You Can’t Go Home Again: The Life of Expats

Expats in Africa

In Uganda, you can see them every Saturday night at Bubbles Irish Pub—a group paler than the living dead, more opinionated on race relations than Donald Sterling, and drunker than Dudley Moore at Peter O’Toole’s stag party. They are, of course, the lifelong expatriates.

They weren’t born with silver spoons in their mouths, but they probably work for the company that mines the silver. For many, there’s a reason they’re still there, and it’s a reason that has evolved across the years. What started out as a quest for adventure then became a desire to attain a higher relative social status than what was available in their own country, before finally mutating into pure necessity. Lifers are there because they can no longer reintegrate into their countries of origin. Sure, they might be able to pack up and move to Namibia, haul the family off to Tajikistan or retire to Vietnam, but they can never go home again. They’re just not bred that way. Having lived abroad for so long, they are forever stuck between two worlds—the land of their birth and their adopted country.

Expats might be able to pack up and move to Namibia, haul the family off to Tajikistan or retire to Vietnam, but they can never go home again.

After over a decade spent in Africa between us, my wife and I eyed these nationless citizens and realized we only had a few years before we would join their ranks. We figured that 10 years is probably the point of no return. Neither of us wanted smoker’s cough or liver failure, but we also weren’t quite ready to close the expatriate chapter of our lives. Bali would be where we made our last stand.

Bali was every inch of the tropical heaven we expected it to be. We were a motorbike-ride away from one of the world’s top surfing beaches. We ate fresh food for cheap and spent our evenings reading and writing from our perch above the rice fields. We put up Facebook photos of our surroundings in a way that said, “Oh, you mean this old thing? It’s just paradise.”

Believe me: After a couple weeks, you just wish you had a brick wall to look at.

Believe me: After a couple weeks, you wish you had a brick wall to look at.

Yet, sometimes, it doesn’t matter how good you have it—sometimes, it’s time to go home. A few weeks after getting married, we took inventory of our feelings on the future. We both had that “now what?” malaise and realized that neither of us would feel grounded until we returned to our roots. We promptly bought tickets back to the States. That was a year ago.

Unfortunately, instead of making our way to the “home” portion of home—you know, like, where we were actually from—we somehow found ourselves in Florida. That’s right: Florida. The state whose motto is: If you don’t have something nice to say, shout it. The state where fun goes to die. The state most commonly associated with the term “sinkhole”. I’ve lived in many countries, but never did I feel so out of place as I did in Florida. (To be precise, I refer mainly to South Florida.) Surrounded by Americans (who were ostensibly like me), I looked around and asked, “Who are these people?” And then: “Is it too late for me to reintegrate after all?”

You see, expats are part of a vast subculture in search of a host body to latch onto. To illustrate by way of comparison, hipsters are a unique byproduct of the American fear of homogenization; they do not buy into consumer culture, but instead of walking away, they carve out their own niche within it. Hipster subculture is formed in direct response to the host culture—it couldn’t exist without it. Contrast that to the expat, who remains an expat regardless of the location. Expats can be Belgian go-go dancers in Vietnam, Canadian loggers in Congo, or Colombian botanists in Croatia, but they’ll probably find more in common with each other than people from their host countries—because they are all people who don’t quite belong anywhere.

Expats can be Belgian go-go dancers in Vietnam, Canadian loggers in Congo, or Colombian botanists in Croatia, but they’ll probably find more in common with each other than people from their host countries.

I have a good friend who has been to all the most dangerous and/or exotic points on the globe, including North Korea, the Gaza Strip and Afghanistan. On those few occasions when he was actually in the US, he used his foreign travels as credentials at parties and barbecues. He’d sidle up to a stranger and say, “I’ve been to Africa. Aren’t I interesting?” It was three parts self-deprecation and one part pretension, but more than that, it was true. Life abroad felt more interesting.

Expats getting hugged by gorillas

Living abroad = getting hugged by a gorilla

I battled dysentery, readied myself for a series of anti-American riots and got my legs pecked at by hens as I rode the bus. Plus, there were characters everywhere. There was the aspiring pop star who came up with the cash to shoot her own music video (and the best lyrics involving a baby, Obama and a lizard). There were the pilots seconded to the UN who drank every night until it was time to get up and fly a plane. There were the mercenaries who told of exploits you didn’t quite believe (but kinda did). Every day had the potential for adventure, and every dinner party drew people who sounded like characters from a Roald Dahl book.

To be fair, in the last year I’ve discovered that the US brings its own type of excitement, like:

  • using healthcare.gov
  • figuring out the correct strip mall to turn into
  • electricity

My point is not to complain about infrastructure and Chipotle, but rather to say that finding roots and becoming grounded—those things I wanted—are tree metaphors. They represent security, not stimulation. And security is definitely a plus. We’ve even relocated to be closer to (most of) our parents, and we are discovering the benefits of being near family. But even as I appreciate home, there are days I miss the freedom that came from standing outside of any culture—because when I was an expat, I didn’t have to worry about integrating at all.

