What happens to a person’s identity when they live away from their home country for an extended period of time? Some people cling to their roots and reject the new culture, while others fully embrace it. Most people will likely fall somewhere between those two extremes, a balance between preservation and adaptation.
I was closer to the latter. I wanted to escape the place where I was from, perhaps running away more from personal circumstances than the place itself. Every visit “home” felt different. In the first two years of living abroad, returning there always felt comfortable. I was truly home, despite my longing to belong to my new country. I couldn’t deny I had missed my friends and family there and was questioning my decision to move abroad. Perhaps, following my studies, I would return after all, I thought.
Reconnecting with Familiarity
Then Covid-19 happened. I was unable to return without considerable difficulty for another two and a half years. So, when the restrictions were lifted, I was ecstatic to go back, but without even realising it, I had grown accustomed to German life. I was frustrated by the little things I had forgotten—I had idealised my home country to my extreme disappointment—as described in this article from 2021 detailing my reverse culture shock experience. Friends had moved on, as had I, and being with my family came with its own set of challenges. I was relieved to return to Germany.
Fast forward to this year. My hopes weren’t as high—I just wanted to see my family again and spend the Easter and Passover holidays with them. “Water the roots,” as a good friend of mine would say. It was a bittersweet experience. Remarkably, I began to see the small details; the fascinating things about the city I’m from that I’d always heard people talk about, but which I had taken for granted. My partner who had accompanied me commented on how cool it was that everyone in Montreal really speaks English and French interchangeably!
The Power of Perception
People were much friendlier than I had remembered them being, and once again I was reminded of how easily our memories become altered over time. It dawned on me how our perceptions, moods, and attitudes heavily influence our experiences. It made me think—maybe the problem was me? Maybe I hadn’t been receptive and open to others during that period of my life, so everyone came off as unkind.
I observed people. How they spoke and behaved, as well as their general demeanour. It was familiar. I caught myself thinking, almost as if I weren’t from there at all, “Ah yes, Montreal English. That’s how I sound too”. In fact, my partner commented that my English changed when I was back there. In Germany, I speak English more slowly and clearly. While in Montreal, I fell back into my old Canadianisms. He said I spoke faster and used words he had never heard before, and my accent was different. Yes, I thought—that’s what I normally sound like. Or is it what I used to sound like?
Identity and Moving Forward
I spent time with my family, this time more open to the changes that took place in my absence. I was proud to see the maturity and growth in some, and disappointed by the lack thereof in others. It was comforting to revisit old conversations and jokes as if no time had passed, but terrifying to see everyone getting older. Was it wrong of me to move overseas? Am I running away from my responsibilities? Am I selfish to have left the task of caring for older family members to those who stayed behind? It was difficult to see people I loved struggling and making decisions that I believed were not in their best interest. How could I find the right words to offer guidance or make a meaningful impact in such a short visit? What if they say what I fear we’re all thinking—that I opted out?
All these considerations never crossed my mind when I initially made the move in 2016. At the time, I was solely focused on my own interests and aspirations. That’s what I liked to think—in truth, a part of me wanted to run away from myself. I thought I could be a new person and abandon the old me like a snake shedding its skin. But ultimately, no amount of time spent abroad could change who I am at my core, and I’ve come to appreciate the subtle nuances that make me who I am. Where I grew up is and always will be a part of my identity, but my time here has no doubt served as a catalyst for self-reflection and has prompted me to recognize and embrace my values more consciously.
So where does that leave me? I often feel like I’m looking backwards and forwards at the same time. I want to keep moving forward, to keep growing, but I look back because I need to keep checking that what I’ve left behind is still okay, too.
A Deliberate Choice
Being back there this time reminded me of who I was, who I am, and what I’ve missed. For the first time in my home country, I felt a pang of emptiness. After being away for nearly seven years, I am still definitely a person from there, but my heart is now elsewhere. I still feel a connection to that place, but at the same time, the link is broken. It didn’t feel like home. Instead, home has become a deliberate choice—a place I have chosen to live in, surrounded by the people whom I intentionally invite into my life—and isn’t there something beautiful about that?
Instead, home has become a deliberate choice—a place I have chosen to live in, surrounded by the people whom I intentionally invite into my life—and isn’t there something beautiful about that?
The Bittersweet Reality
There is a sad truth to living abroad, and it’s that once you do so, you can never have all the people you love in one place ever again. You can never see everyone you love as frequently as you’d wish. Despite this, I wouldn’t do anything differently. Given the opportunity to start all over, I would still choose those experiences, those trials and tribulations, over the comforts of always having what’s familiar around you. Being around what’s familiar doesn’t mean you’re shielded from pain or loneliness, just as moving abroad to run away from something almost never works.
Water the Roots
Returning to my original question—what happens to a person’s identity when they move abroad? It’s different for everyone, but I think it’s safe to say that no one changes in their entirety. Our core remains, and we adapt to encompass the new experiences we encounter throughout our lives. As much as we may branch out, it has to be said—we shouldn’t forget to water the roots.