Expatriate Life – Asking The Question “Who Am I?”

Who am I? A question often unconsciously asked in our teens, then again in our twenties, and frequently becoming a conscious question in our thirties. Until finally we reach the 40-something age bracket with a strong sense of who we are.

Moving to another country, culture and language, we may well find ourselves asking: “Who am I?” A five-year study of internationally assigned couples, lead by Professor David Harrison from Penn State University, found that the process of adjusting to a new country and culture requires expatriates to redefine their sense of self.

It doesn’t just take a change of culture to provoke this questioning of ourselves. A change of career or loss of job, children moving out, becoming independent, becoming single after a relationship…these are all transitions in life that may leave us asking this rather simple yet complex question: “Who am I?”

You can tell you are experiencing this when you  wonder how to introduce yourself:  “I am John Dun, an engineer”, or “I am Karen Toll, Johnny’s mum”. Yet you are no longer an engineer nor do you perhaps work anymore and perhaps introducing yourself as someone’s mum or dad is no longer relevant to your life’s circumstances.

When you are an expatriate the changes in culture and your points of connection to others may make you feel insecure. Suddenly your nationality becomes a part of your introduction identity, an important one in fact, as it is one of the stable components of your identity.

The quest to answer the question of one’s identity, and to be comfortable with what we find, often causes much angst and uncertainty in our judgments of ourselves, of others and of life in general. Questioning our most fundamental, well entrenched thoughts about the world, ourselves, and our values to become secure in the sense of  “I am….!” isn’t the easiest of processes, and a process it is. However, there are ways to help you through it:

  1. Know that other expatriates you meet are very likely feeling the same way you are. Sharing your experiences can be a good point of conversation and connection.
  2. Be aware that the changes are a process and won’t last forever and also that you can impact the process positively through action.
  3. It is rare to lose all roles with a change of life circumstance. List all the roles that you still have.
  4. Check your thoughts. Think of the change of circumstance as an opportunity to grow and enrich your life and self-concept.
  5. Replace previous roles of identity with new ones. List all the things you have always wanted to do if you could and research if those things are available to you in your new location.
  6. Try something new that you may never have had the opportunity to do before.

Take comfort in the knowledge that the challenges in identity change, whether through expatriation or other life circumstances, are a wonderful opportunity to enrich yourself with new skills, experiences and roles.

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