“Loss of identity.”
It makes every list doesn’t it? Right near the top. Up there with rootlessness, culture shock and horrible toilets.
When you take a two column, pros and cons approach to life abroad, the word “identity” rarely makes it into the pro column. In fact, if you compiled the sum of all of the pro-con lists out there and put them into a full disclosure, up front and honest sales pitch for a life overseas, you’d be hard pressed to convince a single person to sign on.
“Adventure that will change your life forever. Exposure to amazing people, traditions and foods. Community like you’ve never experienced. Frequent flier miles galore.”
“Oh and your identity is going to be stripped to the point that you will question everything you ever believed to be true about yourself.”
“Click here to sign up.”
You would think that living abroad is a first cousin to a witness protection program, which always sounds cool at first — and then you think it through. New life, new home, new friends but your old life will be gone forever.
I get it. I really do.
I have expatriated (moved abroad), repatriated (moved “home”) and then expatriated again.
I have felt thoroughly incompetent both far away and in my own country.
I have questioned deeply my role, my calling and my ability to contribute to anything significant.
I have felt lost, confused, broken and paralyzed.
BUT (and this is a huge BUT).
MY LIFE ABROAD HAS NOT TAKEN MY IDENTITY FROM ME.
On the contrary, living cross-culturally has shaped my identity. Stretched it. Molded it. Changed it to be sure, but there is nothing missing in who I am because of where I have been.
Here are three quick thoughts on identity and living abroad.
ONE: EVERYTHING WE DO CHANGES OUR IDENTITY
It’s funny to me that college doesn’t get the same bad rap that living abroad does. The identity gap between who we are on day one of university and who we are at graduation is the most pronounced of our lives.
Scratch that. Puberty — then college — but still.
When we talk about the college years we generally say things like, “that’s when I found myself,” or “that’s when I discovered who I really was.” We don’t often say “that’s when I lost my identity” even though we may be a dramatically different person.
Everything changes us.
College. Job. Marriage. Kids. Accomplishment. Tragedy.
All of it becomes a part of who we are.
TWO: YOU ALWAYS GO FORWARD — YOU NEVER GO BACK
Here’s where I think the rub is. I can’t prove it with science but I’ve watched it happen over and over.
Something clicks inside of our brain when we move abroad that convinces us that we have stepped into a time space continuum. It’s the same basic concept that makes us feel like our kids haven’t changed a bit while their grandparents think they’ve grown like weeds. We tend to fixate on the last point of connection and even though logically we reason that time continues in other places too . . . it’s still a shock when we see it in person.
Our lives are so dramatically different abroad and the contrast is so vivid that when we return we presume that we are simply stepping back through the portal . . . into the same place . . . with the same people.
So it stands to reason that we should be the same as well . . . but we’re not. In fact, all of the people involved have never stopped moving forward.
Life abroad is unique in that it is one of the few major life experiences that is marked by a sense of “going back” at the end.
College might be different if we graduated and went back to high school.
That would be a loss of identity for sure.
THREE: YOUR “LIFE ABROAD IDENTITY” IS WORTH HOLDING ONTO
Every year about this time I get to have a lot of conversations with people who are finishing their time abroad. I’ll give you three guesses what the most COMMONLY REPEATED FEAR that I hear is.
Here’s a clue: It’s NOT, “I’m afraid I won’t even know who I am.” That comes later.
It’s NOT, “I’m afraid I won’t fit back in.” That’s a big one but it’s not number one.
It generally goes something like this: “I’m afraid I will slip back into my old life and just become who I used to be. I don’t want to forget what I have experienced and who I have become abroad.”
That doesn’t sound like a LOSS of identity to me. It sounds like a rich and wonderful ADDITION.
Here’s the kicker — not a single one of those people would say life abroad was ONLY rich and wonderful.
They tripped and bumbled just like the rest of us but through it all they found something in the experience that they never, ever want to let go of . . . to the point that they fear losing it.
For me — “IDENTITY” goes in the pro column.