Living abroad can have a lasting impression on who we are.
by Chris Allsop
Identity is a strange, malleable, paradoxical thing composed of many parts. It’s something that we seek out but always have with us, which we defend at all costs and readily discard. It’s also catching. At the age of eight, my family relocated from California to Bristol, England, for my father’s work. Upon arrival at my new school, I was held in unwarranted high esteem. Fellow pupils began to spontaneously “dude.” And then my tan faded, and with it, my novelty.
By high school, I was as English as my classmates: asking the way to the “loo,” writing “humour,” saying “cheers,” and fixated on egregious Australian soap operas. By fifteen I was already a binge drinker of cheap cider and MD 20/20. I still retained my “dude” habit, but almost as an affectation to subvert my new English private school accent. Returning to California at the age of 30 to attend the MFA in Creative Writing program at Antioch University Los Angeles, my English wife noticed – with panic – an almost immediate shift in my accent. Still jet-lagged, I bought a surfboard for $60 off eBay. After 12 years of the same hairstyle, I grew out my hair, unconsciously fashioning it into a restrained version of the style worn by my eight-year-old self.
Identity, as one of the subjects in this piece describes it, is “a fugitive issue.” For those who open themselves to change, the crisis of identity brought on by experiencing foreign cultures can lead to interesting and unexpected results.
NAME: Rebecca C. Fenton
EXPERIENCE ABROAD: Three months in Antioch Education Abroad’s Arts and Culture in West Africa program in 2007, studying painting at the National Arts Institute in Bamako. (Returned in 2008.) Currently pursuing an MA in Art History at Indiana University, specializing in Mande culture.
In Mali, a former French colony, few people speak English. So Fenton – a fine arts undergraduate experiencing West Africa for the first time – uncovered inroads into the culture through art and mimicry. She was assigned a Malian mentor as part of the program. “Working with someone who is sincere in the way they approach things is a great way to relate to people,” she says.
Relating to Malians beyond the studio presented greater difficulties. Fenton suppressed her own personality as she “tried to shape my behavior and gestures to the way they did things.” It was her hope that this effort to adopt Malian social norms indicated good faith. “I also tried to be really extra kind to people to make up for being so awkward,” she adds.
However, her ineptitude at basic skills – such as eating without cutlery – proved to be a boon. “It was embarrassing,” she admits, “but it put me in the position of someone who needed to be instructed. That urge became part of my identity there.”
When she returned to the U.S. for her last undergraduate semester, Fenton felt deflated by the all-too-familiar – and unchallenging – environment. She explored her experience through art, obliterating parts of images to make sections inaccessible. This practice clashed with her knowledge-hungry researcher self and has become a conflict that she’s harnessed to drive her work.
Fenton returned to Mali a year later as an AEA program assistant, and hopes to go back again to research her dissertation on Malian dress and self-presentation. “For the fashion-conscious in Mali, dress is an incisive way of interacting in the social sphere,” she says, describing how Malians emphasize elements of their identities by putting symbols and texts on their bodies and in their attire. “Being in another country and culture showed me that identities are much more flexible and multiple than I previously thought,” she says. “We can draw on aspects of identity as resources in different situations.”
NAME: Katie Larson
EXPERIENCE ABROAD: Taught for six years, volunteering in the summer in developing countries such as Peru, Costa Rica, and Mongolia. Her husband, Blake, was accepted into an MBA program in Barcelona, where they lived for 15 months beginning in 2011.
In her travel blog, Larson, an Antioch University PhD in Leadership and Change pre-candidate, addresses the phenomenon of reverse culture shock. “Away from all the new stimuli, the brain doesn’t know how to cope with normal again,” she says. “You almost feel depressed.”
The shock was all the more severe when Larson and her husband departed Spain. Upon returning to her hometown of Grayslake, Illinois, she found herself “fighting the process of reintegration,” strongly attached as she was to the new “chameleon identity” that she’d developed as she’d moved among cultures. She found it difficult to communicate what she’d learned on her travels and became hyperaware of sounding snobby or pretentious.
