What’s It Like to Be an American Expat?

American expats may have start thinking of themselves differently while living abroad. That’s harder for some people than others. Four things to keep in mind when considering a move to Portugal, or anywhere else outside of the United States.

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what's it like to be an american expat
When I was still living in the United States, I held the self-satisfied belief that I wasn’t one of those Americans who think that people not originally born in the US were permanent outsiders (at best) or some sort of freeloading opportunists (at worst).  I was well-versed in the idea of American exceptionalism, the “city upon a hill” we fancy ourselves to be, and I understood that most foreign nationals who emigrate to the United States were drawn by our strong economy and/or to escape political oppression, which reflected positively on us, not negatively on them.  Compassion was key, and eventually a congenial assimilation would naturally occur in our big ‘ole US melting pot.  Immigrants were just Americans in waiting. 
Now that I live in Portugal, I think back on these naïve perceptions about the immigrant experience with something akin to how I think about the subject of grief, now that I’m a widow: oh, what I didn’t know I didn’t know.
It’s certainly true that many of my gauzy expectations about living in a foreign country as a US citizen did, in fact, occur.  At the beginning, going to the grocery store and taking the subway were terrific adventures.  Even years into this project, many days are still filled with some new marvel of Portuguese social life I’d never considered before. I’m constantly learning something and challenging myself.  But – again, years into this project – I’m not really a “Portuguese in waiting” either.  And I still find myself angry, depressed, or just plain exasperated sometimes at the way things are done here.  Maybe I want to wake up on a random Tuesday and not learn anything new about Portugal, God damn, it.  Alas.
Yet the biggest lesson I’ve learned as an honorary Portuguese – I’m technically a Portuguese citizen now – is that it isn’t the day-to-day logistics that are the hardest, although mastering a new country’s bureaucracy and a new language is no small feat.  (But don’t be discouraged: as I keep insisting, you can learn to speak Portuguese fluently.)  The most significant difference between living in the United States and living abroad has been in how I think of myself in relation to the rest of the world. 
This isn’t something I anticipated before I moved here.  I was just going to be An American in Portugal©️, a happy-go-lucky expat, sipping meias de leite in cute cafés, checking out Gen Z approved eco-friendly clothing stores and drinking natural and organic wine. Questions of citizenship, nationalism, community, and identity weren’t in the picture.  Until they were. 
And you might be surprised to discover that they’ll come up for you, too.  Below, I talk about four key points concerning these big picture questions that I’ve come to realize while living abroad, and that may be helpful to you in considering an international relocation to Portugal, or anywhere – as well as for those just beginning to slosh around in the cultural melee of their new home.

You Have to Start Thinking of Yourself as an Immigrant

We use the term expatriate or “expat” for Americans (or Europeans) living and working abroad, and while there is no strict definition of the word, the implication here is that an expat is not in it for the long haul.  But if you sold your US home, or bought a one-way ticket to Portugal, you are planning to stay for at least the foreseeable future, so what you’ll be in Portugal is not an expat, but an immigrant. 
Gasp.  Moi?
Yep.  Oh sure, you might be the type who only reads an English-language weekly newspaper about restaurants and golfing in the Algarve with a smattering of (mostly good) news about Portugal, and not actual Portuguese newspapers published in Portuguese.  You’re *way* more connected to the United States than Portugal.  But you sold that home back in the states in order to cash out and buy a beachfront condo here, which you could never dream of doing on either US coast. 
⬆️ Immigrant
OK it’s true, healthcare costs are soooooo much lower here, even splurging for a private medical insurance plan – it’s only 40 euros to go to the ER! 40 euros! – but you still have to stretch those US social security benefits or the inconsistencies of freelance work to make ends meet, which would be much harder to do back home, so it just makes sense to do that where the weather is better. 
⬆️ Immigrant
Hey, I get it.  Childcare costs in the United States are obscene and the workload never ends.  Meanwhile, in Portugal, you can have a full-time housekeeper and send your kids to an international private school for a song, so why wouldn’t you get out while the getting’s good? 
⬆️ Immigrant
Wait a minute.  You’re white!  Immigrants are people of color coming to the US and Europe, so aren’t you supposed to call yourself an expat?  No
⬆️ Immigrant
All snark aside, if there’s any constellation of factors – housing, healthcare, social services, cost of living, weather, you married a wealthy Slovenian prince and followed him there – that are superior, for your particular situation, outside of the US then inside of it, and which, in turn, lead you to move abroad, I have some news for you, my friend: you’ve emigrated from the United States, and you are an immigrant in your new country of residence. 
But your idea of what an immigrant is might need some updating.
I’ll be the first to admit that I had an awkward moment of realization about this, too.  Calling myself an “immigrant” was like talking with a mouthful of marbles.  I didn’t have a harrowing border-crossing tale to tell.  I used miles to upgrade to business when I flew here.  The only thing persecuting me are memories of my wasted twenties, not political violence.  I’d spent many summers with my Portuguese husband eating and drinking our way through the country, and it was like a second home already by the time I settled down here.  I just sort of seamlessly(ish) transitioned into being a full-time resident. 
But eventually it dawned on me that this isn’t pretend, holiday Portugal anymore.  It’s the real taxes-filing, utility providers-comparing, school-tuition paying deal. I’m an immigrant now.  Most of the time, it’s fantastic, and probably the easiest immigration story imaginable.  (Not driving and parking, though.)  So, calling myself an “expat” makes it feel like I’m a middle-aged man in a suit living on a compound in suburban Dubai.  Doesn’t really fit the bill.
Ideally, if you live in Portugal, or wherever you land, for long enough, you could even reach a point at which you don’t feel like an immigrant anymore and are fully integrated culturally, socially, and economically in your new country.  But you may not.  (More on this later.) If you want to get to this point, though, you’ll have to move away from the idea that you’re a one-foot-out-the-door expat and are an immigrant instead.
Coming around to the fact that you are not an expat but an immigrant is going to be a non-issue for some Americans abroad.  In fact, maybe your first reaction here is an eye roll.  But for plenty of other people, it will require an adjustment to their sense of self.  Ultimately, how smooth the psychological transition from ordinary American to immigrant will be for you comes down to fundamental aspects of your personality, which leads me to my next point.

