The expat dilemma: When we are stuck between two worlds

How does it feel when we are stuck between two worlds? Although there is only one planet on which we humans live, this saying is often used. Is there something more to this casually expressed saying than just a lack of orientation and the search for identification? I gave myself a few deep thoughts about the concept of an expat and analyzed different perspectives when you are stuck between two worlds and why it was the same for me.


¿Te gustaría leer este artículo en otro idioma?


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Approximate reading time: 15 minutes

I’ve also had this feeling of being stuck between two worlds. Therefore, it is a little easier for me to describe this extraordinary state. To be stuck between two worlds is to be understood more as a symbol. This article is not about interstellar space travel. These two worlds simply symbolize different societies that are both geographically and culturally distant from each other.

Requirements for a feeling of being stuck between two worlds

Some requirements need to be met before we can suffer from this dilemma. Because being stuck between two worlds is easier said than done. What exactly does it take before a feeling of being stuck can be triggered?

Minimum requirement: Another world

The first premise is that there has to be at least the second world. Without the existence of such a second world, no strange feeling can develop in ourselves. In just one world you can stay comfortably without the feeling of ever being stuck in another world.


Fernweh
The seagull also has wanderlust and is much more interested in the foreign shore than the one she stands on

But as soon as we get to know a second world of at least the same nature and quality or of a different kind, an intrapersonal dilemma can develop in us. That is easy to explain: it appeals to us in the other world at least as well as in our ancestral world.

Now suddenly we no longer know which of the two worlds we would like to give preference to. After all, both worlds have many advantages and disadvantages to offer and we are fighting a tough battle for our preferences.

The more peculiar these worlds, the more character they offer

In addition to the sheer existence of a second world, both of these ominous worlds should be as distinct and different from each other as possible. Strong contrast and defined character can develop between the two options through the deliberate differences between the individual features.


Cuyabeno National Park in Ecuador
In the Ecuadorian jungle with indigenous people. The worlds that collide in this photo couldn’t be more different. The women in this photo would never think of wearing yellow socks.

The more one world differs from the other in certain forms and characteristics, the more we become aware of mutual differences and the respective advantages.

However, both perception and identification of a second world are of a purely individual nature and are difficult to determine or even to calculate. Where a visit to a different part of the city or a nearby town already appears to be ‘a completely different world’ for some, there are many other people who need other countries, languages, cultures, and ethnic groups to determine another world.


Rastafari in Santo Domingo
Different types. Similar beards.

When a second world opens up, it is quite difficult to put into words and certainly not to be determined by numbers. It’s just an individual impulse that feels different for everyone. However, a concrete variable is needed before the feeling for a second world develops: The time factor.

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The time factor determines the degree of intensity of our reference point to the other world

Who comes into question to be stuck between worlds?

All those people who spend a particularly long time in a place that previously seemed so strange to them will at some point feel a certain belonging. Because only when enough time has passed, we feel and develop an emotional reference point to the other world. Points of reference can truly be all elements and aspects that another world has to offer.


Many emotional reference points in one picture: art, colors, culture, lifestyle.

All interpersonal expressions like language, all kinds of fine arts, fashion and make-up, culture, quirky behaviors, even certain capricious movements, culinary delights, and an extroverted lifestyle. The more expressionistic and obvious perceptible a reference point emanates from humans, the sooner we can build up a certain emotionality, find pleasure in it, and finally identify with these characteristics of the other world.

But natural elements such as the local flora and fauna or microclimatic zones and their associated elements can arouse our admiration. After all, we are more likely to associate the uniqueness of a natural environment with an emotional reference point than a man-made structure in concrete deserts.


Presa de Valdesia
Animals can also represent an emotional point of reference that we associate with a certain place.

So let us assume that within the other world both humans and nature exert a certain attraction on us and we like it as well. Maybe even we like it so much that they cast a spell over us. Then we decide to stay in this place for a longer period.

In short: the longer we spend time in a strange world, the more intense our emotional reference points and our sense of belonging to it. From a certain moment X in time, we are part of the new world, survived already the different culture shock, and firmly established ourselves in the new society. A second heart begins to beat in the chest for the new world.

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Who is eligible for this feeling – and who is not

Travelers suspect that they are suffering from this phenomenon. If they feel particularly comfortable in more than one place and always communicate breathtakingly beautiful photos and videos, they might think that they are stuck somewhere between worlds. However, we always assume that travelers are stray adventurers who hurry from place to place without the desire to commit themselves to a place.

