Losing the Expat Identity

While living in another country has its challenges, repatriation is another process altogether. Returning to your home country seems like it would be easy – it is a culture you are familiar with, a language in which you are fluent, and generally a support network that has deep roots. I’ve written about being an expat in the Dominican Republic, but what happens when you return home?

I had some amazing experiences while living and teaching in the Dominican Republic for a year, but it wasn’t always a paradise. At the end of the academic year, I returned to my home state of New York to live with my family, who have been very supportive. However, for those who return to their home country on their own, it can be tough. I had to make a lot of life changes before moving abroad, and it was worth it. Now that I have been back in the US for two months, there are three main takeaways that anyone returning to their home country should take into consideration.

A view from the balcony in Santo Domingo
A view from one of the apartments I lived in, in Santo Domingo

1) You gain and lose friends along the way

Living abroad in the Dominican Republic enabled me to meet many wonderful people – supportive coworkers, adventurous friends, and my dedicated students – and I am grateful for their roles in my life. My colleagues showed me the ropes as I transitioned into professional positions abroad and welcomed me to workplace. My new amigos taught me about Dominican culture, whether they were Dominican or not, and showed me new places I would never have seen otherwise. And last but not least, I am eternally grateful to my students for their patience and their hard work as I grew into a confident teacher. They shared their stories, hopes and dreams, and insecurities and accomplishments.

With a friend and fellow teacher who was very supportive
With a friend and fellow teacher who was very supportive

Moving helps you recognize the friends that will always be there for you and those who are not, or those who have a different communication style. If you’re going abroad for the first time, do not expect your relationships back home to remain the same. They will change, just like you. Some friends are able to grow with you, and others will not, and it is perfectly ok.

Throughout the year, I tried to maintain contact with my friends and family whom I had seen often in the states, helped in part by signing up for an unlimited internet plan for my phone. It became clear who was able and interested in staying in touch online, and I spoke or messaged some friends and family members almost daily. Others had more hectic or busier lives and were not able to stay in touch. One friend in particular always made an effort to stay in touch via email, as he does not have Facebook. Other, I chatted with daily on Facebook messenger or Google Chat.  While some friends didn’t stay in touch at all, one took the plunge and flew out to visit!

Upon my return, I have seen a few friends and I am in awe of their generosity, willingness and ability to go out of their way to see me. It has been wonderful to reconnect and their friendship is all the more sweeter.

2) You gain a new appreciation for your host country and your home country

Returning to New York has been a blessing, but at times I find myself missing the sun and the fresh produce found on the streets of Santo Domingo, or how quickly the landscape changes upon leaving the city to a rural Dominican neighborhood. Oh, and of course the beaches! However, I had experienced a lot in Santo Domingo and traveled extensively throughout the country, so I was ready to return to New York.

I'll miss this beach
I’ll miss Juan Dolio beach!

As a foreigner, everything is new, exciting and maybe even scary. Different cultural norms, expectations, pace of life, and daily experiences. Returning to New York was like re-reading a cherished book, or trying on an favorite pair of jeans that still fit. While one year ago, I was READY to leave New York, I am glad to be back. Maybe moving abroad was part of the perspective I needed to appreciate what I have.

The Met Museum
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

My first few days back in New York City this summer were spectacular! I saw my friends and got a real slice of pizza. The following week, a roommate from Santo Domingo had a planned layover in NYC on his way back to his home in  Italy. It was his first time in New York, so I wanted to give him a good tour. I showed him around Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To see his awe and excitement about New York City made me feel even more grateful for where I live, and I reveled in it. Central Park was absolutely stunning to him and he was vocal about his amazement. We stopped to look at squirrels, which are not found in the Dominican Republic, and took time to appreciate the small things.

3) You can re-discover yourself

As an expat abroad, and then once again upon return to your home country, you are able to reinvent yourself. Since you are in new situations with new people, you can be anyone you like. Being an American in Santo Domingo is a dichotomy: on the one hand, Americans are generally respected, but on the other, there is the “gringo” stereotype, which is that Americans are poorly-dressed party animals. As a professional I was always treated with respect and I tried never to fall into the “gringa” mold. I learned much from my friends and students about cultural expectations, and at the same time, spoke honestly with them about life and cultural norms in New York.

There are some aspects of Dominican culture I hope to keep as I move forwards in life. First, demonstrating respect for family and elders. While I have always been close with my family, I plan to see more of them and stay in touch. Before, I wouldn’t have thought much about where to sit in a car or at a table, but Dominicans generally respect their elders and relationships and I hope to do the same with my gestures. Second, having a relaxed attitude. Like most New Yorkers, I move at a quick pace, so I hope to embody the Dominican “ahorita” or “in a little bit” mindset which allows for freedom and unharried movement.

Saw this bag in upstate New York
Saw this bag in upstate New York.

Now that I’m back in New York, I’m no longer the “gringa,” I’m just me. In a strange way, I feel like I’ve hit a reset button and have started afresh. The repatriation for me has been fairly easy but some may face other challenges. Feel free to leave a comment with any questions or even to share your stories!

2 thoughts on “Losing the Expat Identity

  1. Hey Sarah it’s mary collins! I was messaging with you about your experience at New Horizons! I just moved to Santo Domingo, and now that I am here I would really love to get in touch about advice on meeting people etc…I am not using facebook much right now so I am reaching out through here. I would love to talk on the phone if you wouldnt mind emailing me I would love to get some advice! Hope you are doing well, my email is mca4uw@virginia.edu

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