It’s not just children who are from a third culture ...

Justin Thomas unpacks the impossibility of returning to a normal life and shifting definitions of a place called home for expats

Expats attend their first Iftar at a home in Al Rams, Ras Al Khaimah. (Razan Alzayani / The National)
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I once spent the summer working in a small newsagents right besides a large Victorian prison. Sometimes, a newly released prisoner would come in to buy something. A customer’s ex-convict status wasn’t always immediately discernible, but you could usually tell who was who from the outdated product request: “All right mate, give us a packet of Opal Fruits (now called Starburst), a Marathon (now called Snickers) and the News of the World (no longer published), please.”

Behind the prison walls time had stood still, while outside things had moved on rapidly. The ex-con had become a fossil, a perfectly preserved snapshot of the era just before he began his jail-time. This psychological fossilisation is not unlike what happens to many expats here in the UAE. Expats and ex-cons share a similar fate.

For expats, as for ex-cons, fossilisation becomes more pronounced with each passing year away from home. I once attended a dinner party with a British guy who had been an expat for more than 25 years.

I estimated his date of departure to be sometime around 1985, the mid Thatcher era, when the “Iron Lady” was at her peak. This guy, a runaway child of Thatcher’s Britain, had left the UK just before so-called “political correctness” took hold. A fact reflected in his after-dinner banter, which was peppered with sexist, racist and xenophobic comments. Seeing him interact with the other diners was like watching someone attempt to force a floppy disk into an iPad. His was a mind that time forgot.

But it’s not only attitudes that get frozen. Many long-term expats are also perfectly preserved sartorial fossils, that is, living reminders of how we used to dress. I have one friend who left the UK during the rise of the new romantics, when pop groups such as Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and Ultravox massively influenced what hip-kids wore. True to the attire that was popular when he expatriated, he continues to sport a skinny tie and effortfully eccentric hair in homage to the new romantic era. His is a wardrobe that time forgot.

Our occasional flying visits back home will, of course, provide a reminder that things have moved on without us. Typically it’s not the structural changes that impress me most. Sure, there may be a few new buildings here and a new road there, but far more consequential are the changes in social norms and the unwritten rules we call culture.

With reference to the UK, on my most recent return I noticed that huge beards and exaggeratedly skinny jeans had become the norm for young men. But beyond facial hair and fashion, even colloquial language had moved on. I no longer had any idea what the acceptable terms of fraternal familiarity were: was it mate, lad, our kid, bro or something else altogether? Having lived in the UAE for almost a decade I might now consider myself a fossil, a specimen from mid-Noughties Britain, the late Blairite epoch.

But what about all those expats who return home after decades overseas, only to find that they are now aliens in their own homeland? Much has been written about third culture kids. These are the children of expats who grow-up overseas not quite connecting with the culture of the homeland or the host nation. Theirs is a struggle for sure, but fossilised repatriated expats face similar challenges.

As our world shrinks and globalisation’s homogenising influence becomes ever more apparent, expat fossilisation will occur less frequently, if at all. However, until that time I will continue to enjoy the living exhibits and walking time capsules we call expats.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas