What has shaped your identity and made you into the person you are? Maybe things like where you grew up, your career path, your role in your community, and the people in your inner circle. Identity is complicated. Living abroad complicates it further, but it’s not all bad.
When living abroad forces you to reinvent yourself
Life anywhere can be hard, but the specific challenges expats face can make some of us question ourselves and our place in the world.
After 6 years in France, the everyday cultural differences that used to really frustrate me when I first arrived — like shops being closed on Sundays and poor customer service – are no longer the challenges that I struggle with the most. Those things fall into the “minor annoyance” category and I just roll with it these days.
What is hardest for me as an American who has chosen to make France her home is figuring out who I am in this foreign land. Many foreigners who are permanently abroad struggle with the concept of changing identity. It’s not unique to just those of us in France.
I’m “the American” to some. “The woman with an accent,” to others. Those of us whose careers were defining parts of our identity back home grapple with letting go after putting that career on hold. That’s just one example, but sometimes who we were in terms of our career and role in our community is no longer part of our identity abroad.
Some of us specifically move abroad to reinvent ourselves; others move abroad to support a partner, giving up parts of our identity and discovering that reinvention is a byproduct of starting a life in a new country. Things take us by surprise as we move into unknown territory and we brace ourselves for impact.
A new life often involves learning a new language and it’s difficult to be the same person when our entire lexicon changes. Words that came naturally to us in our native tongue hide just out of reach in French.
We wonder how we’re perceived by locals and if it’ll get easier.
So how do we make sure we’re living life with a purpose and being the best version of ourselves? It’s not always easy to know if we’re on the right path. To thrive, we need to let go and embrace our life for what it is now. Holding on to every part of who we were before only limits who we can become abroad.
As William Shakespeare wrote, “We know what we are, but not what we may be.” The future can be scary yet also exhilarating. An extended vacation abroad or living between two countries isn’t the same experience as when you move abroad for good.
When you have no choice but to make a life for yourself abroad, you have to succeed. There’s no turning back.
As we get acclimated to our new surroundings, it’s easy to feel different and like we don’t fit in. I often feel like the model foreigner in France and wonder if the changes I’ve made to how I interact with people are just a front or part of the new version of who I am here. In any case, we do the best we can and put a piece of ourselves out into the world.
We do this by continuing to move forward despite whatever is holding us back. We meet people and help where we can. We do good. We’re kind. Above all, we try. That has to be enough.
All of these reinventions are for the best and force personal growth that wouldn’t have otherwise materialized into anything back home where we’re stuck in the same comfortable routine. In my case, I used to work for a global corporation back in New York, but in small-town France, my career has shifted. I’ve taken the strengths and skills I’ve developed along the way and morphed them into something that works for my current situation.
I’ve learned that it’s easier to reinvent yourself when you’re not in your home country. We have fewer inhibitions because we’re not around people who have known us for years. We’re not afraid to try something new for fear of being judged harshly by those we know well. We aren’t restrained by our own cultural norms and what we “should” be doing.
We’re less afraid to fail abroad because we’ve accepted defeat as part of the package.
We know our lives at home can’t be replicated here, so in a way, we surrender to the unknown and let it guide us. Little by little, our limiting beliefs that no longer serve us begin to lift. We feel freer.
Another reason why reinvention comes easier abroad to many of us is because we seem to have more time now. For me, life in France is slower. I don’t have a bunch of things to do and people to see. So all of my self-reflection gets funneled into something. That means opening my eyes to new perspectives and focusing on personal growth and new opportunities.
You see things differently when your whole life is different.You see things differently when your whole life is different. Here's how #expatlife forces you to reinvent yourselfClick To Tweet
Although it’s not always pleasant when we’re going through it, I refuse to see the reinvention of ourselves as anything but a positive thing. Personal growth, although challenging, means you’re a better version of yourself on the other side. That I know for sure.
Reinventing ourselves means we believe we’re in control. We hold the power and are confident enough to make a change and go after what we want. We believe in our own free will to create, invent, and reinvent ourselves no matter where we live in the world.
It’s on us to be whomever we want to be and there’s power in that. Reinvention means we’re eternal optimists. And I quite like the idea of possibility.
Have you reinvented yourself abroad? Has a move shifted how others see you and how you see yourself?
P.S. If you’re a bit lost when it comes to the whole job thing and unsure what direction to go in, I can’t recommend CareerFitter enough. The simple test will take you through a series of questions and scenarios that will help you figure out your strengths and what might be the perfect job fit for your personality. It’s a 10-minute assessment and you’ll get a career report at the end to help you get some clarity.
Taste of France says
This is very true. I felt the reinvention much more when I first lived abroad, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. Changed my name (well, nobody called me by the babyish nickname my parents used and that eventually everybody called me back home) and dumped the “boring” label a boyfriend had given me (dumped the boyfriend, too). It took a while, but I think my French friends see me for myself and not for my nationality.
