Thursday, 31 March 2011

Me, Myself and I - Living With My Nationalities

Late last year, I took on Australian citizenship after four years of permanent residency. It seemed the natural and logical thing to do. It was my way of expressing gratitude for the opportunities presented to me when arriving in this country – and a commitment to a life Down Under and my wife’s home.

However, during those previous four years, I had become increasingly uncomfortable with the notion of taking on citizenship. It was not a part of the plan when we reached this place on our search for a life less ordinary and I remained unconvinced that it was what I wanted or needed.

I had always been content to call myself an expat. The term adequately defined my place in the world - a restless and transient soul, happy to base myself in any number of exotic locales with no requirement to put down roots and free from commitment to any one country, able to pack up and move on whenever the mood should take me.

We expats are an intriguing breed. Through our lives lived in different countries, we are self-titled experts in the cultures of the world. Travelling the globe on generous budgets, we share stories of international adventure with envious acquaintances back home. We work in expensive office towers in far-flung destinations like Dubai or Singapore and we single-handedly deal with separation from family, disconnectivity from the motherland, alienation from the ‘locals’, and acceptance into expatriate communities. Expats are a versatile, interesting bunch and I was more than happy to be in this gang.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons Jjcb

New citizens, however, were an altogether different proposition. Comparable to the dull guy who settles down with the long-term girlfriend in his early twenties, new citizens belong to the ‘tied down’ group. They resemble the boring crowd who marry into their overseas life for lengthy periods of time, assimilate into the suburban neighbourhood with neither a mutter nor moan, and surrender their birthright for an alternate identity, warts and all, for better or worse, no doubt in their mind. The thought of his existence unnerved me.

Furthermore, I had never really considered myself much of a ‘new Australian’ upon arrival in this country. I was firmly a British expat living away from home on a journey of self-discovery and life in Sydney was only one part of this plan. In fact, I was quite the sorry Australian, unwilling to follow the local game of rugby league, failing to appreciate the joys of ocean swimming with the sharks, not partial to the palm-sized spiders crawling out of the woodwork on a damp autumn evening, and unable to fathom the determined passion for the good ole Australian Ute.

In pondering Aussie citizenship, I could almost hear the people of Britain demanding my head amidst cries of treason and disloyalty. Family would be unhappy with my decision, friends from home would turn their attention elsewhere, and meanwhile I would struggle with my confused identity in a land far from familiarity. Doomed to a life of the in-between, no longer able to call myself an expat but not quite the genuine Bruce or Stevo, I would be unable to relax into my new environment for fear of offending my English ties. I would be the 'pretend' new citizen living a lie.

Surprisingly, in the face of my apparent ‘un-Australianness’ and strong desire to remain an ‘expatriate’, I had inadvertently become more appreciative of Australia over time. Without realising it, my unease with rugby league had pushed me towards the rival code of union. My fear of the resident critters had increased my awareness of the outstanding natural environment. I still did not understand the Ute but could relate to the desire to drive a fast car.

More unusually, my appreciation of this new homeland had in fact deepened my admiration for the country of my birth. While embracing my new home and all of the experiences it offered me, I still nurtured a deep affection for those memories and favourite things that only dear old Blighty could give me. It therefore seemed I could be both a citizen of my wife’s young country and an expat from the old world.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons Dicktay2000

Taking on a new nationality had become my guilty little secret. I had feared its anticipated restrictions and the many things I would give up. These initial worries never eventuated and, if anything, my life is now fuller and more rounded. I have two nationalities, not just one. Two allegiances and two chances to vote. Two delightful locations to share with my family and two places to come home to. And I continue to view myself as a British expat who enjoys a life less ordinary through my dual nationality.

To those who argue that the British coming to Australia must surely describe themselves as 'migrants' or 'new Australians', rather than 'expats', to bond with the country and its people, I say “get with the times”.

You can be British. You can be Australian. But, of all things, you will always be an expat of the world.

So what are you?  Expat, new citizen or both?

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