Sunday, 16 December 2012

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When I No Longer Feel Like an Expat


I no longer feel like an expat.

I'm not sure when I started to feel less like an expat and more like a local. It may have happened gradually, sneaking up on me over time. Or several triggers combining to create a sense of home and belonging. Maybe I never was an outsider, the result of marriage and family here in Sydney.

The usual expat issues including the culture, food, politics and the weather never felt all that alien to me. The links to Britain and my long-term relationship with an Australian woman made it so. But a foreign country is still foreign until something changes along the way.

Whatever the tipping point, I no longer feel the same.

When I walk my dog, Milo, along the shore of Curl Curl lagoon and we both stretch out on the sand, me on my stomach, him rolling around on his back, I feel contented. At peace. This isn't the home I envisaged or dreamed of but, over time, it's become just that. A home.

Home.  Photo credit: russellvjward

Other subtleties have crept up on me. Events and experiences coming together to ensure a greater connectedness to this place, leaving me feeling less like a traveller or short-term resident passing through and more like a part of the local fabric of life.

The time I walked into my local coffee shop and the staff stopped what they were doing to ask about my wife and newborn boy.

"When is Sarah coming in to show us Elliot? How is she feeling? We feel like we haven't seen you all in ages". Asking about my life and my family made me feel included. One of the regulars. A valued friend.

The time after training with the Warrior and the team at his Newport home when it dawned on me that over the years I've become one of the original crew.

After having given blood, sweat and tears to the four tonnes of sand on Muscle Beach, I've formed friendships that will surely endure. Mark, Nige, Tiges, Piggy, Joey, Eighth Wonder, the King, Bucky, Benny and more. All good friends and committed training buddies. We've come far as a team and we've gone through much physical and mental pain together. It's a weekly routine and habit I'd struggle to give up.

Or the time when I took citizenship in Australia.

It not only strengthened my connection to this place but the country took me in its firm grasp. From the right to vote to providing future security to my family, it gave me a permanency if I so desired it. It gave me options and a place to grow. It gave me somewhere different that I could call home.

The time four weeks ago when we had our first child.

From friends descending on the baby shower to the many calls of congratulation, the flowers, the cards, the visits, the messages, the baked goods, neighbours stopping to greet us in the street, invites to people's houses. All of this has reinforced our place in the grand scheme of things.

We can confidently call ourselves part of this Northern Beaches community and we have people who care and who value us being here. We're no longer seen as transient or passers-by, but as locals and neighbours, confidants and loyal friends.

Friends and friendship.

Of all the things in this life lived abroad, friends and friendship are at the centre of what makes me feel less like an expat. Not the environment, not the way of life, not the opportunities that have presented themselves.

Of all the things on this overseas adventure, friends and friendship are the essence of what makes me feel more like a local. Friends and friendship are what make me feel like I'm home.

When did you stop feeling like an expat and more like a local? What were the things that made you realise your new environment now felt like home?

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33 comments:

Liv said... Add Reply

I think I crossed the expat to local border when I worked as a journalist at the local paper and was suddenly present at EVERYTHING that happened in town. Having said that there is a rumour that it takes 20 years to be considered 'local' here! The time I personally felt most local was when someone stopped me in the
supermarket to ask where something was and I was able to direct them.

Kym Hamer said... Add Reply

When do I feel more like a local and less like an expat? When I'm standing at West Hampstead station in -4C, loving the sting of the cold on my face and at the same time feeling grateful for my excellent winter coat, woolly hat and fingerless gloves (for getting one's ticket out to get through the barrier).
It took me a long time to get coat purchases right...there has been much sweating/freezing over the years. My heavy one (see earlier) has its turn when the temperatures dip into single figures.Otherwise it's my transeasonal Autumn-Winter one with any number of layers beneath which correspond to the coolness of the temperature.

Karen Nager Loethen said... Add Reply

I guess I have a ways to go, only been here for four months.
*wink*

Emma Lewis said... Add Reply

To be quite honest, I have never liked the term "expat" and have nothing thought of ourselves that way. I think working in downtown Kingston for several years and then working with civil society for many more years as a U.S. Embassy employee helped. I think there comes a point, though, where you just relax and let go. Then it's easy. It becomes home. Having said that, we are planning to uproot ourselves next year (after 24 years!) and relocate to the U.S. Home is where the heart is! You sound so very happy with your life and your new child, and Australia is an astonishingly beautiful country. When we visited my (English) brother and his (Australian) wife three years ago, we were knocked sideways. He is also an Australian citizen now and has lived there about as long as we have lived in Jamaica. Warm wishes for Christmas and 2013! (how do I vote for your blog?) Emma

Michelle said... Add Reply

I loved Australia! I was there for 4.5 and I think it felt more like home to me than home itself! :P

Mrs OC said... Add Reply

It was interesting when my husband, the expat, commented after our last trip 'home' that he no longer felt he needed to rush back (but for a family emergency, of course). That took me by surprise, but also not. He does still love his Taytos and Yorkies though.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Good to hear it, Michelle! Glad you liked it here :)

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Lol. I hope you've enjoyed it so far - so much good stuff still coming your way, no doubt.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

20 years to be considered a local? Wow. That's a real test of dedication and commitment, Liv. Hope you make the distance!

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Lol. Love a good Yorkie ;-)


I think the same thing happened to me. The rush to head back diminished - you know people are there when you need to see them but the need to get that fix, not miss out on what's happening, etc., etc. seems to slow down. Maybe it just comes with time?