They stay barely anywhere for longer and linger in the same place. If doing so, they would of course no longer be travelers and lose this chic and self-proclaimed title that likes to attract a lot of attention.



Seen in this way, all travelers and globetrotters don’t qualify to be stuck between worlds. They can do this at most in the transit zone of an airport if they missed their connecting flight and cannot pursue the next targeted destination.

What is an expatriate?

If not even travelers, globetrotters, and other wandering people can get stuck between worlds, who does? The selection of a possible target group slowly vanishes. But conversely, it means that we are getting closer and closer to the matter.

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Who is an expat?

In the hip and modern language, they simply would be called expatriates and not emigrants. It describes all of those who have sought their fortune in another country and have left their homeland behind them on good luck to live there.

The word ‘expatriate’ is made up of the two parts ‘Ex’ (formerly / from) and ‘Patria’ (home). If the word ‘expatriate’ is translated and defined correctly, the result is a person who has left his own home country. Look how the Oxford Dictionary defines this word:

a person living in a country that is not their own

Oxford Learning Dictionary

Easy and simply. No motivation is given to this definition. You can be a student, work or simply loiter away your time in a country that is not your own. You can call your own homeland your own? In this case, you must be a very rich man or woman. Congratulations!



Ultimately, expats are nothing more than migrant workers from more developed countries who seek permanent residence in the destination country on their own. This distinguishes the term of immigrants or guest workers. And of course also from all those privileged who are sent abroad by a company for a few years with a lavishly paid employment contract.

Expats are much more than temporary travelers, but still less rooted than the local natives of a ‘new world’ without a history to that place. This position of an expatriate, which is difficult to define, is reflected in the fundamental nature of what he does.


Huancayo in Peru
Wandering around in Huancaya, Peru

I previously described it with two signal words in the first paragraph of this chapter.

Fortune and luck 🍀

No expat in this world knows about the possible success or failure of his project before he leaves his home country. It all happens at the risk of luck, equipped with the principle of hope and a pinch of adventure.

There is no minimum time when you are or become an expatriate

But we only become expatriates when we have been able to live in our new world for several years and assimilate. There’s more to it than just gaining a foothold. Throwing an anchor in the new world and striking roots is a much more appropriate symbolization. Establishing yourself and being able to maintain life with own resources seems to fit the context much better.

But it can take many months and years before that happens. After a few days, weeks, or months, no one will be able to claim to have made it in the destination country. Rather than a firmly defined goal, this process is what matures into an expatriate.


Restaurant ‘Tiroler Adler’ in Pozuzo
Who of those two is Peruvian and who is German?

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When do I start to get stuck between two worlds?

And within this process, the same feeling can be developed that I described at the beginning. To be stuck between two worlds. This usually happens when the whole process of emigration is questioned by ourselves. Most of the time, this feeling doesn’t come by itself but is triggered by problems and/or challenges.

‘Feeling lost’ is the best expression in English. This is expressed by the following phenomena:

• Feeling lost without being lost
• Missing certain things from the old world, but on the other hand appreciating local flavors of the new world
• Not really knowing how to continue in the new world, but also no longer wanting to go back to the old world.
• Moderating an internal duel of the two questions “What am I actually doing here?” And “Why did I leave?”

Certainly a real dilemma. Feeling at the same time two worlds pulsing inside of you is a latently tormenting stimulus. On the one hand, we have already established ourselves in the new world, but we haven’t broken away from the old world. And on the other hand, throwing anchors and striking roots didn’t work.

In the end, it’s a question of the agglomeration of information and the vertical perspective of our judgment. The further a camera lens zooms in, the blurrier the result will be. Borders seem to be vanishing. A cloud simply reminds us of sheep or cotton candy when we observe them from a great distance. Viewed from an airplane or helicopter, the visual information of the previously powerful and contoured cloud is more blurred into a dull and diffuse gas mixture.

The uncomfortable emotional transit zone

All those expatriates are in a kind of transit zone. This maps exactly the intersection that piles up within both worlds. Between the old and the new world, this transit zone would shimmer gray instead of adopting a defined hue. Perhaps similar to the cloud that, viewed up close, may no longer shine white and instead shimmer in gray.


© The expat dilemma by www.traphil.com
How does it feel when we’re stuck between two worlds?

The dangerous thing about this transit zone is to question your own decisions about your project abroad without finding a helpful answer. A transit zone can turn into a real emotional downward spiral even without outside help.

