Searching Abroad to Become Something Special

An Expat’s Love Note to America

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this one sums up the different feelings my husband and I had about moving to Germany. Also, I had bangs. Photo credit Jane Vance, my mother, who also happens to be an amazing gift-giver as evidenced by these going away presents.

Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s in America, I was taught that I was unique. School curricula and public television, like Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and Sesame Street, beamed into my young mind the not-so-subliminal message that I should celebrate this uniqueness. This idea was so central to my self-development that I assumed it was universal — I assumed all children, wherever they are, grow up celebrating their own uniqueness.

It was not until I moved abroad and met people from other countries that I learned this was not the case. As children, some were taught to conform, to follow structure and process. Their childhood teachings celebrated the elements that connect their cultures and the qualities their societies have in common.

This made me wonder what it means to feel American — what it is that defines us. In a country that, from afar, seems to be so divided, what is it that keeps people connected? To answer this question with any authority would take years of study, surveys, research and analysis, leading to advanced degrees that I (as of yet) do not have. So I am left to speculate and wonder if what connects us as Americans is, in fact, the idea that we are all different, and that the power being American is realized when we combine our differences to create opportunity and possibility.

Indeed, the concept of possibility — that idea that anything is possible for each of us — might just be our single most unifying element. It is the reason why the first emigrants came to America — to start new lives for themselves and create a “City Upon a Hill,” a model society that the rest of the world would try to emulate. The city might not sit atop a hill anymore, but America remains a land of hope and opportunity for many. Expats and immigrants alike come to America for hope of a better future. Outside of the United States, the mythology of the American Dream survives.

If America is the land of opportunity, then why have I lived abroad for five years?

For me, it comes back to the idea of uniqueness.

As children, our uniqueness is elevated to the point that we consider ourselves special. Yet as much as we are encouraged to celebrate this specialness when we are children, it is harder to maintain faith in our own specialness, and thus to follow our dreams, as we age. For inside our borders, the greatest dream, the American Dream, is based on achievement. For those who strive to achieve it, at a certain point it seems to be measured more by what you have than by who you become. For many, the pursuit of this dream is an empty promise; they are fixated on the need to ensure their security, for now and for the future. Some sacrifice their personal desires to protect themselves. Others — like myself — fall victim to no one’s expectations but our own that we will achieve whatever version of success we believe is expected of us.

I realize now I have been chasing the feeling of my childhood, where I felt special. It is evident in where I lived — one apartment had no shower, another had a trapeze rig. It is evident in my appearance — my mother has a collection of photos that document an evolution of my hairstyles and hair color. In retrospect, this search was evident in everything except for my career choices.

Though it was not my motivation for moving abroad, being an expat makes me feel special. Despite the fact that I know a fair number of Americans here, I am Other (in a good way), I am different, I feel special. As an expat, I was surprised to discover that when I am back in America, I still feel different; I am one of 9 million expats, versus one of 331 million residents.¹ Today, I do not necessarily fit or belong in either culture, and if I am chatting with someone on a train or a plane, there is no clear answer to “Where are you from?”

In a somewhat surprising twist, I have never felt more connected to being American than I do as an expat. I have never valued our (awesome) stereotypes — our friendliness, our enthusiasm, our superlativeness — more than I do today. While I am not always proud of what my country does, I have never felt prouder to be identified as American.

Living the expat experience is a privilege (and more accessible for the privileged). It does not come without sacrifices, which have often felt particularly acute when, as in the past year, we have been physically separated from family and friends. Yet after five years, I still feel like I am on an adventure; however delightful or frustrating my expat experiences are, I will never bike past castle ruins in America. I do not know how long this adventure will last, but I hope, by the end of it, I have enough of the feeling of specialness to sustain me until the next one.

[1] “Demographics of the United States.” (2021, 1 May). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_the_United_States

American living in Nürnberg, Germany. I write about expat life, culture, leadership and marketing.

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