Can Living Abroad Make You Lose Your Identity?

I’ve always thought of living abroad as an exercise in transformation. You’re trying to learn a new language, a new culture, a new way of thinking. The question is, if you do this too often, how can you keep sight of who you are while trying to fit in in different countries around the world?

I’m anything but a conformist when I’m at home in Portland, or even when I’ve been living elsewhere in the United States. I don’t shave my legs, I wear colorful (often non-matching) clothes and I have a hard time accepting the loss of freedom that comes with a full-time job. Of course, I also speak several languages and love to live abroad – that is probably the thing that makes me the most ‘unusual’ in comparison to my compatriots.

But what happens when I go abroad? Whatever problems people might have with Americans, we are pretty tolerant of personal quirks – especially in a place like Portland, where I grew up and live now. That is absolutely not the case everywhere.

A lot – maybe most – places are more conformist than Portland. When I lived in Switzerland, I started dressing much, much more conservatively. I stopped wearing my pants that had a bright dragon print on the front and shoes with a flame decoration and adopted the uniform of jeans or black pants and a subdued top. My friends later told me that they barely recognized me when I came home.

Four years later, in Russia, I found a country that was much more tolerant when it came to bright colors – although I also definitely changed my personal style to be more “Russian” by the time I left. That wasn’t the only thing that changed when I lived in Russia. Maybe it was the people I was hanging out with, but I certainly got the impression that Russians were a little more impulsive – perhaps I should say rash – than most Americans. Impulsive is not a word I would have used to describe myself before I went to Russia, and I wouldn’t say I’m impulsive now. But in Russia I worked in a bar, drank a lot  and regularly stayed out partying until dawn.

As I’ve gotten older, I have become a less successful chameleon. Moving abroad with my husband has helped, because our routine as a couple doesn’t drastically change from place to place. But even if the changes are more subtle, I know they exist.

The question is how do you keep track of yourself, your core goals and the things that make you who you are while you try to adapt – and fit in – to a new culture? How do you avoid being destabilized if you are serially adapting to a new environment?

I’m not sure I have the answers to that question. Here’s a couple things that will help, though:

1. Keep some constants. That might mean continuing your hobbies everywhere you live, staying on the same career trajectory or job and/or moving with a partner.

2. Reflect! Try to be aware of the parts of your personality you consider important, and try not to let those things change.

3. Accept that you will not be exactly the same person everywhere – and in every language. A lot of people who are bi-cultural and bilingual actually feel like they have a different personality depending on what language they are speaking. In some ways, that is a sign that you have really internalized the culture.

When it comes to adapting to a foreign culture, I think awareness crucial. It’s important to know what the cultural expectations and values are, how important they are and if you can get away with breaking them. There are a lot of cultural norms you can break – especially as a foreigner – without consequence, but you should always be aware of what you are doing that you when you are breaking cultural norms.