Reaching Expat Maturity

Going from expat to immigrant is a big step. I know a few different people who have applied for Spanish citizenship (or are going to). Some of them have received it. A fellow blogger, Zach from Not Hemingway’s Spain, detailed this process on his blog. This post, along with learning about other long-term expats’ desires to apply for Spanish citizenship, got me thinking—what is the difference between what I’m doing and what they’re doing?

Toledo Spain 2008

Last days of study abroad in Toledo. 2008.

The plan has never been to stay. The first time I was in Spain, studying abroad in Toledo in 2008, I suffered extreme bouts of homesickness. I counted down the days until I could go home. This was due, in part, to my introverted personality and the fact that I stayed with a bunch of college students to whom partying was the best way to make friends. Eventually, near the end of my trip, I did come to love Toledo and even the fact that there was no supermarket within its city walls. I loved the twisty, winding streets and the smell of marzipan that wafted through its calles. But still, even then I was ready to go home.

Some expats experience this shift in the idea of home. They are more than willing to call the place they live home. I admire this, but I admire it from afar, as an outsider to this world of shifting, ever-changing identity. My identity seems much more concrete, set in stone, established when I was born in a small town in Indiana back in the ’80s. That is home, and for me it will never change. I call our house here home from time to time: when we’ve gone on a weekend trip and we’re on our way back. “I can’t wait to get home,” I tell Mario. Though he understands my meaning, he too knows that my home is not here, that it never will be.

More often than not, people back in the U.S. don’t quite understand what living in Spain means. They ask if I’m a Spanish citizen yet, not understanding what that would mean. They ask if I’ve got my “green card,” not knowing that my green card is a shade of red and has Mario’s name on the back of it—my ticket to legal residence in the E.U. These questions are often followed by others inquiring about if I want to move back from my glamorous life in Spain’s capital. They see pictures on Facebook or Instagram, and they read into them a fabulous, jet-setting lifestyle, one in which I only drink artfully-poured cappuccinos in quaint coffee shops all around Madrid.

Mario Kaley Teatro Real Madrid

The closest we come to spending lots of money—our €50 per person anniversary dinner at Madrid’s Teatro Real restaurant

When I say maturity, I mean the point at which you stop comparing home and home, when you stop thinking of your new place in terms of the old. To be a “mature” expat, I think, means you accept each country for what it is, and I’ve done that. Spain is Spain, faults and all, and I love it (some cities more than others). The U.S. is the U.S., faults and all, and I love it.

So does the U.S. win then? Do I choose it over Spain? Yes and no. I don’t think I want to live in Spain—or any foreign country—forever. A lot of people I interact with have great dreams of living here as long as possible, stretching one year into two into ten. They love it, plain and simple. And that is great, good for them. But it isn’t me, and for the last time, it’s okay to want to live where you were born.

So as far as whether I’ll soon be applying for citizenship or becoming an immigrant rather than an expat, the answer is no. Nope. Uh-uh. I won’t. Still, I’d like to think that I’ve reached my own version of “expat maturity.” Even there will always be things I don’t understand about either place.

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22 comments

  1. Just because you married someone from another country doesn’t mean you have to become a citizen of their native country, even if you live there. My mom never became a French citizen since she and my dad decided to live in the States after they got married. It took my father 16 years to become an American citizen (he was a bit lazy about it!). He was a legal resident for a very long time and was totally fine. The only thing he really couldn’t do that all other Americans could was vote. And he didn’t have to do jury duty.

  2. I really liked this post and the idea of “expat maturity”. How long did it take you to get there, do you think?

    I’m not as sure about where I want to live as you are, but I would love to have that level of certainty.

    1. I’m certain about what I want, not so certain about where the future will lead me. I think I gave up that certainty when I married someone from another country.

  3. “I call our house here home from time to time: when we’ve gone on a weekend trip and we’re on our way back. “I can’t wait to get home,” I tell Mario. Though he understands my meaning, he too knows that my home is not here, that it never will be.”

    That was pretty much me when I was living in Madrid. But I think, even though it’s not THE home, it’s still a special place. Like our apartment is the first apartment my boyfriend and I shared so it’s special.

    I’ve lived in three different countries: one for 17 years, the other for 6, and the other 2; and in the future, I’ll be moving again to a different country. I know it’s cliché but for me, home is where the heart is. And I’m moving to where my heart is.

