One of the issues many of my expatriate clients grapple with is the issue of belonging. For many, life overseas is a never-ending exercise of trying to fit in and yet in the end always feeling “foreign”. It’s as if an invisible fence is erected between you and the people around you — and each time you think you are getting closer to jumping it, you realize it moved farther.
A recent article in the Economist (The Others, December 17, 2009) discusses various reasons as to why people choose to become foreigners. One reason it mentions is looking for freedom — and not only freedom of political choices and freedom of speech, but also freedom of liberating yourself from the bonds of the culture you grew up with. The bonds of how relationships are supposed to be, the bonds of expected financial behavior, the bonds of how your career is supposed to go, and so on and so forth. We move because we look for something different, something where we are free to explore and choose outside of the expectations of our own surroundings. We move away from “belonging”. Yet later, in a foreign country, we find ourselves looking to “belong” again. A paradox? Maybe.
When we repatriate, things get even more complicated. After struggling to “belong” for so long in foreign pastures, we move back home where we expect that struggle to end. Yet it doesn’t. Being back in our home country offers little or no “belonging” at all — and we still feel completely left out even though we are right there.
So, why? Why struggle so?
I believe that in the end it all comes down to values and our choices as to which values are more important to us at any moment in time. As we go through life, our values may shift on our list of priorities and, even though, we know (or we can guess) that our transition will bring struggle again, we also know we are honoring a value that yearns to be honored at the time.
What are your thoughts?
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