“Why is this so hard for you?” her mother had asked. “This is where you grew up.”
On her blog, she describes returning as “drowning in a freezing pool” of American culture. “What is so frustrating and so exciting about American culture is that I understand everything on every level,” she explains. “When I’m away, I can keep in touch with the parts of the culture that I like and appreciate, but when I’m home, I’m confronted with all of the layers, and that’s frustrating to return to.”
For example, while enjoying a haircut at her favorite salon for the fi rst time since returning from Spain, Larson was held hostage to a lengthy, vehement exchange between two grown women concerning Kim Kardashian.
Still, she concedes that there is the risk of romanticizing foreign cultures, especially when you don’t speak the language and immersion is at a very superficial level.
Her identity is currently in limbo. “I’m not an American anymore, and I’m not a foreigner, so I probably fit in best with other expats,” says Larson, who appreciates bonding with expats over becoming a more ambitious, risk-taking self while overseas.
For all of that, returning home had her recognizing “parts of me that I loved and missed while abroad,” such as her connection to friends and family, and the chance to “bake apple pies and shoot off fireworks.” Her next adventure involves relocating to Hong Kong for her husband’s new job; the duration of their stay could be anywhere from six months to two years.
“I think I will return to live in U.S.,” she says. “You have to wear out eventually.”
Read Larson’s blog at elcaminolesstraveled.blogspot.co.uk
NAME: Luis Enrique Garcia
EXPERIENCE ABROAD: Left Colombia in 1998 to study at Notre Dame University and returned for post-graduate studies at Harvard University in 2006. Now COO and co-founder of Envoys, an operator of international experiential learning programs for high-schoolers; divides his time between his permanent residence of Colombia and Envoys’ headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
When Garcia moved to the U.S. from Colombia for the first time, he quickly adapted to
academic life at Notre Dame. He’d spoken Spanglish with his international classmates since his teens, and was classroom-fluent in English. However, when it came to the essential task of ordering burgers at a fast food-joint, he was helpless. For a month, he simply answered “yes” to the question, “For here or to go?”
“The sentence has no literal translation [where I come from],” he explains. “It was frustrating, but I make jokes about it now. I always say that I should have forced myself into a stronger accent, as then people could have understood that I’m a foreigner and not simply stupid.” Nowadays, Garcia has a mastery of conversational English, giving him something of a second identity. “I’m a different person when I’m thinking and speaking in English,” he says. “I have a better sense of humor when I’m speaking Spanish. When I’m talking in English, I’m more pragmatic.”
But it’s with Spanglish that he finds the greatest scope, or perhaps his most complete self. “I don’t like the concept of Spanglish – it feels disrespectful to both cultures – but I like the practicality,” he explains. “The two personalities come together: the humor and natural feel of Spanish with the resources of English.”
Learn about Garcia’s company Envoys, which offers international experiential learning programs for teens, at Envoys.com
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As for me, after graduating from AULA in 2012, I’ve relocated permanently to the U.K. and settled in the city of Bath, an official World Heritage Site in thrall to its former Romans occupiers, Jane Austen, and a trash-raiding mafia of seagulls. I wear darker clothes and savor warm beer, but my wife still corrects my lingering American pronunciations (particularly, and aptly, “frustrating”).
Returning to England felt like a homecoming – the wettest summer for 100 years was the perfect fanfare – but leaving the U.S. felt like leaving home as well. My emotional response to both wasn’t intense, and in turn I slipped easily back into English ways. Yet I’ve recently become more actively interested in my Hispanic background (my mother is a Chavez from New Mexico). Now that “Breaking Bad” is over, I’m going to have to come up with new ways to engage with my Southwestern roots: perhaps another stab next Christmas at perfecting my mother’s empanada recipe.