To belong or not to belong: is that the choice we make when we move abroad?

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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12 responses to “To belong or not to belong: is that the choice we make when we move abroad?

  1. This is fascinating! It’s also true for me. I wanted to move abroad to belong somewhere. In the mono-cultural small town I grew up in USA, I wanted to experience something different and did so by moving to India!

  2. I think your reflections raise many points and issues, this is indeed a rich area for discussion. I notice immediately that my words will of course be influenced by my own experiences, having left the UK in 1995, I’ve lived and worked in Belgium, Germany, Norway, the US and now Australia. The notion of belonging must be explored in the context of ‘belonging to what?’ In one way or another, we all belong to a community, it’s the size and the extent of that, that changes. I have felt many times that sensation that no matter how well I integrate, I can never be American, German, Norwegian or Australian. I’ll always be a Brit abroad, and so there is something that I feel is lost, or missing. People speak of roots, yet I feel I have none. These are the downsides. I find the upsides much greater though, the never ending curiosity for how things get done, spoken, thought or behaved, and so long as I find the differences fascinating, and the experiences stimulating, I’ll continue. I feel for me that there is no going back, there is no repatriation, I just know it wouldn’t work, I’d be too familiar, and too frustrated. Even when I was studying in the UK last year, I noticed my frustration levels rising with people who have never worked or lived abroad, or worse, with people who travel regularly but have never lived abroad. It sounds corny and I don’t know why, but I feel a resonance with the term ‘world citizen’. Every place I’ve ever lived though, I notice my friendships – they are almost always with other foreigners or mixed marriages of a foreigner and an expat, for these are the people that hold a similar world view. With genuine locals, I’ve often felt that I’m fashionable, to have a foreign friend, and these friendships rarely seem to last, I’m flavour of the month and then the interest fades. I never feel a struggle though, I try to detach myself and look through different lenses, try to hold my experiences lightly and not tightly, and see where today’s path leads. I do feel a sense of belonging, but it’s to something much greater and much bigger, and much more important than a country, a nation, a culture. National borders are after all, social constructions – ask any astronaut who has looked down upon the earth.

  3. I think as expatriates we have to accept that we will always feel foreign, to one degree or another, in the host country and in the home country upon repatriation. I prefer to feel less foreign rather than more, and do what I can to integrate. However I never expect to feel a total sense of belonging in the host location. I think to do so is an exercise in futility.

  4. Love the article and glad you posted it on Linkedin.


  5. Living abroad for long stretches of time is almost essential for someone like me: congenitally curious but rather lazy. We humans are supremely adaptable and the best way to learn and change is to put yourself in a position where everyone around you thinks, acts and speaks in ways that are novel to you. It’s also the best way I know to learn about your own culture. All understanding requires reference points, and that is exactly what living in and learning about other people and places gives you.

  6. I have lived in several different cultures over a period of 20 years. The longest time was 13 years in East Africa.
    We all have the desire to belong to some group – and we will find that group wherever we go, even if sometimes it is only a group of people like ourselves who do not really belong to the place where we are living ie the expat community. The thing that makes us belong to that group is that we all share the same experience of not belonging and this overides all other differences we may experience. When we return to our ‘home’ culture we will more often than not connect most easily with people like ourselves who have lived overseas as that is what sets us apart from others.

  7. I agree with the author: there is a choice, and I have seen people making different choices as regards to belonging. I believe that the best choice is to have the courage to belong to the community of the rootless — or the uprooted. Once you embrace this choice, you realize that, as the original post points out, it brings lots of benefits and freedoms. Sarah makes an excellent point: I think I would have never understood my homeland culture as deeply as I do now had I not chosen to live abroad. I also want to thank Trevor for his wonderfully inspiring and poetic comment.

  8. I lived in France for 3 years with my family and am back in SF at this time. We miss it terribly and yet the struggles I had finding good friends was one reason we returned. I miss our friends and experiences from France and long for the adventure. My husband and I both feel we have changed and don’t quite fit in back in our old home area. The excitement, the newness, the adventure, the challenges, and even being unique and different become more of a pull as we enter mid-life.

    Thanks for sharing

  9. The part I never expected about moving to Spain was how it changed my relationship with Canada. My memories stand still, yet the people and place change. When I go back to visit I am always faced with the realization that there is no going back. We can only move forward in a constantly changing relationship with the places, past and present, that influence our lives.

  10. globalcoachcenter

    It’s so true — there is no going back and it’s never really going to be the same. Not only we have changed but the places have changed too. I think it also rings true (at least for me) when I go back to a place where I had an amazing vacation. The second time around it just doesn’t seem as great. 🙂 So I try to never go back to any one vacation spot… and instead go to explore something else.

  11. I know this is an OLD article, but I just came upon it, and wanted you to know that I referenced it on the Resources page of my website. Check it out at:

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