How does it feel to live abroad? As a serial expat, digital nomad and woman with generally itchy feet, this is what I feel…
I lived in Chile for a couple of years. Just when I was settling in, my roots were ripped up, like a carrot from the earth. From the ground I looked ripe for plucking, yet beneath the surface it was clear I hadn’t grown enough. Now, after an unsuccessful attempt to move to Ecuador, I’m currently based in the UK, waiting to move to Montevideo, Uruguay.
It’s been annoying but mind you, moving back to the UK was probably a good thing. I’d forgotten what home tasted like.
How does it feel to live abroad?
Do you know why multinationals constantly relocate their expats? Why secret services keep their James Bonds on the move? To stop them ‘going native’, of course.
I was blending into life in Chile, my kids identified as Chilean and I felt at home in Santiago.
Chile left me increasingly sensitive to the cold. I started to trust in old wives’ tales that I’d get sick unless I wore slippers around the home.
During my two years in Santiago I experienced just five days of rain. Perhaps that’s why most houses in Chile don’t come with central heating (only slippers). A Santiago winter is grey, dark and utterly miserable. A bit like a British seaside town in December, but without the silly humour and fish and chips to compensate.
Failing the citizenship test
Talking of fish and chips, I don’t miss them anymore. Even at the height of my pregnancy cravings I wanted Chilean pastries (sopaipilla) more than anything British. I do travel with a stash of tea which I brought from the UK, but it’s Japanese.
The only truly British thing I have in my household is my middle child, who was born in Yorkshire (and speaks English with a Chilean accent).
Unfortunately, my Spanish language skills are nowhere near native. Lockdowned in the UK, I’m losing the ability to communicate in Spanish. Meanwhile my British born and bred family ridicule my foreign sounding expressions. I’m forgetting how to speak both Spanish and English.
Clearly there is a lot more to Chilean identity than a love of Carmenere and a fear of cold feet. National identity is complex. It’s rooted within a country’s traditions, politics, history and culture. I can’t pretend to understand the intricacies of Chile’s troubled social history. In fact, witnessing the Chilean Spring, where one million people gathered in protest raised more questions than answers; it flipped the lid on how free, fair and secure I thought the country was.
How does it feel to live abroad? A bubble, you might say. Sure, I live in an expat bubble. Sure, I didn’t fully integrate in Chile, or anywhere I have lived, for that matter.
However, you can call it an expat bubble, but I call it a safety net that helped me in the darkest hours. It was down to the kindness of stranger expats that we got my kid’s life saving meds. The expat bubble helped me keep my kid alive.
I will always be the foreigner. But let’s face it, I’m white and I’ve never experienced prejudice. I appreciate that for people of colour feeling foreign may feel very different.
Home is where the heart is
To my Chilean friends, I’m as British as they come. To my British friends, I’m Nina from [insert latest country]. So here I am, existing between two worlds. I know less about Chile than a Chilean, and less about the UK than a Brit.
Like many who live abroad, my head is filled with pointless global trivia. I can tell you the name of the First Lady in Angola, but not in the UK. My DNA is a clashing, mish mash of many places and nowhere.
My DNA is a clashing, mish mash of many places and nowhere.
Yet, I’ve also learnt a lot in my years overseas, including the privilege of expat life. I’ve learnt how lucky I am to enjoy good wine, friendly people and sunshine. And all these feature in abundance in my next home of Uruguay, I’m told.
My life abroad has also made me realise how much I love the UK, including its free press, dark humour and breakfast cereal.
So dear Expaters, I’d say feeling foreign isn’t always a bad thing. For many of us, it’s a privilege.
As for me, yes, I will miss the UK when I move to Uruguay. Yes, I will always feel foreign. But I’d rather feel homesick than sick of my home.