What do people mean when they say ‘I don’t feel like an expat anymore’, and how do we define expat anyhow?
The word expatriate conjures up several definitions across the international community. When I first encountered the term, I understood that it referred to someone who was no longer living in their ‘home’ country.
Where does ‘expatriate’ come from?
The etymology of expatriate, according to Merriam Webster online, is in keeping with my first understanding of the word.
To expatriate: to leave one’s own country, from Latin ex- + patria native country, from feminine of patrius of a father.
The connotations are rather negative; to withdraw (oneself) from residence in or allegiance to one’s native country or to be ‘banished’ from one’s homeland.
More positive, and the now accepted definition of expatriate is:
“Employees of business and government organisations, who are sent by their organisation, to a related unit in a country which is different from their own, to accomplish a job or organisation-related goal, for a pre-designated temporary time period, of usually more than six months and less than five years in one term” (Aycan and Kanungo, 1997)”.
I spoke on the subject to a couple of international friends over the weekend.
An expat spouse
The first, a woman from El Salvador (30) is married to a Dutchman. The couple recently relocated from El Salvador to Holland with their six-month old baby. My friend complained that she is officially known as an ‘expat spouse’ when really she feels like an expat in her own right. After all, she said, I am an expatriate, I am coping with living outside of the country and culture I know, and am having to carve a new life for myself in the Netherlands. She pointed out that her Dutch husband was never officially an ‘expatriate’ as he had come to Central America of his own initiative after having been accepted for a job he had applied for there.
When I asked another friend, an American woman (30), now married to a Dutchman she met in the Czech Republic, what the term ‘expatriate’ meant for her, the response was surprisingly negative.
“I see an expatriate as a young person who goes away to explore a new country, a wild-child vagabond type,” she said, describing the expatriates she met as “people with issues, who, for whatever reason, wanted to put as much distance between themselves and their home countries as possible.”
Living as internationals
Although both women are happy with their international lifestyles, their main concern about living as ‘internationals’ involves missing their family and wondering about their children’s sense of identity], especially when they have dual nationality. This could be compounded, said my friend from El Salvador, if we continue to travel, and the children don’t experience one country as the ‘homeland’.
True, the children of ‘expatriates’ will be more likely to experience feelings of ‘yearning’ or ‘homesickness’ for a homeland they may not be able to define.
I can certainly relate to this. The child of a Scottish father and Maltese mother, I had lived in five different countries, including Russia and Malysia, before my ninth birthday. I rarely felt ‘homesick’ as I was used to seeing the world as a place you travelled through. You made friends and lived in different houses which you picked up from and said goodbye to as a matter of course. But I was left with a feeling – a restlessness, a yearning for a place to call home.
While on holiday in Portugal, I discovered a word which is the best I have found yet to describe this feeling.
Saudade, which is the title of a song by famous Cape Verdean morna singer Cesária Evora.
The word is practically impossible to translate – look it up on the internet, and you will get a wealth of detail around its history and meaning.
Associated with the Portuguese music genre fado, it describes a vague yearning for something, which could be the homeland we long for, which lies truly nowhere, or elsewhere, or everywhere, or perhaps only somewhere deep within ourselves.
Natasha Gunn, Expatica Editor