Hanging On To Who You Are: Life as an Expat

The first weekend of June was a historic one in the United Kingdom: people came together to drink tea and eat sandwiches in the streets, they waved flags and marveled at spectacular flyovers, mixed gin and tonics, and listened to the music of some of the UK’s finest national exports, from Elton John to Ed Sheeran. Thousands gathered in London to wave their Union Jack flags and watch as the Queen waved from the balcony of Buckingham Palace, in celebration of seven decades on the throne. Times may be changing, and the idea of royalty may seem outdated, or even unpopular. But for most, the long weekend was an opportunity to celebrate—an opportunity much needed after two pretty lousy years.

As a proud Brit living in America, the Platinum Jubilee probably meant more to me than it did to most in my homeland. I got misty-eyed as the planes formed a “70” in the air above Buckingham Palace. I watched and rewatched as Paddington Bear shared marmalade sandwiches with the Queen. I beamed with pride as my toddler waved at the Queen (and, let’s face it, Prince Louis) when she walked out onto the palace balcony. I devoured photos, videos, and commentary; I decorated my home and ate cucumber sandwiches and scones with jam and cream. I felt simultaneously connected to, and so very far away from, my first home.

You see, I may be an immigrant, but even when I’m a citizen (stay tuned!) I will forever identify as an expat.

What is the difference? It’s subtle, but there. While an immigrant comes to live permanently in another country, an expatriate is someone who lives outside of their native country. This may be a temporary arrangement, or it might be permanent, but fundamentally expatriates still identify (often quite strongly) with the country and culture of their birth. Even if the move is permanent, there is never really a question of giving up their national identity in favor of another. I’m definitely in this group because although I love America and life here in San Antonio and am not sure if or when my husband and I might leave, it’s rare that a day goes by when I don’t identify myself by my heritage (often just when I start talking, ha!).

San Antonio is a city with a diverse population that is constantly shifting and changing. The last published census showed that over 15% of people here were born outside of America, while a much larger percentage were born in America to one or both immigrant parents. Add to that the thousands of people moving to the Alamo City from other Texas cities, from the other 49 states, and for military postings, and you’ve got a melting pot of people who bring their own vibrant traditions, cultural norms, and celebrations. Variety is the spice of life, and in San Antonio, we like it spicy.

The Queen’s jubilee definitely got me thinking about how you hang onto your cultural or national identity when you live in another city. Sure, social media and the ease of accessing news, photos, and viral TikTok videos make the world seem like a small place sometimes— but those of us separated from our families (and our beloved snacks and shows) by a huge distance know how difficult it can be to feel connected. With that in mind, I thought I’d share a few ways to help my fellow expats hold onto a taste of home.

1. Celebrate Everything

Those who know me know that one of my “toxic” (most endearing?) personality traits is that I will celebrate anything in a big way. When I moved to America, I discovered a whole world of “new favorite holidays” that my husband had never really cared about before and now diligently accepts my making a performance out of. (Literally no one cares more about Thanksgiving than I do!) Within the fabric of our family life, we celebrate a range of seemingly normal and slightly random events that fuse together our British and American heritages. From Pimm’s cocktails and scones for the Wimbledon Men’s Final to grilling by the pool on the 4th of July, our lives are richer for the fact that we celebrate the things that make our hearts soar. Even if we are just at home, we go big. 

So it might take a little effort, but find the space and time in your calendar to celebrate all the days that matter to you. Use holidays and events as a tool to teach your kids and wider family about the history and culture that make up a part of your—and their—identity.

2. Splurge on a Taste of Home

San Antonio has a wonderful selection of specialty shops and markets. You can read a great round-up of them here! Places like World Market also have a vast selection of treats from a number of other countries (I buy tea and biscuits from there, like any stereotypical Brit abroad would.) that can offer a great taste of home.

