The Shadow Side of the Expat Experience

This column does not shy away from the shadow side of the expat experience, as you know! Nevertheless there is a difference between politely hinting at negative, experienced realities and getting a huge Maglite torch and shining a light into the shadows.

Let us get a giant pack of batteries and begin.

It starts with this idea of “expat,” or more recently in our tiny community, it was the phrase “English-speaking” that was slung around. Comfort and community can be found in this label but on the flip side it can be a judgemental, abusive label used to attack, divide and ostracize. Labels are used to justify comments that are moral in tone, such as, “They can’t control their kids,” to the more sickeningly judgemental comment of “Bad mother!” Right on this particular label’s ugly tail sits the phrase “Go back home!”

To be on the receiving end of this is a frightening experience. It is easy to defensively respond: to adopt the label of the attacker and come out shouting, “I am an expat, loud and proud!” Pretty soon there is enough material for extreme paranoia and a war.

Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined. – Toni Morrison, in Beloved

Labels can be useful for paperwork filing, book classification and Google search terms. They are not however, useful within the macrocosm of our society or the microcosm of our own personal thinking.

Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people. – Martina Navratilova

Whenever I found myself labelled and judged, I discovered that I could use this energy on a personal level to free myself of my own personal labels. How can I judge and categorise those who use labels when I am clearly doing the same to myself? This technique may also be helpful to you if you are faced with the same nasty situation, so I share it here to shine a light on our thinking and transform our shadows.

Ask: In what areas of your life have you labelled yourself?

  • Your role in life: gender, mother/father/sister/brother (etc.)
  • Status in society: nationality, your current job, your old job, your neighbourhood, apartment size, wealth
  • Physical appearance: skin colour, fat, thin, ugly, beautiful, well dressed
  • Personality: loving, nasty, shout-y, quiet, permissive, strict, funny, serious, talented, intelligent.

Notice what happens in your own thinking when you label yourself. What do these labels “mean” about you and affect how you interact and judge others? Think of all the things other people think you are (your mother! Golly!), including people on the street when you open your mouth and speak English or another native tongue that is not of this country.

Go through the list and with each label, state out loud: “I am not that; I am free.”

You can go further and think of yourself as a glorious, mysterious “zero” – nothing that a label can even stick to! You are totally free! Hang out in this space for a while, enjoying the feeling of living without limits! You will find that even when someone labels you, it can be met with a sense of fun and freedom (because you are not that! How could you be? You are so much more, and also a glorious “zero” all at the same time). You are beyond the limiting definitions of labels! It also naturally follows that if you are “zero,” so is everyone else: it is the labels that are instrumental in separating us.

The answer is, who you are cannot be defined through thinking or mental labels or definitions, because it’s beyond that. – Eckhart Tolle

I acknowledge that it is truly horrible to be confronted with another’s warped thinking about who we are (and, gosh, it is often scary and loud!). We can’t control if, how, or what people decide to label us. If we try to control what others think or say about us, we will surely lead exhausted, angry, and paranoid lives. It is others’ own business to live in their strange realities, not our business. We can only clean up our own thinking and find our own personal freedom and clarity.

My feeling is that labels are for canned food… I am what I am – and I know what I am. – Michael Stipe, REM

By Tammy Furey

Tammy eases the expat parenting experience through coaching and teaching throughout Switzerland. She also writes, blogs, runs workshops, gives talks, and, of course, parents (her daughter)! Find out more at

Illustration by Laura Munteanu

Laura studied journalism and advertising, and has worked as a journalist and an illustrator. She has illustrated for magazines, websites, charity and diverse campaigns. She lives in Zurich with her husband and nine-year-old daughter.

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