytime, in a world as globalized as ever, realizing we may be the first and only generation to have these possibilities – being able to actually speak about work-life-balance, a term nobody even knew existed 30 years ago – starting our own business in a second, failing, and being able to easily move on – going untraditional ways and being celebrated for it.
With this huge chance of opportunity comes a great deal of fear. Fear of not being good enough, fear of failing, fear of being too slow or too fast, fear of the future and sometimes the past. And, I believe, especially fear of repeating mistakes – that ‘what if‘.
New place, new life?
I’ve strayed a bit here, so let’s go back to the original topic of expats. I believe that besides the fact that we have all these opportunities, fear still is what makes most of us move. It’s the small type of fear that creeps into your thoughts at night and that you rarely identify as one. This fear is called: “Is this it?”
What a sneaky bastard it is.
Once you’ve felt it for the first time, sometimes months, sometimes years after settling in a new place, it won’t let you go. From that moment on it will be with you. And when you travel it will say “Why not try this place?” and when you go to work it will say “Is this good enough for you?” and when you look at the people around you, it will say “Are they that important?“.
And soon enough, you’ll be finding yourself considering your next move, telling yourself how easy it would be and how much sense it makes and soon – maybe a few months after that, you’ll have convinced yourself that you not only need a new experience, you need this kind of new experience and you’ll start alienating yourself from your current life, your current home and you’ll start saying things like “I don’t have a home, I don’t need a home” and then, probably, you’ll move and be distracted, and then be happy for a while and challenged and the fear will be gone until it comes back and yes – it always comes back.
Disclaimer: Of course, this is a very personal reflection on the topic, and on purpose, I have written it in a plot-like frame. This is the way I like to write. And the moral is simple – be nice to your expat friends, as obnoxious as they sometimes might be.