The most important thing is to talk about this expat phenomenon

Without the help and solace of open ears, this condition worsens. It is particularly problematic that friends and relatives from the old world can’t unfortunately be of help. Too little are their experiences in such a comparable situation.

Rather, all expats who are going through the same dilemma can help out. The more similar the culture of the target country, the better the advice. Where the advising expat comes from is even of secondary importance, since pretty much everyone is in the same boat. In this case, it is important to talk to each other.


Samaná Ocean View Eco Lodge
Exchanging ideas and problems with like-minded expats can never hurt, it can only help.

But the longer an answer to the question “What am I doing here?” is absent, the more insecure an expat will become about his plans. Being stuck between two worlds can be quite uncomfortable and paralyzing.

How can I free myself from the emotional transit zone?

However, I cannot offer a real solution to this dilemma. Every expatriate deals with an individual problem and individual feelings. I was not able to develop or find a golden formula according to a cookie-cutter approach.

In my opinion, however, the most important thing is to appreciate your own perspective and never lose courage and patience. Even if that is easier said than done, it is precisely these two points that have always caused me the most problems.

Always appreciate your perspective – the old world is not free from problems either

Your perspective can also be valued in those moments when an expatriate feels lost. After all, expats have made it much further through long-term entry into the other world than all those who stayed at home in the old world.

Of course, we mostly think back to the old world at home and associate it with a much simpler and less complicated time in life. We are much more likely to remember and prefer to remember the beautiful moments and ignore difficult times before. But it wasn’t free of problems in the old homeland either. And it’s not a simple story to come back and re-integrate yourself.


Eco del Mar, Bahia de las Aguilas (Dominican Republic)
Did I also have my problems in the Caribbean hammock at that moment? Definitely! But they were less important because I was much more able to appreciate my own perspective in the new world.

And all the intercultural competencies learned, foreign languages​​, and innovative solution methodologies are valuable skills that cannot be taken away from any expat. Feeling lost in such a situation is almost a luxury that the residents of the old world envy.

Never lose courage and patience

Of course, courage also plays an important role. Like wind in the sails, it was this factor that catapulted an expatriate that far after all. In the best possible way, your courage should never be lost, but it should always be remembered what brought you so far. Few people have proven that much courage in their life and left their comfortable old world.

Courage goes hand in hand with patience. Rash actions and decisions can navigate the ship in the completely wrong direction in this gray and foggy transit zone. If you only drive on sight, you shouldn’t turn the wheel hastily to force a decision.



Usually, it is enough to stay carefully on course until the cloudy fog is through. Patience is a virtue that I too had to learn painfully. I have always been able to sail around an average or shipwreck. Now and then my ship would also turn in circles before I was back on course. Courage and patience, given the right dose, can be better than any compass on the high seas.

Why did I write this article?

And as strange as that sounds, I also feel like I’m stuck between worlds as I write this article. This rare feeling always creeps in when you go from one world to another. And while I’m typing these lines, I’m on a plane over the Atlantic.

Somewhere in nowhere. Between the countries. Between the continents. Between the worlds. The good thing about these long flights during the Corona period is that airplanes are empty and almost nobody could disturb my concentration.


empty airplane from air europa
Only about 20 of the 200 seats were occupied

I was in the right mood and was able to write the article very quickly and thoroughly.

Now, this very rare but explicit feeling of being-stuck-between-the-worlds also releases many positive emotions. I’m looking forward to all the great people from the old world with all the extraordinary conversations and the joy of seeing each other again. All the culinary treasures of the old world that were only available in the new world with ridiculous and import prices. And of course for the call of the new world when I will suffer from the holiday fever again. Sooner or later, that’ll arise medium-term inside of me.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Janna says:

    Thanks you for your article. It expresses so clearly the vague thoughts I’ve had swirling around my head for months now, but felt alone in as an American living in Australia going through this expat transition phase. A lot of it rings very true for me and reading this has been a big encouragement for me to stick it out to be patient and have courage. Thanks, this has helped me more than I can express.

    Like

    1. Phil Harmony says:

      Dear Janna,

      thank you very much for your comment. I am happy that you have reached out to me and that you can relate to my article and what I tried to express with my words. 2020 is a very difficult and challenging year, especially for expats around the world during these unsteady times. Personal and professional rewards will come with a bit more courage and patience, just believe in yourself and in your strengths! Whenever you need to talk to someone, please feel free to contact me via eMail.

      Greets from the other side of the world to Australia, stay healthy and safe!

      Phil

      Like

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