On living a cross-cultural life

Officially, we are expats now.

“Expatriate: a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country and culture other than that of the person’s upbringing.”

It’s such a serious sounding term. One that doesn’t seem to quite live up to the reality of what it means to live in another country.

Seeing as I grew up as an expat, this term is even more confusing. I am an American, my passport and my traditions are undeniably American. But I carry with me a myriad of “little” cultural nuances from another country.  I lived a solid 18 years of my life in France before re-entering into the American mainstream life, which I then lived for 12 years. I have my own culture.

Brian is American as well, but he has his own distinct cultural background. He lived most of his life in America, but his dad’s job took them to Argentina and Gabon during his early childhood for a couple of years each. Add to that, he grew up in a bi-cultural home. He has his own culture.

We marry and live a very American life meshed with our varied backgrounds. We have our own culture.

And then we become expats.

So what exactly does that mean?

Living as an expat means a lot of different things.

I could tell you that it means paperwork. Lots and lots of paperwork.

I could tell you that it means that, however long you live somewhere, you will never fully grasp the subtle nuances of a culture.

I could tell you that it means you will spend countless minutes going up and down grocery aisles looking for the most basic of items.  Maybe they call it something different. Maybe they use it differently so it is in an entirely different section of the store.  Maybe the don’t have it at all.

I could tell you that you will embarrass yourself with the language. Even when you think you speak the same language.

I could tell you that you will give some blank stares, get some blank stares, and sometimes you will just nod your head in agreement to who-knows-what in the attempt to avoid embarrassment. And then you might still get embarrassed.

I could tell you that it is hard.

I could tell you that it is dreamy and romantic.

I could tell you that some things will prove to be very easy to adapt to, and other things will require a huge learning curve.

I could tell you it means living far from family and friends.

I could tell you that it also means making a whole lot of new friends.

I could tell you it means seeing beautiful and amazing places.

I could tell you that while cultures are different, people are people wherever you go. They have feelings, they have family problems, they work, they play, they laugh, they cry, and they love.

The bottom line? It is making me into a different person than I was. Our family has a lot of different cultures that make up who we are. The Scottish culture will only add to it.

We will be better for it. Our children will gain rich experiences because of it.

Different? Yes. But different doesn’t necessarily mean bad (the grass-is-greener at home view). Different doesn’t necessarily mean good (the romantic view). It just means different. And the more different things I experience, the greater my ability to know and love new cultures.

So, we’re expats. But, really, we’re just bringing our own unique family culture and letting it be shaped and molded by yet another culture. Keeping the old, and adding some new to our family history.

How much we benefit from living a cross-cultural life has more to do with our attitude in how we approach it than with anything else.

I count myself blessed.


  1. Well said! We loved our expat years in Turkey and Germany. I wouldn’t object if the Lord would have us be expats again.

    But, I do have a confession… I have never used the work expat before writing this comment. 😉

  2. Well put! I grew up moving all around the country (different parts of the US are certainly like foreign countries to each other!), Asia, and Europe, never staying anywhere longer than a year or two (my dad was in the military). So I always was an expat, even in the American South where I am supposedly “from.” As a result I definitely have my own culture, and a fascination for how people who live where they really are from seem to know all the rules all the time. In fact, they often don’t even know that there ARE rules! And you’re right, the more cultures you’re exposed to, the greater your ability to appreciate difference, even if it’s not always romantic. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your adventures in Scotland!

  3. Happy to hear your voice again Johanna. What a great post also. I totally get what you’re saying.

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