Mackindergarten: The ‘Reluctant Expat’

The other weekend I was hosting a TEDx event in Frederiksberg and, at one point, I asked an audience member how long they had lived in Denmark. 

“Twenty-five years,” came the swift reply.

I then asked: “Why did you move here?” They replied: “I ask myself that every day.” 

An uncomfortable truth
It got a laugh, but I sensed an uncomfortable truth. I enquired if they liked living here. They shrugged: “Meh.” Another laugh. But it made me think: this person has been living here for a quarter of a century, and yet doesn’t seem that happy about it. This is a phenomenon I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about since I moved to Copenhagen over six years ago. I call it the ‘Reluctant Expat’.

The Reluctant Expat is someone who is unhappy in their adopted country, but due to complex factors beyond their control, they feel they cannot leave. I’ve met many here who share this sentiment. I’m sure you have too. You may be one of them. On many occasions, I feel that way too. This is not easy to write, but it is important to express, because I believe it is surprisingly common and yet rarely talked about.

The typical emotion that defines the Reluctant Expat is a sense of feeling trapped. More short-tempered, anxious and isolated, less patient, self-confident and in control. This is not about being out of your comfort zone, but being all too aware of where your comfort zone is, and being unable to reach it. It’s about knowing you will never fit in, but you try anyway – no matter how exhausting it can be.

Refugees of love
How do so many expats find themselves in this position? It’s usually because they fell in love with someone from a different country. So they move. They get married. They have children. Time passes. Sooner or later, they realise they don’t like their adopted home, nor can they find fulfillment in their work or social life, but the commitments they made to their loved ones means they cannot leave. 

Not all relationships survive this. I’ve met many expats – as again I’m sure you have too – who share the same story: they moved for love; it didn’t work out; they got divorced. But their kids are here and, understandably, they still want to be a part of their lives. So they stay. Even though the initial reason for moving no longer applies, they STILL cannot leave.

Limited sympathy
I’ve also met those who have no time for the Reluctant Expat. They find their negativity tedious. If you don’t like it, why don’t you just leave? Sounds so straightforward, right? But it rarely is. If it was, they would have left a long time ago. 

For what it’s worth, I find that the expats incredibly enamoured with living here are usually always those who left a less favourable situation back home. And that’s fair enough. 

But this is not always the case. Many were perfectly content where they were, but now find it a grind to feel the same about where they are. 

Looking out for each other
This is why the expat community is so vital. I believe we have a duty to look out for each other – even if that means just sharing our experiences, or lending a sympathetic ear. Because pretty much all of us get homesick. 

We need to vent our frustrations. It helps us to feel connected, grounded and valued. So spare a thought for the Reluctant Expat. Because they’re not leaving anytime soon.