You Are the Same “You” No Matter Where You Live

Your strengths and weaknesses will follow you to whichever country you’re considering a move. 
Now, it’s inarguable that travel and living abroad provide excellent opportunities for you to get out of your comfort zone and gain some perspective.  (I call bullshit on Agnes Callard’s essay in The New Yorker arguing that travel doesn’t change anything about anyone and stand squarely with Jill Filipovic on this.)  There are just some things about yourself that you cannot see until you see it from the outside.  And you’ll inevitably gain some patience in dealing with the rest of the world, which does not ascribe to American notions of efficiency.
However, doing different things doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be a different person fundamentally because other things about your personality are stickier.  If you’re an introvert in the United States, you will be an introvert abroad.  If you are a worrywart back home, you will be a worrywart here.  And if you didn’t like change before, you will continue to not to like it later.
What’s more, some kinds of personal evolutions, like conceiving of yourself as an immigrant and not an expat, tack on to thorny sociopolitical questions about culture and economic equality that add another complicating dimension to the question of how much you’re going to move the personality needle if you move abroad.  The greater the degree your personality type leans in a certain direction, the lower the likelihood that it will budge very much, even with a potentially life-changing experience like emigrating.
This is especially true the older you get.  If you move abroad as a 20-year-old, you will naturally become a different “you” during your immigrant experience.  You would do so no matter where you live. If you move abroad as a 40-year-old, however, your “you” is already pretty stable.  Of course, you’ll pick up new information and experiences that will inform your opinions the longer you live abroad, so it’s not like you’re set in stone.  And maybe if you move to a country that is fantastically different from the US, you’d change even more.  However, I’ll put money behind the following claim: if you’re moving from one advanced Western economy to another as an older adult, you’re more likely to see changes around the edges than to some core aspect of your personality.
Fine, you might say, but how much does any of this sermon apply to me?  I’m not moving for deep personal transformations.  I’m only moving for the lower property taxes.
Well, returning to the distinction between expats and immigrants, the exact verbiage doesn’t matter all that much, but attending to your relationship with your new country requires a certain kind of humility about your global status that’s not easy for us ‘Merikans as a rule.  Referring to yourself as an immigrant, and not an expat, is an indicator of that humility.  But if the humblest your personality allows for is to toss out the occasional humblebrag, emigrating is probably not for you.  I say that for the benefit of the citizens in your would-be host nation.

You May Never Feel “Portuguese” Like You Felt “American”

