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The life of an expat: a model of true openness?

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United States of America, Norway, United Arab Emirates, Indonesia.

An eclectic mix of developed and developing countries, but what do they all have in common? I have called each one home at some point in my 19 years. Expat kids like me are extremely lucky to enjoy a childhood of hopping from country to country. Living in a foreign country opens up not only the country of residence, but the surrounding area to travel. Thanks to this, I have seen, met and experienced countless incredible places, people, and cultures. If only the world could think as open-mindedly as an expat. 

These incredible places included some stunning locations. In Alaska and Norway, a short drive brought you to some of the most majestic mountains in the world for skiing and hiking. In Indonesia and Abu Dhabi, some of the best snorkelling and diving was on my doorstep. Depending on where I was, it was normal to see moose, bears, lizards, or cockroaches around my house or neighbourhood.

But it was not all just a massive holiday. Complete change was forced on me every few years. A new culture, new language, new school, new friends. You would begin to feel settled somewhere only to find out you had to leave again. I mainly studied in international schools, either British or American, where it was normal for a year group to change drastically each year. But there were some normal schools in places like Alaska where I was breaking into lifelong friendships and then leaving for someplace else half way across the world with little chance of ever seeing them again. Adaptability to change became a given.

In all these different schools and places, my eyes were opened to a wide variety of cultures, customs, and ways of life. In Alaska, hunting was a popular pastime and I would not be surprised to see guns in my friends’ homes. In Jakarta, Indonesia, it was normal to have a driver, maid, and security guard no matter how large your house was because it helped employment in a city of almost 10 million. During the month of Ramadan, I watched as most of the people around me fasted in 35°C heat.

Now I see France forbidding the covering of one’s face in public and attempting to ban the burkini, a means of freedom for Islam women who wish to respect their religion and still be able to swim. I had friends at the age where they had to make the decision whether to wear the full burqa or not, and some did choose to wear one. Much of Western society sees the burqa as a symbol of repression when this is not always the case. Wearing a burqa is part of their freedom to practice their religion. When I covered my knees and shoulders in Abu Dhabi, I did so as acceptance of and respect for their culture. There was no ulterior motive in these cultural laws. In fact, the UAE has “always been one of the most progressive nations in the Middle East regarding religious tolerance”, allowing freedom of religion. But France, unfortunately ravaged by recent terrorist attacks, is creating these laws out of fear and for security reasons. Arguably, the UAE is respecting freedom of expression more than France. A comfortable middle ground can easily be found between secularism and freedom of expression.

For a place to truly represent freedom, it should not mean that everyone is forced out of representing their individuality and self, which may come from religion. Cosmopolitanism is about acceptance and adaptation, and being an expat embodies this. I am British by blood, but my life so far has made me a product of all the different places and cultures I have lived in and amongst. My identity is not a fixed thing, such as that of a nationalist, but something international. I am thankful for the open mind that has been a result of the constant change and difference experienced during my expat childhood, and can only hope that the world will slowly begin to think in the expat way, a way that is more accepting.

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Seren Hughes

  • Daniel Wilhelm

    Great piece Seren! I was wondering if I could contact you. I run a website for expats and would love to feature you in a piece.

    • Seren Hughes

      Hi Daniel! Thank you very much! Sorry for the late reply, I didn’t see your comment. What is your website? I will have a look and could get in contact with you through that if you have contact details there.

  • Wow, your article is great.