The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

The domestic expat

A photograph on a Minnesota news website showing a street in Brooklyn, NY, has the caption:

A long line of Minnesota expats wait to enter the “Minnesota State Fair Affair.”

Meanwhile, on a classified ads website, someone from Wales is looking for other Welsh expats to meet in a pub – in Winchester, England.

While convention and Wikipedia define an expatriate as:

any person living in a different country from where he or she is a citizen

it seems that this definition is being gradually challenged, as shown by these two examples. You no longer need to cross borders to be an expat. You can be a domestic expat. A fish out of water in your own country.

Leaving aside the touchy debate of whether Wales and England are separate countries – for the purposes of passport control and this article, they both come under the umbrella of the United Kingdom – this challenge, upon consideration, is perfectly reasonable.

An intrinsic part of expat life is culture shock, which is, says the University of Northern Iowa College of Business Administration,

the trauma you experience when you move into a culture different from your home culture.

It has several stages:

Excitement/fascination – ignoring small problems; a sense of being on extended vacation;

Crisis period – when difficulties arise, the new country turns out to have feet of clay, and you realize you can’t go home;

Adjustment – a change from negative attitude to positive; rediscovery of sense of humor;

Acceptance/adaptation – a sense of belonging in, and adapting to the new culture;

Re-entry shock – upon return to the original country, when the whole process starts again.

In her 2002 article, What To Expect When You Relocate, Achievement Coach Nancy Morris says:

Surprisingly to many, culture shock can show up even when relocating from one region to another within our own country – we assume ‘culture shock’ only occurs when moving to a completely different country.

If you’ve ever moved from London to Newcastle, or from New York to Alabama, or from Toulouse to Paris, you’ll know she’s right. All the symptoms above can be yours, and you don’t need the inconvenience of an international flight to get them. A domestic flight will do it – or, in the case of our Welsh example, a short trip along the M4.

Nancy Morris goes on to say that

moving to a new cultural environment can turn from culture shock to “self-shock”.

During most of life’s transitions – changing jobs, divorce, bereavement – we have a tendency to question ourselves, and who we are. Surrounded by familiar family, friends, environment, we are usually able to make sense of this question and find an answer, even as we struggle to accept the change in our lives. When the change is cultural, however, acceptance is more difficult. As Morris puts it:

At home we have a mirror which helps to validate and re-affirm us. Within a new environment, the mirror no longer exists. So, at a time when you are seeking the answer to the “who am I” question, your surroundings are asking “who are you?”

Surrounding yourself with culturally familiar people – those with the same accent as you, those who feel as displaced as you; in other words, expat communities – is just one way of putting that mirror back in its place.

And it doesn’t matter you’re an Englishman in New York, or a Welshman in Winchester.

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2 responses to “The domestic expat

  1. ML Awanohara April 4, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    Thanks, Kate, for this informative post on the domestic expat — vs. expats who are domestics. (Hmmm… we should do an article on the latter theme as well one day: expat domestics who become tragedies of displacement!)

    I particularly liked the Morris Mirror Metaphor (sorry, couldn’t resist the alliteration). It enhanced my understanding of why I always liked spotting other gaijin in the crowd even after living in Japan for quite a few years.

    To be honest, the more I examine at this topic from a cross-cultural perspective, the more curious it seems. I’m especially intrigued by the contrast between UK and the US. In the US, I frequently hear people who move from one state to another — particularly from states in the middle to one of the coasts — referred to, or referring to themselves, as “expats.”

    But in all my time of living in the UK, I never heard a Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish person call themselves an “expat.” It seems to me they’d have more of a case for doing so, than someone from Minnesota, given that Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland are their own countries. Is that because it’s politically incorrect? I’m genuinely curious…

    However, I do note that when a Brit moves to Australia or another Commonwealth country, the “expat” term kicks in. Take for instance this forum discussion on BritishExpats.com, started by a British retiree in Sydney who is looking for friends.

    • K Allison April 7, 2011 at 8:53 am

      It’s the first time I heard a Welsh/Scottish/N. Irish person use that term in England too. Then again, things have changed since you and I lived there. Like devolution…

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