Ah, the no-man’s land of the expat life — if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you haven’t been abroad for long enough. Nor would you, I’m afraid, qualify for Displaced Nation citizenship. One person who does know what I’m talking about, and would more than qualify, is Valerie Hamer. She likes to refer to herself “British by birth and a nomad by choice.” Here is her bittersweet tale of where that attitude has taken her…
— ML Awanohara
Having lived in Asia for nearly 13 years, I’ve grown accustomed to the standard opening line: “Where are you from?”
However, as the years have passed, my factual auto response of “England” has made me uneasy.
I consider myself a global nomad: an international citizen, albeit one with a passport identifying my roots in the Commonwealth realm.
Plus, I dislike labels of any kind because they invoke stereotypes: and when it comes to nationality there are only so many questions — do you have afternoon tea at 4:00? do English gentlemen really wear bowler hats? — a person can take!
Not British any more…except at the core!
The truth is, I don’t feel particularly British (whatever that really means) anymore.
In fact, I’m so out of touch I have to spend time online researching current UK news on weather, music, sport fashion and politics — because knowing these things is what is expected of me.
Foreign is what I am all about after all, and that isn’t ever going to change.
The blurring of one’s national identity happens over time. In the first couple of years of the expat life, we crouch on the edge of our host culture, secure in the knowledge that the familiar is only a plane ride away. We make cross-cultural comparisons, some of them invidious; have adventures; reminisce; and sometimes escape for brief periods of intense reunion with the motherland. The possibility is always open for ending the foreign adventure and resuming the life left behind.
Over time, however, the attachment to the homeland fades and in the process, most long-term expats mutate into something closer to the global citizen. Take my case: I am now a quasi-fraudulent impersonation of a bona fide English woman.
But, even though I have lived abroad for over a decade, I have never seriously doubted my citizenship. Great Britain is, after all, the place where I was born and raised. The island I could return to on my terms, without fear of any impositions on my status or freedom.
After all, I continue to be a British citizen, right?
No right to investment
Not quite, as it turns out, for while I have been busy living as a temporary resident of South Korea, times have been a-changing back home in Britain.
A standing joke amongst my family and friends is that I manage to devalue the currency of any country I choose to live in. I have the same effect on UK interest rates, too, which is why I’ve made a habit of checking out the best deals and making the necessary transfers every time I visit.
Suddenly, though, this became impossible! New government rules have outlawed British non-residents from investing their cash in the country. How dare we?!
I chose a Korean bank instead, where thankfully I haven’t confronted similar issues — though it should be no surprise to hear that the interest rate dropped by half during my first year in the scheme!
Little right to health care
I rarely get ill, but sometimes I’ll make a quick trip to the doctors when back in England. Most health care services are free at source, and even temporary visitors can make use of any emergency facility. Those of us with family in England can see a general practitioner as long as a family member is on the books.
It’s never been a problem until now.
Last summer I called the office of the GP my father uses and was interrogated quite fiercely by the receptionist. I won’t bore you with the details: suffice to say, as a non-resident I need to be close to death before the medical profession will give me the time of day.
I can’t complain about being denied access to a system I don’t pay into, but the experience further defined me as an alien in a place where I used to belong.
No right to drive?!
One area that shouldn’t be a problem is driving in the UK, right? Last summer I decided to hire a car for my visit. I hadn’t been behind the wheel for ten years but had kept my license updated, registered to my family’s UK address.
After shelling out for a couple of refresher lessons and an expensive insurance policy, I felt confident that all was good — and it was, that is, until I discovered quite by accident that the insurance had actually been useless.
Who knew that my UK license grants only permanent residents the right to drive? Living outside the country means you forfeit the permission to use, or even renew, the license.
It makes sense when you think about it — but the assumption that we are good to go without an international permit is pretty widespread among us British expats.
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These are just a few examples of show how ignorant I was of the gradual erosion of my rights to access UK services and systems — an ignorance I suspect I share with many other displaced Brits.
Ultimately, those of us who occupy a liminal space between two cultures need to come to terms with the idea that we may truly belong in neither.
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Readers, any comments or questions for Valerie? Can you relate to her “floating world” status?
Valerie Hamer is a global nomad with a severe coffee addiction and a love of the written word. Her first book, Picky, Sticky or Just Plain Icky? A Blind Date Conversation: South Korea, came out last year; we gave it a two thumbs up. Hamer writes a popular blog, Faraway Hammer Writing, which is named for how people in Asia tend to pronounce “Valerie Hamer”. You can also follow her by that moniker on Twitter: @Farawayhammer.
STAY TUNED for another guest post, by Kat Selvocki. Last time we heard from her, she was on her way to start a new life in Australia. And now…
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images: (clockwise, starting top left) Ploughman’s lunch (courtesy Flickr); traditional Korean meal; Korean marchers; Seoul (courtesy Flickr); Thames view of London; Queen’s Guards marching; Valerie Hamer. (Non-Flickr photos from Morguefiles.)