Big ideas about faith and culture, contained in twenty-six little letters.

Five lessons I learned growing up as an expat

Five lessons I learned growing up as an expat

It’s October, which means I go home again to Boston.

I don’t mean literally. But while spring in Melbourne begins, my brain is unfurling a mental reel of autumn days and glossy pumpkins.

I think how good it’d be to get apple cider and walk through some flame-coloured leaves. My backgrounds on my computer become harvest scenes and I am mentally counting off the days till Halloween.

No, Aussie friends, it’s not just my accent that’s out of sync with you guys. Even after moving as a child and twenty years of residence in Melbourne, I still carry cultural cues from my American heritage. To this day, they can still crop up and surprise me.

But it’s not just me. Today, the expat experience is becoming more widely recognised for the joy and challenge it is – and particularly in Australia. Our last census showed that 49 percent of Australians were born overseas or have one parent who was born overseas. Many are new recruits, too – of the six million born overseas, nearly 18 percent had arrived since 2012.

It just goes to show we’re not a monolithic culture. Today, there are more and more expats in Australia who are carrying their own culture with them, even as they assimilate into other parts of Australian life. And after years of residence – as my experience shows – it can still sneak up and influence you.

Here are some things I learned as an expat kid growing up in Australia.

1) Culture shock is real.

Although I’d visited Australia many times, it didn’t prepare 10-year-old me for the rough landing of moving continents. There’s no way it could have been otherwise.

Like many kids, I had a profound attachment to my neighbourhood and the world I was acquainted with. I knew the streets intimately, could quote the commercials on TV, and was on par with the jokes.

Suddenly, Melbourne was home, and bam! Everything was different, from the sounds of birds in the yard to the kids’ shows on TV. (What was up with Lift Off? All I can remember was being weirded out by the mouth and scary baby.)

Slang was different, and I often felt stupid not knowing what people meant. I was expected to write with curls instead of print, and I remember being confused by “pinch and a punch” on the first day of the month. Also, how do you eat Vegemite without gagging? Why is everyone wearing flip flops all the time? What was the game of rounders? How come all the boys called each other things like Mazza and Bazza?!

All are small examples, but they can swirl into a pageant of confusion when you’ve uprooted and left all your friends, as well as the world you know and where you fit in.

It takes time.

2) Being different can be tiring.

When you’re an expat kid, it can be bewildering to suddenly be so different.

Obviously, Aussie kids found me different when I joined their school at age 10. Many were kind and friendly, asking me questions. Others asked if I had a gun.

Sometimes I felt like an animal in a zoo with kids banging on the glass: “Say something in American!” (I still have trouble with people asking me to say something so they can be amused at my accent.)

What I didn’t realise was that I’d end up being different to my American friends, too. Over time, my vocabulary changed, I used Aussie phrases and I could say things that were a total non sequitur to an American.

My favourite example is the time I saw a large spider, and told my American friend on the phone, “There’s a huntsman behind my computer.” She thought there was a lumberjack in my house, because we don’t have these low key tarantulas in Massachusetts.

It was a strange experience feeling like I didn’t have a tribe I was fully in step with. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned it can be empowering to choose what aspects of my cultures that I’m going to embrace. My difference makes me who I am and is what I make of it. But it’s an ongoing fact about me that I have to re-evaluate over and over.

3) Labels are tricky.

Sociologist Ruth Hill Useem invented the phrase “third culture kids” to refer to kids who grow up in countries that aren’t on their passport.

What she meant was that children who leave their home (or “first culture”) move into their host country (or “second culture”), but they don’t simply assume one or the other. Instead, they end up with their own “third culture” – a fusion of the two, and not feeling fully at home in either.

It’s a phrase I find helpful. I only moved once, and I can say that Australia is now my home. But even so, I can feel fraudulent, almost, saying, “I’m Australian”, since I don’t sound like it or identify with all the culture. Equally, I can say “I’m American” to Aussies, but would feel strange saying the same to Americans. I haven’t been in that culture for years.

So what am I? I have a third culture – I’m a no man’s land. I get the best of both worlds, but also some of the worst, too. I’m both and neither.

4) It’s hard to take responsibility for an entire country.

Depending on where you are from, you may be one of the only representative expat that people may know.

Unfortunately, this also means that you receive all the attention for whatever dominant stereotypes may exist around that nationality. People ascribe to you attitudes and ideas that you may or may not share. And whatever national events happen far away in your homeland, you can often get the heat.

It gets tiring and tricky to feel like you’re in a box, that you’re somehow an ambassador for a huge disparate group of people.

(Also: you don’t even want to know where my brain was at when Trump was being elected.)

5) Asking “Where’s home?” is complicated.

Most people think of home as one location. For people like me, it’s not necessarily one place, or even a place at all.

For me, home is just where I feel at home. That’s not location specific. There are elements of Melbourne that are home for me, but some that aren’t. If I teleported back to Boston, it’d be the same. My “home” is a collection of fragments that I carry around with me – not one house or even one town.

One psychologist put it like this:

I found that home for an expat is a feeling more than a place and this feeling is mobile and recognisable. Home is where one feels at home. And therefore, home can be in more than one place.

Today, this is probably true for more people than we realise.

Untidy mix of influences

My experience of expat life is mine only, and I was fortunate enough to have a lot of privileges in my move. But it’s certainly helped me feel for people who have it much harder than I ever did.

What’s clear to me is that I will always get nostalgic in October. I will probably have this accent for life. And there are a host of other small things that I haven’t mentioned, but are still there. But I’m okay with that.

Like anyone, I’m an untidy mix of influences. Mine just happen to be on opposite sides of the world.