Abroad? Expat? Interloper? For how long can you stay and live in another country and still be considered to be living abroad?
Well, perhaps it depends on your home country. America allows its citizens to live abroad indefinitely, maybe forever, and still have the right to return at any time. In other words, I can retain my Americanness, in citizenship, and still reap the opportunities that living away affords me. I never have to choose; I will always be a citizen.
As it is, I miss my culture and country a bit extra today. It is the Fourth of July and I sit knowing there will be no fireworks tonight in Japan. I didn’t think to order any celebratory red, white, and blue goods early-on to be shipped–no tiny flags, no confetti with stars. Besides, my husband and kids are at work and school. It is a normal day here in Tokyo. While all of my American friends and the bulk of my Instagram thread shows lobster rolls and barefoot kids in cutoff shorts enjoying picnics and sparklers on parade-sidelines, I think about my Americanism and the dualities, the good and bad of living abroad.
People are complex beings. In eighth or ninth grade, I wrote my own mythological story to illustrate the origin of some emotion. I wrote about a rainbow after a storm and two Greek sisters experiencing something both devastating and profoundly beautiful. It was a whole dramatic story leading up to the origin of “bittersweet”. We can have warring emotions, two realities coexisting.
To be of a certain culture living away from one’s home is often complex. One may love their newer home but greatly miss those they left behind. One may adore the transportation system and their new view, a high-paying or more satisfying job, but feel torn at times. It can all be a bit bittersweet, no matter how great the call or reason to come to this new land.
It is the 4th of July and it is more than nostalgia I feel. I identify as an American. I celebrate the country’s ideals. As a foreigner, I have spent almost eight years here in Japan adjusting and missing my family, adjusting and comparing cultures, walking in between language and customs.
Even if I spend the rest of my days here or anywhere away from the US, if I retire, become a grandmother here, continue to adjust and even become adept at language here, I will always, to some extent, be living abroad. The American in me may not ever cease being American. That is fine, that is A-okay. I’ll be complex. That is, after all, only human. We don’t get “wiped clean” to receive something new. We can gain and trade languages, add stamps and experiences to our passports, even become residents in a new country and still always be American, or Swedish, or Mexican. We don’t ever have to give up identity. This stays with us even while other variables shift. People are layered with gorgeous details and complexities. My sun-splattered freckles may stay with me forever, though I am far from the beaches and summer days of my youth.
We never really stop being that original person–the little boy or girl with memories of writing their name with sparklers on the beach, the kid who was afraid to try a new food, the shy preteen who realized they felt alive waterskiing at summer camp. The humor, even that we grow up with, watching movies and hearing our uncle, mom, or grandpa tell jokes. All of it is important. All of it speaks to identity.
The way I grew up, all of the memories, the holidays like Fourth of July, vacations, and conversations–see, they make up our foundation. The way, the culture in which I grew up, that which I saw and experienced will always be my foundation. Part of that, a major part of this, is location, right? Country of origin. Opportunities, moments, the gifts and sadly, the tragedies that affect us. How we see others deal with pain. How we as a family, as a people, as an individual celebrate. These attributes can be tied to country. How we even view “diversity” and “challenge”. It’s all in there.
I am an American with a certain lens. Yes, it’s been widened a certain extent by living abroad. I will hopefully continue to grow and change, but I may never really ever stop being or at least at times, feeling “foreign”. I will continue to lay down roots. My children, though, for as much as they are Japanese, will always also be American. We can be complex people. People rooted to a space but also thinking of what we miss. This is some of the magic of America, in its collective self. Americans are not one type, not one general physique, not one accent, or one non-accent. We’re from all over and may live all over. All of us living abroad become part of the body, joining in a new cultural identity, landscape, an workforce, but we also retain our roots, enjoy new opportunities while celebrating our origin.
My kids don’t know that if in the US today, they’d be home from school, gobbling blueberries, making eating someone’s wiggly Jell-O dessert, hugging their aunts and cousins. We’d probably be at the beach or in Philly with Grandma, looking at The Liberty Bell. They’d certainly know the words to our national anthem (Reminder, self. Teach this). They may not be privy to the nuances of each American holiday, but I do and I miss these things.
Yes, I get the double goodness of new holidays to celebrate in Japan, but I don’t have it all. There are costs to widening one’s vision. We don’t get to see our family, those close friends we left up close. We get tinges of nostalgia and the joy and pain of comparison.
We get other kinds of popsicles and treats made out of sweet beans, but there is no ice cream man coming down our block in his ice cream truck with the song. There are no shops with the red, white, and blue flag hung outside. There is no Macy’s Day Parade on Thanksgiving in Tokyo. There is no float with veterans waving whom we may salute.
A holiday of one’s birth country or childhood may prompt some sadness or at least a moment of wistful thinking if we aren’t stateside or with others to commemorate the day. Celebrations may be internal and with a bit of pain. We see a whole big view and there is more cost than the international flight. There are new friends, though, a more complex understanding of war and international relations. There, like in my typed-up myth, is a whole rainbow to discover, yes. There is a greater appreciation for those here who bridge my world with their kindness and acceptance. There are trips to plan–both domestic and international. New memories to shape.
There are Fourths of July that are bittersweet. I am, after all, an American living abroad.