Online outlets have an even greater selection of items, from cupboard essentials to sodas, candy, condiments, and more, and you can have them delivered to your door. I highly recommend occasionally splurging on a true taste of home, because there’s nothing like your favorite treat to make you feel totally connected to where you are from and what is happening there.

3. Get a VPN or Subscription Service

If you love a certain TV or radio show that doesn’t make it onto mainstream media (and isn’t on Netflix or Hulu) then I highly recommend getting a VPN or subscribing to a service like BritBox. That way, you can keep up with (or binge) your favorite shows on a somewhat regular basis. These services are affordable and easy to cancel and reinstall if you want a break. Most smart TVs are compatible with VPN services, too.

TV not your thing? You can get online subscriptions for popular magazines and newspapers, too, which are perfectly formatted for phones and tablets. These make an ideal gift for an expat friend or family member who is having a hard time adjusting.

4. Make Plans

One of the hardest things about feeling cut off from your native land (and often, your family and friends) can be not knowing when you’ll go back. COVID really compounded this issue for many expats because we were literally grounded in America. Making plans can be a huge help here, even if they feel a long way off. Knowing that you will return, even if it’s months in the future, will give you something to look forward to on hard days.

As all travel becomes more expensive, long-haul flights have been hit particularly hard. Book several months in advance, or be flexible and book (if you possibly can!) just two weeks out. You’ll benefit from the cheapest fares this way. You can also collect miles on regular purchases if your credit card is affiliated with an airline. (And if you fly regularly, you really should be doing this.)

5. Stay Connected

I’ve been there: FaceTime calls can be simultaneously totally joyous and heartbreakingly painful. A small screen feels like a poor substitute when you really want to hug someone in the flesh, but we are incredibly lucky to have so many services at our disposal to stay connected—FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, to name a few. Never underestimate, either, how connected families can feel when they share pictures and videos regularly and when they stay interested in one another’s day-to-day activities as well as big moments.

Follow up when you don’t hear back from friends. Send a text or direct message, send cards with handwritten messages on birthdays, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, or flowers just because. Take it in turns to send small gifts and care packages. It means so much to open a box containing things that have been touched by the hands of those you love.

You can still miss your homeland, even if your family is with you! Staying connected can also mean: keeping up with news and current events, continuing to support your favorite charities and causes on home soil, and continuing to patronize local small businesses you love.

Last, but by no means least, can you find a community of expats in your city to share the ups and downs of life away from your homeland? Whether you meet up regularly or simply vent on a group chat, finding someone else who is going through the same thing can help you feel less alone. Military moms especially can benefit from close connections with sisters who are experiencing the same difficulties in adjusting to life away from home.

Whether your move is temporary (although no less hard to deal with) or permanent, life as an expat can be difficult. Wanting to make the best of where you are now while holding on to who you are, makes for an uneasy balance. There will be tough days when the appeal of going back to the familiar—all you know, love, and feel comfortable in—is overwhelming. But know that when you feel this way, you are not alone. And here, you are home.

“When you move from one country to another you have to accept that there are some things that are better and some things that are worse, and there is nothing you can do about it.”
Bill Bryson

Natalie is a proud Brit, but moved to Texas at the end of 2017 to be with her husband, a native San Antonian. Their son was born in late October 2020, so her entire experience of pregnancy, birth, and postpartum has been under the cloud of Covid-19. She spent the frivolous years of her early 20s pursuing a PhD in Renaissance history, living in Venice, Italy, and teaching students. She pivoted into editing when she moved to the US, but currently has her academic pursuits on hold while she focuses on her son. Despite being in San Antonio for a few years now, she still considers herself a newbie. She loves to find out more about the history and culture of the city, explore new places, and find local businesses to support. A fastidious researcher and lover of lists, she’s always excited to share her finds and experiences with others. Favorite Restaurant: Dough Favorite Landmark: World’s Largest Cowboy Boots Favorite San Antonio Tradition: Riverwalk Christmas Lights