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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.)
God, that’s scary! Is this because you’re in a non-E.U. country though? I have lived in Greece for about 3 years now and go ‘home’ on family visits at least twice a year. It’s interesting to think that people like us might fall through a void.
It is scary, right? I am no expert but my understanding is anyone who doesn’t reside permanently in the UK would be in my position. Perhaps the health care would be unaffected – I remember there used to be an agreement of sorts between EU countries.
It is scary, and I don’t think it matters where you live. Perhaps the health care issue is a little different for you if there is some kind of EU agreement. (Dreaming of living in Europe now!)
I’ve had similar experiences. It is true that if you’re not resident in the UK you’re not entitled to NHS healthcare but it is a grey area. We live away but I’ve kept up my National Insurance contributions as I have a daughter who needs specialist care and the international expert is in the UK. However, she still gets refused treatment even though we pay into the system. It would be nice it there were simple guidelines, but I imagine that each case is different. Just goes to show that some thing are still better in Blighty (healthcare!) although we’re enjoying the cultural enlightenment living abroad.
I agree with Bex. Seems Britain is meeting the needs of a leaner economy and expats may find themselves out in cold.
I’m from the U.S…..and have lived in Greece for six years. I go back to visit, and can drive as if I live there! I use my parents address as if it was mine (like I lived there), and no one is the wiser!!! 🙂
🙂 I am not sure of the rules for US expats, the way things differ between states boggles my mind! I had no idea that driving on my UK licence was illegal, and I even managed to hire a car and pay with a Korean credit card! I had no reason to hide anything, and I doubt many people are aware that their insurance would be invalidated in the case of an accident.
Which reminds me, I must go pick up an international driving permit next week. 🙂
This reminds me so much of the testimonies of bi-racial kids– one foot in two cultures, foreign in both.
Yes, well said.
Fascinating piece! I have been outside the UK for 12 years and like you ‘am now a quasi-fraudulent impersonation of a bona fide English woman.’ But it’s interesting that although we are British by birth we might not now be able to get any of the ‘benefits’ that used to exist unless we become permanent citizens again!
Where have you been living Emma? Some of the benefits will remain unavailable for some time after we return. A lot of government jobs deny applications from those without several years of recent permanent UK residency. The same goes for a lot of educational scholarships.
Just replace the “English” with “American” and Diddo. The funny thing my son came home yesterday with a story from his British school. The drama teacher said, in American films the bad guy usually has a British accent. I said, “No, It could easily be a French or German accent.” He has to deal with many cliques’. The longest he stayed in any one country was about 2 years and has never lived longer than 3 months in the United States. After 20 years as an expat and many British friends, I realize the British educational system is much like that of the U.S. and I wish I would have considered this while choosing International schools. PS. I have no Social Security of any real value, in any country. The Nomad life is losing its glamor.
Peter – yeah I have the Social security problem too. I will get some since I have paid up in recent years but it is tiny compared to most people who have worked for decades. On the other hand when I first filed taxes in New Zealand they insisted they owed me “back pay” because I had two children. (I guess that was fair, because there were no deductions to speak of: I would trade that simplified tax form for the US versions anyday!!)
“A quasi-fraudulent impersonation of a bona fide English woman” — boy, can I relate! Only by the time I reached Japan, having lived for quite a few years in Britain, I’d become a quasi-fraudulent impersonation of a bona fide American woman doing a quasi-fraudulent impersonation of a bone fide English woman.”
No wonder I felt like a crazy mixed-up kid!
And the even crazier thing was, none of the Japanese I met seemed to mind — as long as I kept up the impersonation(s).
What about voting? Can you still vote in the UK, or is that an impossibly difficult process?
“And the even crazier thing was, none of the Japanese I met seemed to mind — as long as I kept up the impersonation(s).” Exactly. We are like actors doomed to play the same role on a weird life loop!
I think it is possible to vote, but the process is complicated and I have never looked into it closely. It would feel odd to be party to decisions like that when I don’t live there.
It’s pretty much the same way in Canada. I gave up my Canadian driver’s license a long time ago. When I go back now I drive on my Korean license with an International license. I believe Canadians have to be back in the country for 3 months to qualify for health care. I have a Canadian bank account, but only to pay the odd bill that comes up, or to give my Dad a check for a special occasion. It does feel weird sometimes. Then again, I think we have the best of both worlds!
When I first came back the “motherland” I had never lived in, I didn’t qualify for state tuition at any University as I had never resided in any US state. When I went “home” to Costa Rica a few years later I found that I had lost my residency there (although my family lived there). Then when my son was born I could not get him a US passport. I was pretty offended by the US Embassy official who informed me my 2 month old was classified as an alien(!)… because his father was an “alien” and his mother (me) had not lived in the U.S long enough.
So your comment ” 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.”… rings true.
Oh how familiar the feeling , I left the UK in 1974 , and worked in France for 30 years , also taking nationality , then on retirement went to Singapore and Malaysia . Having only long term visas for Singapore and Malaysia , one quietly becomes stateless with all the changes at home .
Even getting a pension from the UK and France , does not really help .