As an Expat, I Have Several Identities
Changing the place you call home can give you profound insight into human nature.
Expats. Immigrants. Travellers.
The people who live in between two worlds: the one they know and the one they don’t. After a while, it becomes hard to tell which one’s which.
Moving countries is an experience that gives you no choice but to become a new person. Everything that shaped you in your native country is suddenly gone — and replaced by something different. From the food on the supermarket shelves to the filler phrases people use to keep conversations going, it’s all foreign. Incomprehensible, at first.
This demands you to adjust — and, in the process, discover your new incarnation which only exists in a place where your childhood friendships never occurred.
The experience of moving to a country that doesn’t understand you — and which you don’t understand either — is a journey. To me, it’s been a profound one. Whenever I sober up and realize how it changed me, I almost can’t believe what I see.
We know that the language and culture we grow up with shapes who we become. We understand it on the logical level. But it’s a different thing to grasp it intellectually than it is to experience it first-hand.
When I first moved from Poland to Edinburgh five years ago, I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew was that I was pumped by the new adventure that was starting. I came to build an art collective with my friends. Uncontainable excitement was the main theme of those days.
At the time, my life seemed optimized for pushing that art project forward. But from hindsight, this was just one aspect in the whole ocean of change.
I was about to discover the fluidity of my idea of who I was. Before the move, I had believed that my sense of self was stable. I was always just… me — the sensitive and smart, yet socially awkward Marta who had certain thoughts and feelings on a daily basis. The Marta whose habits, healthy or not, became so sticky that she wore them like a second skin. The Marta who could only change so much within the constraints of the same old, same old Polish interactions which were frankly the only thing she knew.
Yes, she had travelled abroad before — but never for long enough to transcend the perspective of a newcomer. Moving to Edinburgh served as the first long-term encounter with a culture different than her original. And, after one, two, three months — the Polish Marta started dissolving.
She was being replaced by this new persona I couldn’t recognize. For the first time, I was surprised with myself. Suddenly, all the habits and appearances that I thought were intrinsic parts of me were falling apart.
New ones replaced them and I didn’t quite know what to make of it. I had the same body and a pair of eyes looking at me in the mirror — but I wasn’t sure if the soul inside was still the same.
On the surface, the changes may not have seemed that profound. To a bystander, it merely looked like the British Marta was developing new habits and finally growing up. She took up her first full-time job and tried her hand at making responsible decisions.
She started cycling to work and her legs grew stronger. She lost weight. She quit smoking and began meditating instead. She met a bunch of people who, just like her, were dipping their toe in spiritual growth and trying on a worldview alternative to what the society had imprinted in their minds.
With all the appearances changing, there was also something going on on a much deeper level. Something so ephemeral that it can only be described with metaphors. The rudimentary language I use to write self-improvement how-to pieces won’t cut it.
When I understood that the move to Edinburgh was for longer, something irreversibly shifted. For the first time, I felt detached from my roots. I also sensed it might be the only time — because a profound experience like that seemed like something that happens once in a lifetime.
I was like a tree sapling taking for granted that it would forever stay where it first developed its roots. But one day, someone came and replanted it to the land the young tree didn’t know. The familiar landscape and climate were now gone. And although the tree figured how to reroot itself in that new place — the course of its existence would inevitably be reshaped.
It’s the same with humans who one day decide to venture beyond their motherland. They can adapt because it’s in their nature. But they won’t ever be what they would become should they have never left home.
Once the replanting occurs, there’s no going back the original consciousness of the tree.
My first move abroad wasn’t the last. For the next few years, I kept bouncing between Poland, Scotland and a special place in the French Alps. Today, I’m in Edinburgh again — and it keeps me in this incarnation that I came to like so much.
I’m not new to this anymore. I see that no version of Marta is permanent. It only lasts as long as the circumstances enabling her existence.
As people see Marta on the outside, they unknowingly assume that this is the only version that exists. It may seem to them that her preferences for running, writing and meditating has always been intrinsic to her. That her problems and stories build up the core of who she is.
But that’s not the case. Her preferences, her manner of speech, her problems and stories are by-products of her moves. They compound the external personality layer that emerges on the intersection of the soul and the phenomenological world. This is how the current incarnation of Marta is created.
But, this Marta is anything but a solid, reliable entity. She’s ever-changing and agile, as she learns how to grow roots deep in the ground regardless of where they happen to be replanted.
Living in different places on Earth gave me insight into the human experience that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
Whenever I change the language I speak, a part of me changes, too. It’s like I dress up in a personality attached to that language. The costumes are different in English, Polish and French.
English is the language in which I write and communicate most of the time. It’s the most utilitarian, but it’s also not my first one. It’s one I know good enough to say just about anything and it opens the doors to the widest group of people. But it also imposes barriers, with all the funny words and expressions I don’t quite know how to use.
Polish holds possibilities that English doesn’t. It’s the language of my parents and because of that, it’ll always retain the tender quality that makes me tear up. It’s the one that reveals its intricacies to me. Polish is the language of poetry which allows me to capture the wonders of this world as best as humanly possible.
French is the language I know the least, but it contains a specific persona for me, too. It makes me hide behind commonly used expressions because I don’t know the alternatives. It’s the one in which I become a chameleon, mirroring the person I speak to in an effort to recreate myself, based on how they express themselves.
All these personas have deep implications for how I relate to myself. The language, paired up with a culture in which it’s rooted, invites certain behaviours but not others. Based on those behaviours, I then see myself as one of the Martas. And I remain in constant awe that it’s even possible to live like that:
To not die a physical death — yet incarnate into versions of myself as if they were different people.
I chose this life for myself and I don’t regret. There’s no coming back. Even if I decide to settle in one place, I’ll always know of all the parallel universes that could have been.
Like with many other things this, too, is a tradeoff. By choosing to live as the British Marta at the moment, I slowly forget how the Polish one behaves and feels. But when go to Poland, I’ll remember how to jump into her shoes. The more I move, the more proficient I become in changing costumes.
It’s exhilarating to know that I can be so many different things in the same life. It opens up the doors of perception. It helps me embrace the spiritual teachings of the illusion of a separate self. Slowly, I make peace with the fact that the only constant in life is change.
But there’s also a part of this experience that makes me feel infinitely sad.
It’s the pain of a replanted tree that will never return to the place it was born. The intimate moment when the seed sprouted in the soil only occurred once, in a specific place and time. As long as the tree remained there in that place of creation, it didn’t know anything else. The place where it lived was the Eden — because it was the only imaginable option.
But once the tree was replanted — and more than one time — it became evident that options are endless. It seems that the grass could always be greener if I only looked long and hard enough. It is in this endless search that the Eden has been forgotten.
There’s no going back for an expat, an immigrant, a traveller. Once the new universe has been open, it won’t close. It’s wonderful, but it also comes with its dose of pain — because a part of the tree will always belong where it first grew its roots.