What it Feels Like to Be an Expat: Compartmentalized

The following is as good a summary of what serial expats, and particularly their children, often feel like:

“That is the very nature of the expat’s life: It is divided, compartmentalized across geographic boundaries and into cultural and linguistic spheres. There is the crowd that you belong to in your place of expatriation, in which the people you enter into relationships with will likely never visit your specific place of origin, and then there are all the people from your specific place of origin who will never know the places you make home.”

This excerpt is from Five Flights Up by Kristin Louise Duncombe, author of Trailing: A Memoir, which I’ve previously reviewed here.

Compartmentalized. I’ve often wondered how it might feel if our life wasn’t so compartmentalized. If, like so many people do, I’d stayed in my home town and grown older surrounded by the same set of friends I met in first grade. It’s almost impossible to imagine, but it does have a certain appeal: no need to communicate so much to keep everyone informed of the goings-on in my life, no need to reinvent myself all the time, no need to constantly reach out to make new friends. And, maybe most alluringly, no need to always explain where I’m from.

In a previous blog post I’ve described why that is so annoying:

“One of those little inconveniences of expat life is having to answer the question of where I’m from. Because there is never just a simple answer. Somehow “I-was-born-and-raised-in-Germany-then-moved-to-Raleigh-North-Carolina-to-attend-business-school-in-1991-with-my-then-boyfriend-after-having-been-an-exchange-student-in-the-US-at-age-16-and-really-loving-it-there-then-got-married-and-had-kids-then-lived-in-Singapore-for-a-few-years-then-moved-back-to-North-Carolina-then-to-Wisconsin-then-to-Kansas-then-to-South-Africa-after-becoming-American-citizens-right-before-leaving-America” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue easily.I’d love to be able to unequivocally say “from California” or something equally short and simple. Period, end of story.”

Well, wouldn’t you know it, the very next paragraph in Five Flights Up, following the one I quoted above, brings up California in precisely that way!

“My mind flashes to the story of my sister Steph, who, her first year of college, couldn’t find a comfortable way to keep re-explaining her complicated geographic trajectory when she landed in a dorm of people who had grown up together in eastern Maryland. So she finally started telling everyone she was from California.”

Not sure why it has to be California, but it seems a popular place for those of us wishing for a simpler identity. I’m now wondering if the people I know who are from California are truly from California?

It’s a bit like when I’m at Starbucks. I’m cursed – or blessed, I guess – with a name no one can spell. Without fail, when asked my name and I give it, the barista shoots me a look, sharpie poised, and says: “How do you spell that?” And without fail, I tell him to spell it however the hell he wants. What’s the use in spelling it if then they have no idea how to say it 2 minutes later when your coffee is ready? And yet, I have this huge reluctance to just make up any damn name I please. It’s like this big hurdle inside of me that I can’t lie about my name, even if it would be so much more convenient for everyone.

kids traveling on a train
My kids know a thing or two about compartments. And compartmentalization.

By the way, keeping your own story straight is not the only hazard of expat wanderings across different locales and cultures. It’s the stories of a higher order that are even harder to keep straight. Like the one you tell your kids about where certain presents doled out in December come from. Read A Man With a Sack, Some Old Boots, and a Naked Baby: Merry Crazy Christmas! and your head will spin.

On the other hand, perhaps having to explain a few things along the way is a small price to pay for the upsides you get from a globetrotting existence. Like the aforementioned opportunities to reinvent yourself.

As long as you don’t unwittingly reinvent yourself into a Nazi.

Circling back to the beginning of this blog post, I’d like to close with an excerpt from my review of Five Flights Up, a book I can thoroughly recommend for anyone who has ever dealt with the struggles of balancing career, identity, and family – in short, almost everyone:

“Moving households is one thing when you’re just responsible for yourself and a suitcase, but entirely different when older children are part of the equation, children who have their own opinions and worries and friendships….

As a parent, I felt Kristin’s heartbreak when her daughter revealed her frustration at feeling neither French nor American. I felt her despair when her son clung to her before school every day, not wanting to go because “I’m just not good at making friends.” And then I also felt her non-plussed “huh” when she started her weekly routine of commuting as a compromise between her husband’s and her own career and realized, counter to all her most dire predictions, that the world did not come crashing down, her children were fine and even having fun without her, and life went on.

Life has a habit of doing that.

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