According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, expatriate is defined as a, “person who leaves one’s native country to live elsewhere.” Simple definitions, however, can be simply misleading. On the one hand, I pretty neatly fit that definition. I left the United States 14 years ago and have resided elsewhere since. On the other hand, my children have never resided in the US and so while they never left, they can also be considered expats. Indeed, it can be a struggle to define native country and so often the question, “Where are you from?” can trigger as much confusion as clarity. We come to terms with what works for us and for families. We watch with curiosity how our children define themselves, how they answer such questions like, “What is your native language?” or, “Where is your home?”
While the noun version of this word is tough, the verb definition is more unnerving.
1. banish, exile
2. to withdraw (oneself) from residence in or allegiance to one’s native country
The verb definition hits on a sore spot for me this time of year as we mark the beginning of the school year and the end of the summer. All throughout the summer we practiced goodbyes. We watched good friends pack their bags, their homes and their lives here into shipping containers as they withdrew for their next residences. For some, it was a more joyous exodus, a sign of a new position or a return to a “native” land. For others, it felt more like a banishment to a place of uncertainty, an exile to a land perhaps more foreign for comfort. Yet again, I coached my children (and myself) through the process of saying goodbye with little traditions to help ease the pain. Friendship books were made, countries to visit added to the list and contact information exchanged with promises to keep in touch. As the ones who always stay, my family bears witness to to the ones that go away. Somehow, we too feel like the “ex” in expatriate.
As tempting as it is to want to “withdraw oneself” and my family from the expat scene, we also recognize that life is too transitive to hold only one allegiance. I have learned the value of friends who can be family, regardless of how long they enter our lives. As the school year begins anew, there are opportunities to make new allegiances. Perhaps my child’s new best friend will be here for just a year, maybe 3 if we are lucky. Perhaps we will befriend a family who will share in adventures we will cherish for years to come. And although we will certainly say goodbye to ones that will get away, we will also certainly be introduced to others that will stay in our hearts.
We are expatriates. We are more than our definitions. We will not be exiled.