On Being an Ex-Pat

I’ve returned from my trip to the UK. I’m sure you all felt my absence deeply. :p

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I got back from the UK late last week, and for the most part, I’ve been trying to recover from jet lag and readjusting to a schedule that was different from what I got used to while I was there, which was different from what I lived before I left for the trip in the first place. Not an easy thing, let me tell you!

img_0354-2But this trip, while I did enjoy it, brought out some very strange feelings in me, and left me feeling more than a little adrift, unsettled. I’ve lived in Canada for most of my life, of course, but in my heart, I still considered myself British. I had — and for the most part, still have– little to no interest in getting Canadian citizenship; I’m relatively happy to remain a Permanent Resident. My heritage is something that is important to me, part of my identity, and even though England is not my home in the sense of being the place in which I reside, it’s something of a spiritual home for me, to the point that I still call it Home quite often.

I hadn’t been back in around 12 years. I went back this time to visit family, to relax and enjoy myself, which was a welcome break from the 2 previous trips back, which were both for funerals. It was high time I enjoyed myself in the place I called home, after all.

And I did enjoy myself.

But more than that, I felt comfortable.

It’s that kind of comfortable that I think many people take for granted. The kind of comfortable that comes alongside going to an unfamiliar place, walking down streets that only slowly become familiar, and thinking to yourself, “Yes, I could live here. I could do this every day.” Most of the time when people go elsewhere, they go as tourists, doing all the tourist-y stuff, sightseeing, all that. And I did some of that. But I also spent time just wandering streets, picking up groceries, getting on the bus to go visit my grandmother. In some ways, I did the mundane things that most people do when they live in a place, not when they’re visiting. And it felt very comfortable to me. Those little mundane tasks, those little slices of life that are so normal that we often overlook just what they mean about our level of comfort.

Plenty of people joked about me moving back to the UK for good. Some of those jokes, I know, were not jokes but actual invitations. Because people wanted me there. They missed me, and I missed them, and I knew full well that I could live a life similar to what I’m living now.

img_0480-2But here’s the thing: the life I’m living now is, in some ways, the life of an outsider.

And it would be just as much on the fringe there as here.

I moved to Canada when I was 5, after my father got offered a job here. I remembered some of what living in the UK was like, in that skewed way children experience things. My memories of England were of family, of eating a chocolate donut at McDonald’s, of misbehaving at school and being sent into the hall. My earliest memories of Canada were being made fun of my other children for having an accent. Constantly. Mockeries of the way I talked were common.

I quickly learned how to sound Canadian.

I can switch my accent back and forth, depending on who I’m talking to. People are surprised when I do it, when they haven’t heard it before. It was a survival mechanism. I started life here on the outside, with people knowing I was different. I grew up, and discussed my life with others, and as soon as they heard I was born in the UK, I became “the British one.” Suddenly the expert on everything different. “What do they call this thing in England?” “Do they have that in England?” Curious questions from people reinforcing, over and over again, that I don’t really belong here. That I’ll always be somewhat on the outside.

img_0400-2This trip back to the UK, seen through adult eyes, highlighted just how many little differences there were between what I know in Canada and what other people know in England. It’s a cashpoint, not always an ATM. “Nae bother” replaces “no problem,” at least around Newcastle. Taxis, not cabs. Shopping centres, not malls. Switch the wall socket on and off manually. Different climate, different units for measuring certain things. TV that wasn’t dominated by American shows. I was forever asking my mother, “So, how does this work here?” Little mundane things like postal service, paying rent, all the little things you do regularly that I was forever being confronted with that worked, in small ways, differently than I was used to.

(Please excuse me while I Barugh a little.)

It made me feel like even if I moved back there, started living in the place I have for years called my home, that I wouldn’t fit in any better there than I do here.

That’s the thing about being an ex-pat, I suppose. It’s so easy to feel like you have two homes and yet none. That you’re torn between heritage and upbringing, that anything you remember about before just holds you back from adapting to now, even when you’ve been out of that “before” place for decades. Assimilate or flounder, and oh, by the way, you’ll never really assimilate. At best, you’ll pass. If nobody looks too closely. And nobody questions why you’re using the wrong country’s term for something.

If I moved to England tomorrow (and I won’t be, for many reasons), in a lot of ways, life wouldn’t change for me. I’d still read SFF novels. I’d still be a textile artist. I’d still play videos games. I’d still write. I’d still have the same health, the same weight, the same appearance.

img_0425-2And I’d be struggling as much as I ever did as a child, desperate to hide the fact that even though I can talk with the right accent, I’m still using the wrong words, still unfamiliar with all the things everyone else has absorbed unconsciously through their lives because they haven’t lived elsewhere to have something to compare it to, to have that brainstorm that means conscious realization of cultural and linguistic habits.

And it hurts to come to this conclusion that neither places I have ever called home are really home to me. Both are equally comfortably and uncomfortable, both have a place for me and yet nowhere for me to turn.

I was a third culture kid. I am an immigrant. I am an expatriate. Literally, that means that I am out of my home country. A foot in two different places, different enough from each other to be confusing, divided, and to make me feel startlingly lonely and out of place in both.

4 comments on “On Being an Ex-Pat

  1. Interesting, very heartfelt post! As a “third culture” kid who has been an expatriate for my more than half my life as well as a citizen of five countries on three continents, I have also felt that “in between-ness” my whole life. I actually find that those experiences have helped me adapt somewhat to the many different homes I’ve had over the years. The US is my home now because that’s where my husband and I have built a life and a family, but I can also understand how your “heart’s home” can be a different place and have a more spiritual significance and meaning to your identity. For me, Canada will always be that place :) Thank you so much for sharing this post, and it’s nice to know I’m not alone sometimes in feeling lost and out of place.

  2. I’m sorry you feel that ‘in-betweenness’, Adrian, but at the same time I’m glad you felt comfortable being back in the UK. I had no idea you were over here – and up North, too?! Do us all a favour and don’t wait another 12 years before coming back. Please? :)

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