I Am Not An Expat

New and old friends…

The first time I experienced living somewhere other than my hometown of New York was in college. I moved to Ohio knowing nothing about the place. I had visited the school earlier that year with my mom and high school friend. The road trip part was cool. The school was in a small town that was the equivalent of three city blocks. I walked around the tiny, green campus in my long floral dress and Doc Marten combat boots and tried to picture myself as a student there. It wasn’t until I moved on campus later that summer that I realized what I had done. Big city girl in a small town.

It was the first time that I was made aware of my identity as a New Yorker. I had done little traveling up to that point and hadn’t really thought about what it meant to be from New York, and what that meant to other people. It became a thing every time another student asked where I was from and I told them. The raised eyebrows and a pouring out of opinions, either from some experience they had on a visit or something they had seen in a movie. It made me uncomfortable, this thing that got in the way of being able to introduce myself as myself. I was still trying to figure out who that self was, and hoped that college was a place where I could connect with people. I realized that my New York identity was something that could potentially separate me.

I spent a semester in London my junior year. That was my first time in Europe and my first time traveling abroad on my own. My being from New York was less of an issue. What became more of a focus was that I was American, and telling people this was usually met with some reaction. I learned that the general view of Americans abroad was unsavory. We were seen as aggressive, ignorant, and entitled. I saw myself as none of those things and did not want to be associated with them in any way. I used my New York origin as a way to set myself apart from other Americans. When asked where I was from, I did not say I was American, I said I was a New Yorker. Some people caught the joke.

Maybe it’s because my meeting people here in Belize is often through someone else, but I find that where I’m from is rarely part of conversation. I’m not often asked, perhaps because the people of Belize are ethnically diverse, and at first sight it isn’t especially apparent that I am not from here. I like that I don’t have to lead introductions with “I’m American” or “I’m from New York”. I find that in those moments of identifying that way, something happens. A separation. A space where something is supposed to go, un-organically. A diversion from encounter. Assumptions.

Part of why I have come to live here is to experience a sense of belonging that I often did not feel in the States, and was feeling less and less in New York. Everywhere I looked, places where I’d grown up changed or disappeared completely. Most people I met were not from the city, and upon saying I was from New York I was often asked where I was really from. Meeting other native New Yorkers at social gatherings was a relief, and we gravitated to each other like war buddies, exchanging our frustrations about fading feelings of belonging in a place where we had lived our whole lives.

I have no interest in asserting myself as an American or a New Yorker. It is a relief to not have to. To be anonymous in a small town. I am not an expat. The word implies that one is holding onto their place of origin in another land as part of their identity to separate them from where they now reside. It is reserved for white people while everyone else are called immigrants. I do not see myself as separate from Belizeans. I am not on permanent vacation. I did not come here to retire and live in the jungle away from the “locals”. I left the States for Belize because I wanted to belong somewhere else.

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12 thoughts on “I Am Not An Expat

  1. What a wonderful post – resonates a lot with what I feel. I’m Ukrainian, but it becomes increasingly hard now to be seen as ‘just’ Ukrainian, in any kind of generalised sense people might have at the moment. I left my home country at 17 and lived in UK, Germany, China, Russia, CZ. 15 years later and I kinda have a national identity crisis, I think. We moved around with my husband and always called ourselves expats as there was always a feeling that it’s just a temporary stay. We have our tiny expats, the older one lived in 4 countries, the younger – in two. They’re also expats, but I hope we would find one day a place where we would feel that we belong. Hopefully, one day my girls will no longer call themselves ‘an expat’ as well.

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  2. Identity and a sense of belonging are so complex, yet it seems we are forever trying to find permanence in both these shifting categories. You have put it beautifully when you say that a separation occurs, “a diversion from encounter,” when we try to identify ourselves as solely from a geographic location.

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    1. Thanks so much for your comment. Yes, it is incredibly complex and complicated to describe one’s self as “from” a place, and also try to sort out our identity within that. It’s not just one thing, and it feels so limiting to assert myself in that way.

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  3. I don’t necessarily think expat is reserved for white people. I believe that anyone can be an expat and it shouldn’t just be based off ethnicity or race. Although now that I think about it that term is often used by white people. But at the same time I do understand where you are coming from. Sigh. If you are not white you often thought of as immigrants, even though the first settlers were white…

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Suaylia! I don’t think the term ‘expat’ should be reserved for white people, but unfortunately it tends to be associated more often with white people within the context of identifying people of color as ‘other’, even when referring to people of color in their native land. It’s definitely a complicated issue, and at the heart of it beyond race is how we all try to find the language to identify our very complex selves.

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      1. Ah I see. Perhaps we should challenge that and what it means to be an expat. If we challenge something especially an idea, perhaps people might see it in a different light, and give them something to think about.

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        1. I hear you. Above all, for me, I don’t identify with the term ‘expat’ to describe my experience of living abroad mainly because I am more interested in connecting with people culturally beyond racialized language or language which separates me from people in terms of location and place (i.e. being American or from The States). One of the really great things about my experience living in Belize is that I am immersed in the culture and therefore do not need to see myself as separate, whether based on race, ethnicity or location. I do feel that the language we use is powerful, and try to think critically about the language I use to describe my experience, particularly within the context of my relation to the people around me. Thanks so much for reading my post and engaging me, Suaylia! I really appreciate your taking the time 🙂

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          1. No problem and what you are saying totally makes sense especially about the expat part and the language we use. Cool that you are having a great time in Belize. I didn’t know that it was such a diverse country. That is cool.

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