Time moves quickly – the older you get the faster it seems to go. I left my home country of the United States at the start of 2005, off on an adventure to join my then boyfriend in Australia for a summer. Of course, readers of this website know that our summer time together evolved into a long-term relationship and then marriage a few years ago. I was so carefree and free-spirited back then. I’m not so different now but perhaps a little more serious, more cautious, more forward-thinking.
Jump ahead eight and a half years and I realize that I have been an expat for nearly a quarter of my life. So many Americans never set foot out of North America and yet here I am with all of my amazing international experiences, friends and family on five continents and what I think is a very special perspective on the world. I know I am not unique – there are many other people who have travelled more than I have, and for longer. But each time I have returned to the States I become more and more aware of how many people view my travels as an oddity, something that they don’t understand, and often a point of either envy or surprise at my desire and ability to be so mobile.
I am also a dual citizen now, with the constant question of which country I belong to more. Personality comes into that, I believe. Personally, I feel very American. Australia is a beautiful country and there are so many things I love about it. But there are frustrations too. I never feel 100 per cent a part of things when I am there. I’ll be going about my business and feel quite at home, but then I’ll be in a grocery store and encounter someone staring at me because of my accent or be asked how long I’m visiting for and my day is interrupted, a constant reminder that I am not truly of that place. Not that it has stopped me from trying.
I rarely have time to stop and contemplate about myself – in fact, I try to refrain from self-analysis as much as possible. I already live in my head too much so why add the burdens of statehood to the ever-growing list of things I need to think about as a grown-up? So this post is a treat for me. I want to talk a little about how being abroad long-term has changed me. Of course, it’s difficult to tell whether the current incarnation of myself is the product of normal maturity or being overseas. Surely it is a combination of both. I will never know how I may have turned out differently had I not been away from my country of birth during the formative years of my 20s.
When I left the US, I was an art director by training and a budding entrepreneur, having just begun working with friends on a start-up company. I don’t think I had too much of an idea of what I wanted to “be” back then, other than knowing that I liked wearing jeans to work, didn’t really like the corporate environment (having worked for a Fortune 100 company near the very top of that list). I was creative, hard-working, young, impulsive and full of energy and optimism. These days I’m still creative, hard-working and full of energy. I’m not as young, but still in the game. I’m a little less impulsive (though I have my moments). Staying optimistic is a bigger struggle, especially with the state of the world. But this is just a product of becoming more aware of the what goes on – the world probably isn’t much worse now than it was centuries ago.
I have to say that maintaining some of my attributes is definitely more about me than about where I spent my time. The United States moves faster than any other place I have experienced, save perhaps London. People work 50+ hour weeks and many seem to enjoy it. Not so in Europe, Australia and South America. You’ll find people living the American lifestyle in those countries but it is far from the norm. Many people criticize that aspect of the US. I need to spend more time back in it before I can make a qualified assessment. But I like to get stuff done. I like opportunities and options. I like the freedom to spend my money how I want to, instead of having a government tell me how it is going to be spent and on whom. I’ve had the experience now of living in a socialist (some have called it communist) country and that wasn’t for me. I think every person who thinks that sort of thing is appealing should go and live there before they drag the rest of us into a quagmire. So many people have fanciful, romantic ideas about how the rest of the world live while having absolutely no clue what they are talking about. The only people scarier to me than them are the politicians who act on their whims.
I was also naïve when I left. That has been worn away, though I still maintain my idealism. This is probably my biggest flaw when it comes to being responsible for my own disappointments. Something that I wasn’t prepared for was how many people in my life (though by no means everyone) would leave it when I moved. It still puzzles me how, for so many people in the US, in any country, life just doesn’t exist for them outside it. So when you’re not there, you’re out of mind. It became impossible to even get people to make a phone call outside the country. By the time Skype came on the scene, I was already forgotten. Email is a handy tool but I had plenty of friends who couldn’t be bothered with that either. I made new friends, of course, but the couple of years away were really difficult. My lifestyle has always been so global that maybe this is just personal to me but I still can’t understand it.
Of course, I have to take into consideration those 50+ hour workweeks I was talking about. Who has time to think about anything besides what is in front of you when that is going on? I think that people who criticize Americans for having a lack of world awareness just don’t understand what it takes to make a living in the United States. It’s no excuse but I get it now…much more than I did before. When you live in high-tax countries you get spoiled by the government. Things slow down. Opportunities evaporate. You can become complacent. I’ve often missed the juicy chaos of the US. This is still a country where anything can happen. Yes, the middle class is disappearing, but for those who want to work hard and make something of their lives, the opportunities are there. Maybe I’m just a patriotic nation-lover like plenty of other people around the world who love their countries too. It’s what you grew up with, I guess. But what I can tell you is that, for me, living outside the United States made me appreciate my country more than I think any other experience could have. That said, Americans do need to realize that the US of A is not the end-all, be all. There are other people, cultures and countries out there. I’m a firm believer that more people need to get out there and experience that.
Things change quickly. Suddenly we found ourselves sitting in Bordeaux over a steak dinner and a bottle of red toasting the details of the announcement I’m about to make: we’ve moved to the United States. The last month and a half has been a blur. There were phone calls to have and visas to obtain and parents to talk to and plans to be made. We celebrated, packed, laughed, cried, yelled and stressed. This was not the first time for this experience. In fact I think I’m now up to almost 20 home moves. They say this is one of life’s most stressful events but it’s become normal for us. Just something we do, one of our routines.
So as I plunge back into my homeland of excess after so much time in places where people make do with less, how will my perceptions change? How will I feel? What new projects will I work on? What exciting things will happen? Those are the normal things one wonders about in those few spare moments when moving to a new country. How will John feel and what will his experiences be like? It’s now his turn to be an expat in my country. I had many struggles adapting to life in Australia and I hope things are much easier for him here. It will be fascinating to see my country through his eyes.
As for this blog, things aren’t likely to change much. We’ve always wanted to explore more of North America and now we will have the chance to. We will have the opportunity to return to Australia once a year and have no plans to stop travelling. So we hope you’ll stick with us on our journey and look forward to sharing our American (and other) adventures with you.
Have you ever returned to your home country after more than five years away? What were your impressions?