Thinking of yourself as an immigrant is one thing.  Thinking of yourself as Portuguese – or French or British or South African or Argentinean – is quite another.  Welcome to the “liminal space” of moving abroad, where entire academic journals and university degrees are devoted to the uncanny valley of being a “stranger in a strange land.”
I was never the flag waving type, and once I outgrew my tolerance for mosquitos in order to watch 4th of July fireworks, I didn’t give Independence Day much thought (except in reference to the all-star cast of the 1996 classic film; I use the term “classic” loosely).  But when the 4th of July rolls around in Portugal each year, I find myself nostalgic for burgers on the grill and sticky watermelon slices and corn on the cob and, yes, fireworks.  Not those crappy sparklers either.  The big guns lighting up the sky.  And while I recognize that the Portuguese equivalent, the national 25 de Abril holiday, which celebrates the 1974 Revolução dos Cravos (Carnation Revolution) that ended more than 40 years of dictatorship, is a fundamental political event in Portuguese history and just as worthy of marking the occasion….well, it’s not as fun.  It’s all earnest speeches and no hot dogs. 
(I have a history with bouts of this feeling. I was studying abroad in Buenos Aires on 9-11 and damned if my “I’m as worldly and sophisticated as these chic porteños” didn’t dissolve into some impromptu flag waving, which lasted long beyond the point at which the Argentinians went back to being irritated at American imperialism.) 
The point is that I still feel as American as I have ever felt, though I have fewer opportunities to share that Americanness with fellow Americans, but I still don’t feel Portuguese.  I guess this works out because no Portuguese considers me Portuguese.  They consider me American, an immigrant who lives in their midst.  (It doesn’t help that I look more like a tall, pale Brit than the average sun-kissed Portuguese.  Especially in summer, when I have to explain that yes, I am actually tan.) The closest I ever get to feeling Portuguese is when I speak Portuguese in front of American tourists busy embarrassing our country by talking to shop clerks in God-awful Spanish (It’s not the same language, people!) whom I pretend not to understand. Not exactly the pinnacle of cultural assimilation.
At the same time, you might think to yourself, well, if I can’t really be Portuguese – or French or British or South African or Argentinean – then I’ll be the ambassador of American life and culture, generously fielding answers to eager questions about the United States.  But American life and culture is already widely available, without your piercing insights, via YouTube and Netflix and CNN. 
Trump mug shot
First US president’s mug shot on a random café TV in tiny Monchique, Portugal
As a consequence, *everybody* thinks they’re an expert on the US because they’ve been ingesting a steady stream of americana for years, and everybody speaks English. Or claims to.  My most recent reminder of this phenomenon was with a restaurant manager in Lisbon telling me indignantly that in the US the gratuity is always included on every bill, despite my gentle insistence that it’s usually only for larger parties.  In Vilamoura, a server to whom I ordered my entire meal in flawless Portuguese, later told me inexplicably in English – I suppose because she wanted me to know she spoke it? – that she would bring me “the record” by which I imagine she meant the check or the bill. (?) And on it goes. 
Now, maybe if you’re from a country with a lower global profile, say Vanuatu in Oceania, no one will argue with you about Vanuatun dining customs or switch the conversation to Bislama to prove they are fluent.  (Yep, I had to look that up.)  But I have been told that I am wrong about the United States more times than I can count.  Here’s an abridged list of countries where I have discovered that I do not know absolutely anything about the United States: France, Argentina, Brazil, Greece, Germany, England, Morocco, and Portugal. 
This does not work in reverse.  No one in Portugal really thinks I’m a source of expertise about Portugal.  (They don’t think I’m a bumbling idiot, but still.)  Consequently, as an American émigré, the cultural mastery I thought I possessed about the United States is destabilized, and not replaced with much in the way of cultural mastery here, at least in the eyes of most Portuguese.  But everybody wants to be right sometimes.  Unfortunately, as Americans, we might have to be prepared to not be allowed to be right about the US with at least some regularity.  I’ll be the first to admit that it’s tough to swallow.  I guess this is the price we pay for being from a global superpower, outside the global superpower. 
In sum, immigrants are sometimes described as living in liminal spaces because they have transitioned out of their country of origin – physically, anyway – but have not fully transitioned culturally into their new country of residence.  And sometimes, it’s a bit lonely in that vacuum, especially in the beginning.  Personally, it’s not enough to make me leave, but “am I American or am I Portuguese?” wasn’t a question I ever expected to be asking myself.  I have dual citizenship, but in some ways, the answer to the question is “both” and “neither.” How comfortable you are with that kind of ambiguity depends upon your personality.          

It Doesn’t Have to Be Forever

If you’re reading this post, then you probably are not an economic migrant to the same degree as the “immigrants” you’ve conceived of back in the United States – nor, probably, are you an asylum seeker, I’m guessing – which means you have choices.  Choices are your get out of jail free card. 
Don’t underestimate the power of this fact.  You aren’t leaving the US; you are living in Portugal. 
Even if you completely unwound your US life to move abroad, you can wind it back up again, no matter how much of a pain it might be to do so.  You’re always an American citizen and you can go back to the United States anytime.  (Unless you renounce your citizenship for some reason.  Don’t do that, though, unless you are a billionaire with a political agenda.)
Take it slowly from the beginning.  If you have some flexibility, spend a few weeks or months staying in a couple of Portuguese cities, overlapping a couple of seasons, to get a feel for life on the street – but keep in mind, renting an AirBnB is not the same as actually renting an apartment or buying a house in Portugal or dealing with landlords and agents and Portuguese utility providers.  But it will give you a foundation for deciding whether those hassles are worth the many other benefits.
How can you tell if living abroad is just not working out for you, or if you need to give it more time? Take a cue from the widely recognized four stages of culture shock you are likely to pass through after you move: the honeymoon phase, when “everything” is amazing; the culture shock or frustration phase, when “everything” is horrible; the adjustment phase, when you stop acting like an adolescent; and the acceptance phase, when you can deal with your new life as well as you dealt with your old one.
Stages of Culture Shock
Stages of Culture Shock
As you can see, this isn’t a linear process.  But if you find yourself lingering in the low points for too long, try to feel out if, for you, there’s no place like home.  It’s OK if it is.  Even Oz wasn’t enough to keep Dorothy.
Take it from a widow: nothing is forever.  If you wake up one day and realize that life here is not the life you want, you can pack your bags and go, no questions asked.  Let that freedom lighten up the mental load when you are planning to relocate to Portugal.
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