Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Identity crisis?

One tends to think of the immigrant/emigrant experience as being one of cultural difficulties and social adjustment, but as Eve expresses in her recent post at Queen’s English, the personal and emotional impacts of moving to another country can in some ways be greater. In fact it’s no exaggeration to say that one’s entire sense of self can be challenged to a surprisingly large degree.

The thing is, as psychologists have pointed out, our sense of who we are to a large degree relates to memory. So suddenly having nobody around us who shares any of the major experiences from our previous life can be unnerving and troubling from an emotional point of view. Often when we meet up with old friends in our everday lives, we will reminisce about events from the past and the people that we’ve known, both good and bad. It backs up and reasserts a sense of who we are.

I must admit that one of my favourite fantasies when seized by bouts of homesickness is just to be in the pub with old friends. People who know me, understand where I coming from, get my sense of humour. They’ve done some of the same things as me, met some of the same people, and lived in the same places. (I sometimes yearn for my previous access to affordable health and dental care too, but that’s another matter!)

Of course, one can’t allow oneself to be too much seized by nostalgia. It is easy to slip into the trap of romanticizing one’s homeland, if you’re not careful. There is nothing worse than the sentimental expat barfly, crying into his beer. Plus for me personally, I have been through some not dissimilar experiences before – leaving home and going to university in another part of the country, for instance. I have also known many people in the UK who’ve come to live from other places. It sometimes seems like half the world is hopping around between countries nowadays.

Given the pressures, I can understand why some emigrants return to their homeland within a year, or university students drop out before the first term has finished, but that isn’t really my style, and nor is it Eve’s, I would venture.


  1. So true, Paul. Having recently taken a trip back to the States after being gone for a year and a half, I was amazed at how great it felt to just not have to explain myself. Of course, many people fantasize about being able to get away from the familiar and the known. I've also moved far away from home (the geographical equivalent of at least England to Poland) without knowing a soul.

    No matter where I am, though, I have decided that I really need to be able to be involved in the community. Isolation can happen anywhere, for so many reasons, and many people are living in semi-seclusion now, working at home, etc. I hope that you continue to make connections in your new home and that you also get to see old friends soon. :)

    1. Well, I do have the internet. It must have been a real wrench going to the US from Europe when it was a 3 day boat trip across the Atlantic and you could only communicate by letter! :-)

  2. I agree-I can also see why people 'turn back'. But don't you also think that this takes a lot of guts, to 'go back', to say, 'hey, it wasn't for me, I tried it, but it didn't work out'. I think sometimes expats think that those that go back,or return to a familiar country (not home) are somehow failures, but it is quite brave -right? I was thinking today how I miss getting excited about the weather...the change of seasons...and the sunny spells...then I remembered that they won't last long...made me feel better!

    PS- thanks for the comment on my post :)

    1. Sure it's brave to go back in some ways. I'm not trying to be judgemental. But unless it's complete hell, I do think people should give it a reasonable amount time... Obviously, for people like myself, who have come somewhere to marry, we are unlikely to go anywhere without our partners and new family, anyway.

      I remember a guy in my student house at university who dropped out after about a month. It wasn't like he had a sick relative back home or anything, he just missed his old friends.

  3. Many of my long-time close friends live away from me - in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maryland. When I think of them, I also think about the pub - a good solid wood table, food, tunes cranking, beer. I go out often enough with the poetry people, esp. Russ, George, and Kelly. Before I found them, though, I felt isolated for quite a few years, even on this island where I've lived most my life.

  4. I think nostalgia can be a dangerous obsession for some people. Everyone grew up in a better time, everyone had glorious summers in years past and everything was tinted in a golden haze as if it was some glorious dream. If we were to visit these days I doubt they are as our memory portrays.

    When it comes to where you live I think the point still stands. I think back to England and I do miss the windy and rainy days but I also know that I'm romanticizing it to an absurd extent, the changing of the seasons is one thing that I will always miss though.

    You know I always found learning about new people endlessly more fascinating than reminiscing about shared memories with friends and family, but I have always been that way. Ex-pat-ness suits me, but it's certainly not for everyone.

    It's been a while, hope you're keeping well.