  4. I get homesick all of the time for Colorado and I have been there in 9 years! But I know that I can never go back. Things have changed so much, it is going to be painful to go back. Painful to stay, painful to go back. Great choice. For the past 11 years or so home has been where the love of my life and I live. I would rather be homesick than to live without him.

  5. It’s funny because when I lived in Dublin I feel like I had reached ‘expat maturity’ but now, even after four years, I don’t feel like I’ve reached it here in France. I love France but a part of it still doesn’t feel like home, home.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this post…it’s so interesting to read other people’s experiences and perspectives on things that I’m also going through!

    It’s amazing how living abroad (whether temporarily or permanatly) and bicultural relationships can provoke so many questions about home and identity – raising questions which most people never consider purely because they have not lived their “pays d’origine”.

    I think I’m one of those people who feels at home in both my ‘pays d’origine’ and my ‘pays d’adoption’. This doesn’t mean that I don’t get homesick for the place I originally come from or often feel like an outsider here in France. Living abroad can be a real struggle at times (and all I have done is hop across the Channel, let alone the Atlantic!) But I find whenever I leave one to go to the other, I always feel like I am leaving one home to visit the other and vice versa.

    I was particulary interested in your perspectives on where you consider home to be for you and how that impacts upon your use of terms to describe yourself (“expat” or “immigrant”)
    I do not yet have French citizenship, but being European, I can of course live here as long as I want. I tend to use “immigrant” or “foreigner” to describe myself partly because I don’t really identify myself in the local “expat” community here where I live (mainly because of differences in income, lifestyle and also because we are a bilingual household) but also because in France those terms are so loaded with negative connotations and I enjoy shocking people who use them so thoughoutlessly! (Which is of course one of the advantages of being foreign – people seem to forgive your excentric ways a little more easily!)

    1. I recently saw an article on NPR asking for expats to write in with their opinions. And one guy said, “Anything if we don’t have to actually hear them talk.” That says a lot about how some people feel about expats!

      I don’t tend to identify with that many expats either, because a lot of them 1) really want to stay here forever and 2) are trying very hard to “use” their experience to become an entrepreneur. I’m just not interested in that sort of “friendship.” So I don’t identify with them.

  7. Nothing is more exhausting than the “So which country do you like best?” question. Every place has its pros and cons. If two places are more or less equal and your spouse has a job in one of them, that pretty much tips the scales.

  8. I admire you for living in a place that doesn’t feel like home when you don’t have an expiration date (like I did as an auxiliar). Knowing there was an end is what kept me sane in my darkest moments abroad, then again I didn’t have someone to share the experinece with. I know that can be all the difference. : ) Good for you for going with it all and being ok with not knowing what the future holds and when you’ll live in the US. Because do we ever know?!

  9. This reminds me of a Ted talk by Pico Iyer. Peoples sense of identity is changing as the world becomes more globalized. We’re born in one place, grow up in another, go to school in another, study abroad in another, and then post-graduation expatriate to another. So it begs the question does home have to be the place where we live, or does it even have to be the country where we were born, or can it just be where we feel most ourselves. It’s really interesting. Heres the link: http://www.ted.com/talks/pico_iyer_where_is_home.html

    1. I actually listened to part of that on the podcast “TED Radio Hour.” Very interesting! I like to think about how our future children will identify.

  10. It sounds like you’re maturing too. I believe I understand your musings. Funny, when I studied in Spain, after some months there I wanted to live there forever. I never had homesickness for the U.S., it was a lot less globalized there than now – no easy Internet access – phoning home was like once a month from a booth with the help of two operators and a $30 phone call. But, despite that, I thought I wanted to stay, at least for a while but I couldn’t. It wasn’t easy then and my boyfriend was only 18, no getting married for sure at that age! :-D You’ve taken such a huge leap of faith and I think it’s amazing. You don’t have to answer any questions for sure now, you might change your mind preferring to be there or here in the U.S. in 10 years. There is time to just take it as it comes. It’s fascinating watching your journey, you’re a brave and fascinating young lady. Disfruta a todo! Sea feliz y viva la vida como viene. Cuidate.

  11. Interesting post Kaley. I think this sense of ‘expat maturity’ hit me when living here stopped feeling like an adventure that was only temporary. However it is only temporary, long-term temporary perhaps – like you, I don’t intend to be here forever – but I’m so used to things here now nothing much ever surprises me anymore. That said I’ll probably discover something super weird now like another part of the pig I never thought edible. Or another festival.

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