The Journey to Find My Identity

This month, I'm running some posts from the archives, as we are making our way back to America. I'll be popping in every so often to update you on our transition back home, but until then, enjoy the re-runs! If you want to hear the latest, you can always sign up for my monthly newsletter here. - whitney

(This was originally published on The Inspired Story on July 3, 2014.)

I live in Cambodia. It’s one of the first things I’ll tell you about myself when we meet. But what happens when I return home, and the identity of an expat no longer applies?

My husband and I have lived in Cambodia for over three years – much longer than we ever lived in the States together. We had our first child here, and most of our memories together and growth into adulthood have taken place in this country. And now, we’ve decided to move back “home” to America. 

It’s a funny thing, trying to call a place “home” when you’re an expat (someone who lives outside their country of origin). I have only vague memories of the little yellow house we bought when we first married – the home we’ll move back to in a few months. Yet Cambodia has never felt completely like home, either. The culture, the language, and the daily challenges of life here never stop feeling foreign. 

My life abroad has come to define me. I view America as an outsider, laughing at the quirks of my fellow citizens in a way that would probably insult them. I post funny lists of “You know you’re an expat when…” on Facebook. My favorite packaged cookies are from places like Belgium, England, and Canada – countries I’ve never visited but where my fellow expats come from. 

And now that we’re moving back to the States, I find myself in an identity crisis. We hope to move back overseas after a year, but we’re also keenly aware that we need to hold that desire with an open hand. We may never live abroad again.

I realize – if we never move back overseas, a large part of my identity will need to be given up. I use my “expat” label as an excuse to both my American and my Cambodian friends. If something I do or say seems strange, it’s easy to write it off as, “I’m not from around here.” As a white person living in Cambodia, I am constantly aware of my foreignness to the people around me. I can never get away from the fact that I look, dress, and speak differently from everyone else around me. And I’ve embraced that, grown through it, and assimilated that into who I am.

But when we move back to Kansas City, I’m not sure that part of my identity will have a place in my life any more. 

I’ll be able to use the “expat” label as an excuse for my unfamiliarity with American driving rules or when the vast array of drink options on the Starbucks menu leaves me dumbfounded and a bit panicked. But after a few months, I’ll run out of excuses.

It’s amazing how life overseas can shape and define you after a while. And although I can’t limit its influence on who I’ve become, I also realize the fleeting nature of that identity. Change where I live, and who am I?

And I have a choice: constantly feel like a misfit in America, clinging to an identity that no longer applies. Or clinging to who I am in Jesus.

It’s something I’ve always struggled with – defining myself by what Jesus did on the cross instead of by what I do. Because any identity that depends on my actions will cease to exist, once I stop doing those things. I’ve seen them all fall away: my identity as a singer and vocal student stopped after I graduated in college; my work as a registered nurse faded to the background when I stayed home with our baby; and now, my identity based on where I live will change.

And even if I did stay overseas the rest of my life, my location can’t really define me. It can’t guide my life. It can’t satisfy the deep longings in my heart for a place of permanent belonging.
This “identity crisis” is a good thing. It brings me face to face with the inadequacies of a life based on what I do, and the sufficiency of Jesus’ work on the cross.

When I cling to Jesus as my only hope and take on him as my new identity, I can be confident this is an identity that can never be shaken. It won’t fade away; it can’t be taken from me. It won’t disappear when I change jobs or move cities or lose someone I love.

Because before I knew Jesus, the only identity God saw was “sinner.” He didn’t see my church attendance record or my volunteer work or my job description. He only saw my sin. But through Christ, he now sees me as “righteous.” Holy. Redeemed. All because of Jesus. 

It’s an identity I hold on to, knowing it is steadfast. And it will carry me through all the journeys life takes me on, no matter what changes.

What about you? What identities have you let go of in life?