What makes an expat?

January 26, 2010, Tuesday/ 15:21:00/ KATHY HAMILTON
Thanks in part to online networking sites, I have recently reconnected with many former high school classmates. Once I left high school, I moved away from my hometown in south Texas and lost touch with almost all of my fellow graduates.A handful of us attended the same university for a while, but did not stay in close contact once we found our own footing in a new, much larger academic world. I kept moving further away from my hometown, drawn to new experiences in unfamiliar cities and countries. To me, it is surprising how many of my classmates felt drawn to stay in the same area, often within a few miles of their parents’ houses.

These friends are comfortable in familiar surroundings. Many have extended family living nearby, and they have kept the same close circle of friends that they had in high school. Some are working in the family business, some have opened their own companies and others work for large corporations. Most seem to have stayed with the same employer for the majority of their working lives. Classmates who I am in contact with are very content with their lives and cannot imagine living far away from family and friends or making drastic changes in their career paths.

I, on the other hand, always knew that I would somehow leave my hometown behind. To me, especially in my high school years, my city seemed too small and suffocating. My family had often traveled abroad while I was growing up, so my brother and I grew up experiencing other cultures firsthand. This was something that the majority of my schoolmates and their families did not do. Is my desire to live elsewhere somehow linked to seeing large parts of the world at a young age?

Reconnecting with former classmates has made me wonder just what it is that makes some people crave the expat life, while others raised in the same community find their place in their own hometown. What is it that makes one person wander the world in search of adventure, new experiences and, possibly, a new home? Why is it that some people prefer staying within close proximity of where they were born and raised, never feeling an inclination to venture outside of their comfort zones?

While I love visits home and the chance to meet up with old friends, I cannot imagine what my life would have been like had I tried to settle down there for good. Even at a young age, I dreamed of traveling the world. When friends and I talked about our goals as teenagers, my hopes tended to be very different from most of theirs. Their plans included university, marriage and children. My goals were simple -- to travel to faraway places and write about my life there.

One high school friend recently told me that she always knew I would end up on the other end of the world. Even in school, she said, I had different dreams from the other girls in my class. Not satisfied with simply reading about other cultures and countries, she remembers me planning my travels long before I was able to make my dreams a reality. Even back then, I wanted to live in other countries, instead of merely visiting foreign places on holidays.

My brother lived abroad for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the West African country of Niger. After his return to the United States, he did move far away from the south Texas city where we grew up, but he does not feel a great desire to travel the world. He, like many of my former classmates, is content to stay within his own comfort zone.

So, what makes some people want to wander the globe? Are expats restless souls in search of some elusive dream? Granted, there are numerous expats who leave their homelands because of the nature of today’s global business world. Some of these business expats are anxiously awaiting the day when they will be transferred back to their home countries. At the time, they may view the expat life as an inconvenience that must be endured in order to advance in their careers.

I am beginning to suspect that voluntary expats, those who move abroad for their own reasons, are a breed apart. The reasons for adopting the life of an expat are as numerous as expats themselves. Some people move abroad for love, to change careers, to search for adventure, to learn about other cultures or to find a place where they feel they fit in. There are expats who only stay in a country for a limited amount of time before moving on. Then there are expats, like myself, who travel until they find a new place to set down roots and call home.

Friends back in my south Texas hometown have often asked me if I ever plan to move back “home.” Since our lifestyles have been so different, it is almost inconceivable to them that I would feel more at home in a foreign country. There are things I miss about Texas when I am in Turkey, but there are also things I miss about Turkey when I visit Texas. As an expat, I will probably never totally fit into Turkish culture, but the flip side is that after living abroad for so many years, I feel like a bit of an outsider when I am in my own hometown.

So, what it is that makes someone decide to leave their own country and relocate to another land? Maybe it is a restlessness inside of us. Perhaps it is a longing for a place where we can create a new life. There are times, however, when I look at the lives of my friends who stayed put in our hometown and think that it might have been nice to always reside in the same place and have the same circle of friends who have known me since grade school. In reality, though, I really cannot imagine having stayed in my south Texas town. For me, İstanbul has been the home I longed to find.