Polly said... Add Reply

Having grown up in Africa, then lived in the UK for about 20 years and now Australia for 6 years, I feel I have 3 'homes', depending on who I'm talking to and what aspect of 'home' I'm referring to! I agree that friendship is a huge part of feeling like a local - although I think where your family are also counts.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Congrats on figuring out the appropriate attire for the ever-changing weather over there, Kym! I forget how many layers and coats you need. You'll remember all-too-easily how the attire goes over here (for a guy and in Sydney) - summer equals t-shirt and shorts, winter equals the same (although maybe occasionally a long-sleeved top and pants). It's not complicated really. I do miss the variety of outfits worn in the northern hemisphere.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

There is a need to always put ourselves in a box and term ourselves but I've also struggled with this one, Emma. Not coming here as the result of an international job transfer, I saw myself as a new immigrant rather than an expat. But it's a term I can't or won't drop for whatever reason.

Congrats on the future move to the US! Good luck with it all when the time comes. Yes, Australia is astonishingly beautiful in a wild and powerful kind of way. It grows on you more and more over time.

To vote for the blog in the Expat Blog Awards 2012, go to the link below and, at the bottom of the page, fill in your details and rating. It only takes a minute or so but the competition closes on Wednesday. Here's the link: http://www.expatsblog.com/blogs/53/in-search-of-a-life-less-ordinary



Thanks!

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

It must feel that way, Polly. For us, having family here definitely counts. Living in Canada was the same for us but we probably left just before we had well and truly settled as we have done here (lived there for 3 years). Thanks for your comment :)

Africanaussie said... Add Reply

oh what a lovely giveaway - count me in! I have lived in so many different countries, that I really am not sure what I feel is "home". I have lived here in Australia for 7 years, and it seems like home for now. Then I send off my Christmas cards, and realize that there are lots of other countries represented by friends and family that I could also easily call home. I think your story about the coffee shop rings true. It is when locals care about you personally that you at last feel at home.

Jo Castro at Zigazag said... Add Reply

Heartwarming post, and so true. I also no longer feel like an expat in Aus, and now, coming up to the four year mark have lots of building blocks that tie us firmly into place in this wonderful country.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Thanks Jo. Good to hear the building blocks are in place and that you're in no hurry to head off!

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Lol. Consider yourself in the running!

disqus_5MVlvBP1gh said... Add Reply

Just about to start planning my one year celebrations. Loving Melbourne. Nice update Russell thanks

Kym Hamer said... Add Reply

Ha you'll be pleased to know Russell that these not a fleecy or woolly item in my suitcase. Not that I would need it here in Langkawi at the mo' but I'm taking a punt that marvellous Melbourne will provide marvellous weather!

Jbexpat said... Add Reply

This is a great piece of writing. I have been living in Australia for 4 years and am yet to feel like a local. It is somewhat comforting to read that it will eventually happen. I sometimes wonder if the cultural differences are even bigger between city and country? Worth contemplating.....

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Congrats and enjoy those celebrations. It's an important milestone and you're in a pretty special city. Thanks for your comment.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Thanks Jbexpat. Much appreciated. I'm sure the transition will happen - you can't be an outsider forever, can you? That said, I do believe the cultural differences are bigger between city and country. There are so many other expats and 'internationals' living in Sydney that the city naturally embraces its visitors, however long they stay. I'd think that the country would require more effort and acceptance by the 'locals'... interesting stuff.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Not one fleecy item? I don't believe it! ;-) I think you've taken a good punt on Melbourne. Enjoy the Xmas visit - it'll be nice to have you on the same time zone as me for once!

Fran said... Add Reply

I'm just at the start of my expat journey is Australia, and right now, achieving your sense of zen sounds an impossible aim. But you show me it's not. I still miss England, miss Yorkshire, miss football, heart wrenchingly so. However, your post gives me hope, that one day, without really noticing it, I will feel at home, without going anywhere.

Great post Russell and congratulations to you and your wife on the new arrival. Is it just me that senses the irony of you now having "A life that's ordinary", in the nicest possible sense, settled with a family. :-)

Christine said... Add Reply

I've been in Spain 3 years and still don't feel like a local. Who knows how many years that will take!

Adventures said... Add Reply

I'm late to this post so have read the comments and have to add that in certain parts of small town New England (in the US, 'young' country that it is), if you haven't lived there for at least 8 generations you're 'new', so 20 years is nothing. Your point that it's about the friends and friendship is spot on: it IS about the friends and friendship. Without them, you can do your best but still feel off. With them, you can weather the toughest challenges. Congratulations!

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Thanks Christine. Keep me updated - maybe when you reach 5 years? Who knows! I'm sure it's different for everybody. Thanks for your comment.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

8 generations? Wow. That's dedication. Imagine being new after 20 years? Sheesh...

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Thanks, Fran. Things aren't necessarily perfect here and I'm still occasionally torn but I feel more comfortable with being here, more established if you like.

Cheers for the congrats. It's been a whirlwind few weeks but we're enjoying it all. I think you may be on to something with your last comment. Funny the way that in the search for a different path, we still crave the routine things - a family, being settled, etc., etc. Hope you had a great Xmas and NY.

disqus_GLsgrmh8ld said... Add Reply

I don't know if I've ever been in one place long enough to ever feel like it was home. I did have a moment the other day where I felt more like a local than not..after 6 months in London, I told off a tourist for refusing to move off the left side of the escalator. Ha!

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Lol. Good on you for putting those bloody tourists in their place! ;-)

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Congrats to you, Africanaussie! Your name was pulled out of the hat and you've won the hamper of classic English sweets :) Email me at mail@russellvjward.com and I'll make sure it reaches you soon. Well done!

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