Having confidence in your changing expat identity

expat identity

What do you do? has become the question I dread most when meeting people abroad. Because work and roles are, for the most part, how we first identify ourselves to others.

Unfortunately, we “trailing spouses” are all too familiar with the way that every aspect of our identities are put into a cup and shaken like Yahtzee dice with each move abroad. Everything settles down again but most likely things don’t go back together the same way. And whether by choice or by circumstance, work is often times a piece that no longer has a place.

I haven’t “worked” since I followed my husband to Colombia in 2014. While I may not have had the traditional 9 to 5, I did learn a second language, start blogging and freelance writing, and work with several NGOs on incredible projects. Finding a job isn’t the issue—I like things this way. But still, I can’t seem to let go of the money part.

Depending on where you’re from, earning is a big part of who you are. I’m already going against my cultural grain since Americans are big fans of standing on their own two feet.

It gets harder when I add my personal baggage to the mix. For example, I feel like I have to defend myself against the stereotype that expat wives drink martinis all day while complaining about their maids. And it about killed me recently when I stumbled across an editorial saying that each able bodied woman who isn’t in the workforce is harming the fight for wage equality. So there’s another stigma I feel the need to confront.

Even when I’m feeling secure, it seems like all it takes is one grumpy blog post to suck the wind out of my self-esteem sails.

This noise usually pops up around the time I have a social event because it’s inevitable I’ll have to introduce myself and answer the question. In its own way, my nerves are hilarious because small talk is mostly about filling awkward silences. Because let’s be real— most people probably forget what I’ve said by the time they’ve refilled their drinks. Nonetheless, I normally use this time to over explain my life decisions and generally make people uncomfortable.

A few weeks ago, though, I had an epiphany. I know a gal who’s living in Spain with her boyfriend and teaches English to prison inmates. I met her a couple of times but it wasn’t until this most recent meeting that I learned she was a volunteer. She didn’t mislead anyone. She simply said she worked with an NGO, without specifying that her position was unpaid.

That’s when I realized, it’s all in the delivery! She talked about her work with such confidence. She wasn’t hiding the fact that she didn’t technically have a job, it just wasn’t a big deal. When I thought about it, I recognized that when I worked before I simply told people what I did. I never felt compelled to stress my commitment to my position or tell people how many hours I worked or my pay. Does that need to change now that I’m not drawing a salary? Of course not!

I know that no one else can make me feel secure in my decisions. And on my own, I have plenty of confidence in my choices. However, her certainty reminded me that I don’t need to convince anyone of anything about my life and that I have a certain measure of control in how I’m perceived.

Still, no matter how happy and sure you are—it’s hard to step out from a lifelong pattern and go in a different direction. And just like everything else, it takes a while to figure out how to convey it to others. I am incredibly lucky to be able to do something I’m passionate about. But thankfully, I’m realizing I don’t need to explain it so much.


I’m very, very curious what you other expats and accompanying partners have to say about this. Do you struggle with your role or how you talk about yourself? How did you put your work identity back together? Please keep the conversation going and share your thoughts in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Having confidence in your changing expat identity

  1. So instead of “what do you do?”, what’s an alternative opening question when meeting someone? I also don’t like the “what do you do”, because life/identity is about so much more than work. But in those small talk settings it takes intentional effort to avoid that question.

    1. It absolutely takes an effort to steer clear of it and I struggle there too! I think it’s hardest for us Americans because work is a big part of our identities. When it comes to small talk questions it kind of depends on who I’m speaking to. If I’m talking to other travelers or expats I always ask how long they’ve been in a place and how they’re liking it/adjusting. Asking people how they know the host or how they’re involved with whatever reason you’re getting together is also a good start. I may not be the best person to ask about this, though, since I mostly just complain about small talk ;-)

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