Browsing the discussion boards at the ExpatWeb group on LinkedIn, I came across a thread started by cross cultural coach, Margarita Gokun Silver which posed the question “Your identity in expatriation: will it stay or will it go?” My answer? A resounding “Neither!” I’ve been an expat for a long time and have a very strong sense of identity but it’s not the same identity I had when my expat journey began. 15 years ago, my identity was inseparable from my career. I was an investment banker, respected by my clients, often asked to speak at conferences and write articles in industry publications. Now I’m a serial expat, an expert in moving my family and our lives from one country to another, a yoga teacher, a philanthropist and now an entrepreneur. My high school French teacher would be surprised to know that I am also a linguist, currently working on learning my fourth language. My career as an investment banker is a distant memory and expat life has afforded me the opportunity to explore these interests and develop myself in a way which would not have been possible in my old life. Living and working in multiple countries has also shifted some of my values and my worldview. I am less likely to make black or white judgements about world events as I can view them through the lens of other cultures and appreciate the shades of grey. It has even changed my personality. Years of putting myself out there to make new friends in each new country have all but eliminated my shyness.
If you’re a soon-to-be expat, particularly someone who is putting their career on hold to accompany their partner on an international assignment, you should be prepared for a sense of loss of identity, but ready to mitigate it with a plan. Explore the many opportunities that are available in expat communities and set goals for becoming involved. If you can’t decide what will excite and motivate you, work with a coach to help you discover what is right for you. Having decided to go on an international assignment, make the most of it; be open to the new experience.
For me the changes in my identity have not always been smooth or painless. I’ve had a few false starts in finding the things that I am passionate about and I’ve learned the hard way that some pursuits are definitely not for me. However, I can say without reservation, that the me of today is happier, has a richer life and a lot more fun that the me of 15 years ago. And I still remember a surprising amount of that high school French.