The world appears to be in flux at the moment. The current worldwide rise in xenophobia and nationalism really doesn’t jell well with the expat experience. When you are living an international life it is tough to understand why people are so keen on nationalism. It’s hard to find any expats who support the idea. It does, however, come up a lot in conversations with so many countries edging towards more nationalist policies. In the last month, I have had similar conversations with expats from Australia, Turkey, Israel, the US and the UK. All of them shaking their head and resigning themselves to the fact their homeland is moving in a totally different political direction than they are.

Expats and nationalism
Can you even be an expat and a nationalist?

I know people who support the nationalist movement and even call themselves nationalists. I just don’t know any expats who fall into that category. The people I know who identify as nationalist supporters are mostly people who have not moved too far from their hometowns and who have not travelled much, if at all. Once you travel internationally and get outside the bubble you grew up in, it seems to become harder and harder to support the idea that nations should only be supporting their own interests.

Nationalism defined

Nationalism is defined by the Oxford dictionary as the ‘Identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations’. I had a non-expat, American friend tell me recently they were a nationalist. They felt there was nothing wrong with putting your country’s interests first. When I asked about the second part of the definition, the bit about the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations, I was assured the US nationalism wasn’t at the expense of others.  However, when I raised Iran, Vietnam, Iraq, Palestine and Guatemala there was silence.

As someone who has lived in Asia, the USA, the ME and now Europe, it is impossible not to see how one country’s foreign policy affects another. It is also very difficult to point out that someone’s view of their country often doesn’t fit with reality. I think for individuals who haven’t moved around as much it can be hard to understand that the world over people are essentially all the same. They want to feed and shelter their families. To believe that their children will always be safe and living their best life. They want the future to look bright. We all want the same thing.

In every society, there are bad apples. People that want to speak for the masses and send the wrong message about what certain societies stand for. It can be hard to convey to some people that those bad apples they hear their politicians talking about or that they see on tv don’t actually speak for the masses. They are the minority. They are out there to create a ruckus and historically, taking action against a whole nation to punish a few evildoers, doesn’t usually pan out so well.

Political conversations

Hard conversations are not uncommon when you have children. However, I often wonder if families who are not expats have as many conversations around politics as expat families do. Expat kids tend to be more exposed to different government structures through travel, friends, their home country or countries and host countries. From a young age, my children have had their heads around all the different types of governments.

They often ask questions about various political going ons. Some questions are about the nuances of it all and others are more blunt. Why would you want to leave the EU? Why do people vote for someone who they know is lying? Is a dictatorship and an authoritarian government the same thing? How come some countries still have monarchs and others don’t? What’s the difference between a monarch in Europe and one in the Middle East? Is our house a dictatorship or a puppet democracy? (It’s a bit of both in case you are wondering and to be honest, this was less of a question and more of an hour long dinner conversation).

How do you return to a more nationalist country

One of the biggest issue facing expats whose countries have moved towards more nationalist ethos is returning home to it. A friend who has been an expat for twelve years recently resigned from her job and her plan was to move back to Australia. During a discussion on Australia’s shifting immigration policy, she said to me ‘I just don’t know if I can move back.  I’m losing faith. I have definitely lost faith in Australia treating people the way the right way’. She is not the same person who left Australia twelve years ago and Australia is not the same Australia she left. This is always going to be the case no matter what. However, when you and your countries political ideals have moved in opposite directions how do you meet halfway? 

What’s an expat to do? For some people, it is easiest to just keep their mouths shut, heads down and go on with their international life. For others, this is more difficult. However, speaking up can create tremendous rifts and ill feelings especially when opinions differ within families. There is no right or wrong answer to this conundrum. It is important to speak up for what we believe in but it is equally important not to alienate people close to us.

All we can truly do is have open and honest conversations with our children. We need to teach them to embrace and respect all people.  It is also important to develop their confidence to speak out. They need to feel assured that it is ok to shut down people who are racist and prejudiced around them. To push back against the xenophobic tide is a good thing. I like to believe that our third cultural kids, many of whom have little allegiance to any one nation or state, will have important roles in the future, unifying and bringing together what for now seems to be a divided world.


Rachel Nelson is a New Zealand expat who has lived and worked in the US, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the UAE, Qatar and Germany.