Yes, it can be really hard at first but it feels so good — no matter where you live — when you find your people and they see you for who you are. 😉
i definitely agree. I sometimes battle with it because moving countries can be exciting to reinvent yourself but sometimes I wish more people understood my back-story. Its difficult to bring all that history of a previous self through to a new country and new people.
Hi Megan, yeah it is really hard to get people to understand, truly understand, where we’re coming from especially when they’ve never experienced living abroad. I think nowadays we’re all so busy with short attention spans that would sometimes rather scroll through feeds on our screens than get to really, truly know someone and have that real connection.
Keith Van Sickle says
I agree that living abroad forces you to step outside your comfort zone…way outside. And that’s the opportunity to grow, if you approach things right.
I think one key is keeping your sense of humor when you do the inevitable stupid things, like the time here in Provence when I almost drove off in someone else’s car by accident. When I’ve made an embarrassing mistake I try to tell myself, “This will make a funny story someday.”
Oh yes, humor always helps! Sometimes I’m the only one laughing, but hey, if it works for me, so be it. I like my jokes. 😉
Glad you didn’t actually drive off in someone else’s car. Was the key already in it, a valet parking lot or something? oh boy haha
I am im the middle of it all. Been living in Germany for 2 years and coming back to the US in 2 months. Experiencing a lot of emotions but I know it will all be good. I’ve done it before. It’s not easy but it challenges you to grow for sure.
Hi Marie, how exciting! I can only imagine all the emotions you have swirling around inside of you. But I look at it like this, yes a move abroad (or back home or wherever) can be challenging but if we weren’t challenged by this, it would be something else. That’s life, challenging regardless. So in the whole scheme of things, I welcome the hurdles of life abroad. It’s a fun road to be on (most of the time).
Best of luck w/the move back the US. Where will you be living? Always feel free to write if you want to chat. I like to talk.
Thanks for the kind words Diane. I am moving to the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. In a way, I feel blessed to be so sad to leave Germany because it means that I have fully enjoyed it and developed meaningful relationships. I know there will be lots of tears, but I need them to be able to move on, kind of like grieving you know?
Jo-Anne the crazy lady says
Living in the same area my whole life means this is not something I know about
Glad I could share my experience then! Nothing wrong with staying in one place. 😉
This is so true. Living in a foreign country sounds sexy, but the everyday mishaps (Labor Day in Australia is WHEN?) can be really frustrating. I lived in Perth for a year and a half to do a grad degree, and about 6 months in I suddenly realized that I hadn’t hugged anyone since I had moved. I had friends, but our relationships lacked the depth and understanding that comes with time. Plus, being there for school meant that there was an expiration date on my stay, which kept myself and those around me from investing too much — I knew I would be leaving.
I moved to California from New Hampshire almost 10 years ago, and while there are some parallels, I’ve been able to make my home here far more easily. I don’t know if it’s because I’m within the same country (although there are certainly a lot of differences), or if it’s because I came here with a mindset to stay.
Lots of things to ponder! Thanks for the post.
Such a great article, it’s good to have this reminder every now and then when we’re living abroad. It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day and not reflect on why we’re here and the kind of impact it has on our lives.
My wife and I moved to Paris last July and after a fairly turbulent time we are heading back to the UK this July. In that time I have discovered my love for photography…. which probably never would have happened had we not come here.
I didn’t think this year would change me much but it has…. for the good!
Fight the differences and it will be hard, open up to them and perhaps life will be enriched!
Wow Diane this is a wonderful article! Yes, I have been there (living abroad). I was the spouse who went to The Netherlands under protest, so I really had a hard time! That was so very long ago. Actually your words seem to apply to me now…more than then. As a retiree we have moved to a new town. Leaving our long time friends was hard enough, but I didn’t expect to miss my local newscaster, lady at the dry cleaners, doctor, hair dresser…oh my the list goes on and on. So,I guess what I am saying is that life changes no matter where you are.
Great article. I moved to France When I retired because i had always wanted to live here and I was bored with my life in New York. I have created a new persona for myself. My French friends think I’m a good listener (which I’m not) because in reality I can’t formulate my thoughts fast enough to get a word in edgewise. Which has, in a funny way, made me a better listener. But I question who I “really” am all the time.
Yes to all of the above! I don’t think I normally notice that I’m a different person now. It’s only when I interact with someone that knew me long before I moved abroad (been about 14 years now) that things come up which make me realize that I don’t respond to things as I used to. I respond to things as the new me would in the country that I live in now. The new me is like a mix between my old self and the ways of thinking/behaving/interpreting that I’ve taken aboard from my adopted country.
Your article can apply to be in your own country. We have to reinvent ourselves when circumstances force us to do so.