18 Comments You Can’t Go Home Again: The Life of Expats

  1. Dorothy

    Brilliant, exciting and clearly understandable! I really enjoyed reading this. It felt like reading a novel and I wanted to read more and more. I also like the examples given through using the experiences of different characters. I am sure many people can relate to this. Thanks Jeff!

    Reply
      1. Dorothy

        Believe me my experience is not so much different from that of those expats in Africa, Particularly, I guess we do share one major trait, “the feeling of where do I belong”

        Reply
  2. Anna

    Great read Jeff. I can relate to alot of this and still very much in the “figuring everything out stage” as my idea of relocating to the UK to make some changes to my-ever-travelling-work vs life balance is still scewed to the former rather than the latter! Like you, I was abroad for 8 years in total and felt that if I didn’t try to see if I could live in the UK again soon, it would also be too late and could mean being stuck inbetween two world’s forever…not something I wanted to happen. Let’s see how this all pans out! All the best to you and Trisha x

    Reply
  3. Eric

    Interesting timing on this one Jeff as tomorrow we set out from Bali with plans to travel for the next……

    Amber and I find ourselves being slaves to two masters; the one who wants to find our “paradise” settle down and be done (Bali was in the running but has dropped off big time) and the one who want to say they’ve been to 100 countries.

    this july will be 3 years since leaving the US making us “nomadic expats”, if that’s a thing. Never say never, but going back to the US isn’t an option for us. we got a taste of that when we were there in June 2014, oh well.

    Anyway, great read and again perfect timing. Hope all is well and sorry about the Giants 😉

    Reply
    1. Jeff

      I assume the drop off in Bali is related to me leaving. Let’s be honest: I put that place on the map. (Okay, okay, Elizabeth Gilbert might have played a role.)

      Reply
  4. Mannie Cranford

    Jeff, as an older expatriate (Australia and Europe), some of what you say rings true with my experience. I lived in both places long before they were Americanized. My feeling was always that I was a stranger, mostly by choice. I was requested to naturalize in Australia to play basketball, but declined, as I could not see me giving up my American citizenship. Once an Aussie girl told me guys from CA were different; no matter what part of CA we were from the pull to return would never allow us to re-locate permanently; we would always remain CA guys. Many Yanks in AU and Europe did naturalize but never a one from CA. My wife and I came home to CA when our three children reached school age and I knew vagabonding should end. What kept me in many of my self imposed exiles were books and music and writing- maybe kept my sanity or my sense of self and place no matter where I travelled. I never really sought out other expatriates or ex-pat places.
    You write well. Mannie

    Reply
    1. Jeff

      Mannie, after university I decided to go to Japan. I had this vision that I was going to find myself somewhere remote, maybe off the main island (perhaps Hokkaido), and I would learn Japanese, read a lot and write. As it turned out, I ended up outside Tokyo in an apartment block that housed three other graduates from my university. We didn’t have to hang out, but we did because it was convenient and comfortable and we already knew one another. Everywhere I’ve ended up since, I’ve found myself in the company of other foreigners. But I often wonder what would have happened had I made a concerted effort to separate from the expatriate world. How differently would I perceive the world around me?

      Reply
  5. Sabina

    Word. We’ve been digitally nomadic for 5 years in Central America, Caribbean and now Bali.
    We have thoughts of returning back to the states for the opportunities it holds for ‘organized nature’ (the ability to go for a hike in forests, biking) and for our kids to have a sense of belonging ….they’ve basically been the new kids everywhere for 5 years now. Somehow, we haven’t been able to pull the trigger just yet.
    We will take a trip back stateside to see if it’s a fit for us. Seems Oregon has lots of ex-expats/travelers.

    That decision is a tough one and just when I’ve had enough, the beauty of living abroad appears again.

    Reply
    1. Jeff

      We’ve got a little one on the way, and at some point we’d like to do what you’re doing. How do your children feel about moving to the US? It might be an exotic shift for them.

      Reply
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  7. Venita

    What a great read, Jeff! At some point you do have to go home, ours came after 5yrs, when our eldest was about to start school, then the question of where this would happen became very important. We’ve been back home a year now, it’s great to be back, close to family and enjoying our relatively free health and school systems BUT I do miss the excitement of new places, new experiences and being an expat!

    Reply
  8. Kirsten

    And so… how is it now? I typed into google, “expat, how to know when to go home” and came across this. I’m a single american woman who has been in Eastern Europe for 7 years. I’m so close to becoming a lifer and so afraid to go home. Did you ever fit in back at home? Do we ever fit in anywhere except with each other?

    Reply
    1. Jeff

      Now I have a family. Some things would be easier if we were still abroad (having a housekeeper and nanny, for instance), but I’m certain there would be things that would be harder (although I don’t know what those things might be).

      Reply
  9. JT

    I’m a Californian, and even in the other parts of the US, I’ve always felt like, and been treated like, an exotic animal. Overseas I am an exotic animal, but always treated like a family pet.

    Reply

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