The Embedded Expat or a trip into the limbo


In Dante’s Inferno there was a special place, called Limbo, where all the good people born before Christ would go as well as the unchristened children.

I guess there must be a similar place, in the twisted logic of expatriation, for embedded expats.Those who went abroad, married a local and ended up staying there. They are a sort of bridge between here and there, they fit with both cultures but belong to neither. Half-blooded souls.

Being an embedded expat myself, I sometimes envy pure expats. They can come and go, criticize, get mad, change, come back. They didn’t have the privilege and the damnation of knowing another country from within. They don’t feel obliged to understand, adapt, connect and learn another culture. They can take what they like and reject the rest.

Once you’re in, the music changes. If you have access to a series of secret addresses and precious contacts only locals have and wouldn’t share with any foreigner, you also lose some of your liberties. You can’t anymore go around and nonchalantly speak your mind. You are supposed to understand what’s really going on and to behave as one of the tribe. If you happen to be fluent in the other language, even worse. People will forget that speaking a language doesn’t mean sharing cultural references and deeply understanding another way of life. They will then expect you to fit in and to adapt much more than you’d like too.

So, what are the advantages of being a spy at the heart of another reality? I guess the same of trying out marriage once in your life. You won’t get another chance of knowing another family as well as your own or to enter another person’s life in the same way. I find myself defending Belgium when my (pureblooded) expat friends criticize it. I have to explain how to handle the locals and act as a cultural interpreter most of the time. Not that I would miss not doing so but it certainly is and will be the only situation where I can say I know another culture as well as my own.

That said, I am not certain that living as an embedded expat is an healthy option in the long run. No matter how hard you try, you will always be overshadowed by your status of foreign spouse when interacting with the local social circle and getting to shine for yourself will become rare and complicated.

My embedded expat friends tend to say that they found peace with themselves and in their relationship once they moved to “the third country”, a sort of heaven for mixed-nationalities couples where both partners can find their own way of existing without counting on personal advantages, family ties and old habits.

What is your experience? Have you lived in both countries, how was that? Have you moved to the third country or plan to do so later on? 


  1. The snag is, of course (and you know this), that once you’ve morphed into an embedded expat, you can’t go back. You’ll never seamlessly fit back into your own culture, you’re irreversibly contaminated.

      1. To a certain degree, yes, but it’s particularly bad for those ’embedded’ ones. It’s less of an issue for someone who’s been working abroad on a contract for a couple of years or so, without ever getting to grips with the language, extensively socialising with the locals, or heaven forbid, getting married to one.

      2. Maybe. But I always thought that once you made the effort of venturing into unfamiliar lands you can never go back the same as you were before. But I might be too optimistic on the subject.

  2. I have been both kind of expat and, in the first case, my desire to blend in with the Brits made me very British at first glance (and sound). I just hated immediately being labelled as an Italian in a culture that, at the time, didn’t much care for outsiders. Then I moved to the States and reverted to being a hybrid. When I got married, it felt like a blending of cultures but being with an American made me feel even more of an outsider for a long while – if that makes any sense. Not sure what I am contributing here, but there you go.

    1. Thank you. That is exactly what I feel: once you’re embedded you become as out of place as you can possibly be. Always a foreigner in the eyes of the locals (without the privilege of ignorance conceded to true foreigners) and not anymore one of the group to your fellow nationals.

  3. This is my 7th year in China and I have been with my husband (then boyfriend) for the last five of those years. It doesn’t matter how long I am in China, I will always be the foreigner. I speculate that eventually we will need to move to hit that balance, but still another year or two…

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