On Being a Repatriated Expat

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Maybe ‘expat’ is a strong word. I’m not sure that spending a year in Scotland makes you an expat—certainly not one of Hemingway caliber—but it does, I think, make you aware of the liminal space you occupy as an American living abroad.

In going to Scotland in the first place my goals were to study, to earn my master’s degree (goal achieved) and to make roots (jury is still out). The move was the result of a number of factors: among other things the thirst to return to the UK after having been teased by the semester I studied abroad in Leeds, the desire to attend one of the best possible universities for my discipline, and the need to indulge wanderlust while glorifying the possibility of one day calling the UK my home.

If there is a situation capable of shattering your illusions, living alone an ocean away from your family while working your ass off at school is probably one of them. But if there is a place capable of shattering your illusions, Scotland is definitely not one of them. This is when I ran into trouble (trouble, however, being pretty relative in terms of not really being in any trouble). I was weathering the day-to-day reality of living abroad, but still indulging the romantic fantasy of becoming a native in a native land, and Scotland breathes that notion; it’s in the water. Regardless of Westminster, Scotland feels like it wants to keep you.

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But the other side for any foreigner is the feeling of limitation, that as much as you can exist in a place, you aren’t truly part of it. This is neither the fault of the place nor its people, but a state-of-mind within a foreigner that must be broken before he or she becomes an expat. As much as a place wants you, you have to want it, not just in theory, but in practice. The day-to-day must become as appealing as the fantasy, and a year wasn’t quite long enough to break me into that idea.

After finishing my degree, I went back to America, and I don’t have immediate plans to go back and try the expat thing again, but I still believe in the dream. Living abroad was an experience that made me realize how much I need my family, pizza with pepperoni that doesn’t taste weird, Jif peanut butter, and other creature comforts I’d taken for granted before. Yet I’m not sure I see myself in the States forever. I’m still searching for a place to invest myself in.

The bright side is that I’ve chosen a discipline, a career path, whatever, that doesn’t require roots in a single place to bear fruit. By studying literature I am able to occupy more than one place at a single time, that is, my living room and wherever and whenever the book takes place. I can live in the romance of the places I’m not quite ready to live in for real. In literature, liminal spaces are dilated to become the main space, and it is impossible not to be two things at once. By reading you experience more than yourself, create versions of yourself, and find yourself all over the world. It is easier to reconcile the American in me that loves home, and the expat in me that wants to challenge the notion of home. For now, that is enough.

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