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Expat Articles » How Traveling and Your Expat Assignment Can Advance Your International Identity


Many expats love to travel. But did you know that there are differences in the level of international commitment while traveling? And that your travel experiences and your expat assignment may have a positive impact on your international identity? It is all a matter of commitment and taking the opportunity for personal growth.

If you have minimum contact with locals, don’t make an effort to learn some of the language, sleep in international chain hotels where you eat the food you know from back home and just visit the famous sites then you are no more than a shallow traveler. But if you meet with the locals, eat what they eat, learn about their customs, visit the less well-known areas, learn the language and read the local newspaper, then you truly engage and are someone who enjoys a deep travel experience.

International Identity
This metaphor of shallow and deep* can also be applied to your international identity. International identity? Yes, those aspects of a personInternational Identity that transcend national boundaries. Every person, that’s you and me, is in certain respects like all others, like some others and like no others.

Back to the metaphor: internationalism can be a thin outer coating of sophistication that does not come from close interpersonal connections or it can be a core aspect of you as a person. And obviously these are the two extremes with everything in between. Some say that the shallow/deep dimension indicates the level of commitment to international activities and connections. True, both travelers feel they are making an international personal link to the country they have visited. However, the level of international commitment is quite different.

What makes an expat assignment different is that you are not merely traveling but here to stay, at least for a while. This offers a great opportunity: to develop an international identity that will help you to skillfully settle in wherever you go. Just be prepared, if you commit to this opportunity then your identity will go through a rollercoaster process of change that makes you wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into.
Before, during and after your long-term stay in a foreign country you may experience a wide range of thoughts and feelings that you may not fully understand. It is important to gain some insight into who you were before the move and who you are now. This change process of forming a new identity may feel like chaos in your mind and your heart. And you’ll come to a point where you need to take action. Doing nothing is not really an option because you run the risk of an unsuccessful overseas experience. You are given an opportunity that gives color to your international identity!

So what can you do? It is time to make choices and take responsibility for those choices. Do you commit or don’t you? That is the question you should ask yourself. Commitment means that you make a decision within yourself to work towards your self-defined goal, regardless of obstacles and setbacks. And experiencing a wide range of feelings along the way is normal within the context of so much change.

So let’s start with some self-assessment. Try to evaluate how you react to the different culture and how and why you take certain actions. Continuous self-assessment helps you to determine what matters most to you so you can incorporate these things into your new life in some form. Making your own choices will positively affect your identity and resolve any negative feelings you may have about the move. It will also give you a sense of control so you will be less dependent on your external environment for your happiness. Just remember: forming a new, international identity is an opportunity for personal growth and change. Let’s enjoy the ride!

About the author:

Ellen Scholten (MCM, Lincoln University, NZ) is an International Life & Work Coach. She has lived, worked and studied overseas for more than 13 years in four different countries. Ellen is dedicated to support and inspire people in their new job and life abroad. At her coaching practice she offers made-to-measure programs to expats and their accompanying partners. The programs are a great help to assure a successful personal and professional transition into your new culture.  You can reach her at

* Sundberg and Fry (1997): Travel and the formation of international identity
©Ellen Scholten 2010.