How traveling and your expat assignment can advance your international identity

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!

Shallow vs Deep travel experience

If you have minimum contact with locals, do not 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 traveller.

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 person that transcend national boundaries. Every person, that is 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 travellers feel they are making an international personal link to the country they have visited. However, the level of international commitment is quite different.

Roller coaster

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 skilfully settle in wherever you go.

Just be prepared, if you commit to this opportunity then your identity will go through a "roller coaster" process of change that makes you wonder what you have 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 moving 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 will come to a point where you need to take action.

Doing nothing is not really an option since you run the risk of an unsuccessful overseas experience. You are given an opportunity that gives colour to your international identity!

Commitment & Self-assessment

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 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!

* Travel and the formation of international identity, Sundberg and Fry (1997)

Ellen Scholten


Ellen Scholten

International Life & Career Coach who is dedicated to support internationals who wish to set and stretch their personal boundaries, broaden their horizons and achieve their self-defined goals. She...

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