Become an Ugly Expat in 12 easy steps

Become an Ugly Expat in 12 easy steps

Could this be YOU?

You’re probably familiar with the expression “Ugly American,” a pejorative and stereotypical term for US expatriates who alienate the locals with their loud and disrespectful behaviour. It comes from the 1958 book The Ugly American, a cautionary tale that tells the story of corrupt and ethnocentric American bureaucrats in Southeast Asia.

One of the characters in the book characterizes Ugly Americans like this:

A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They’re loud and ostentatious.

Ugliness: it’s not just for Americans anymore

This being the age of globalization, it seems unfair to single out Americans as the champions of boorish behaviour abroad. In the spirit of inclusiveness, I’d like to propose we retire the expression Ugly American and replace it with Ugly Expat. Cultural disrespect is an equal opportunity sport, after all — one the entire world is eager to play.

Not all Ugly Expats are arrogant and ignorant (although that’s the most dangerous combination); some give off the ugly vibe because they’re paralyzed by fear and unsure of how to behave. Some merely lack the ability to translate their good intentions into culturally-appropriate actions.

You, too, can be an Ugly Expat!

Some expats come by their ugliness naturally. For those who have to work at it, here’s a handy 12-step programme. I’ve tested out a couple of these myself (all in the name of research, of course!) and can pretty much guarantee their effectiveness. If you start at #1 and repeat as needed, you’ll be an Ugly Expat in no time.

1. Don’t waste your valuable time researching your destination or its people before you move — a country’s history or dominant cultural values are no concern of yours. And for heaven’s sake, don’t throw away your money on any of that cross-cultural training mumbo jumbo — everyone knows what a scam that is.

2. Likewise, don’t bother reading up on the causes and symptoms of culture shock, or how to alleviate it. That’s what Valium is for. (Pack lots!)

3. Isolate yourself. Shut yourself up in your compound/condo and refuse all contact with local people. If there’s an exclusive expatriate club nearby, rejoice: you’re saved! Choose your new friends with care, weeding out any prospects who have Gone Native. (Being too chummy with the locals is a dead giveaway.) Successful candidates will have already aced the 12 steps and will embrace you as a kindred spirit.

4. Show off your wealth, especially if you live in a developing nation. Your baubles and fancy toys will breed admiration and respect among the impoverished masses, who will revere you as a role model.

5. Under no circumstances should you eat local food. They eat that unsanitary crap because they don’t know any better; you do. (You can’t be too careful — who knows what you might pick up?) If you’re offered anything unrecognizable, be sure to show your disdain by peppering your refusal with terms such as “dysentery” and “intestinal worms.” Gagging noises are optional.

6. Let everyone know how backward the country is, and how much better things are back home. I can’t stress this enough — never let an opportunity to compare the two countries pass you by. It’s your duty to teach the local populace a thing or two, and opening their eyes to their own inferiority will endear you to them. (Bonus points if you can insult cultural and religious icons or other objects of reverence.)

7. Speak your own language exclusively, especially if it happens to be English. (If the locals haven’t bowed to global pressure and learned it already, that’s their problem.) In a pinch, speaking very s-l-o-w-l-y and very LOUDLY should help them understand you. Trust me, they’ll love being talked to as though they were 5 years old. If they still don’t understand, throw your hands up in disgust and walk away, muttering under your breath. There’s some body language that won’t get lost in translation!

8. Don’t try to understand — much less accommodate — local customs. If it’s not The Way Things Are Back Home, it’s irrelevant. (Let them know they’re not fooling you with that siesta thing, for example. Everyone knows daytime napping is nothing but sheer laziness. The steaming midday temperature is just an excuse.)

9. Treat your household staff like the servants they are. They don’t need a day off, and you and I both know that hot water would only spoil them. Since it’s for their own good, I’m sure they’ll thank you later.

10. Social networking was invented for people stuck in godforsaken places like this. Spend all day on Facebook, Twitter, and email, lying about how much fun you’re having. Then log onto Farmville and spend some quality time doing whatever it is people on Farmville do.

11. Drink. A lot. It makes life so much fun, both for you and those around you.

12. Take your frustrations out on your husband. It’s all his fault, anyway. If it weren’t for his precious career, you’d be back home among people who matter, instead of wasting the best years of your life in this hellhole.

Have you ever met an Ugly Expat? Have you ever been one? All comments are welcome.


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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117 Responses to Become an Ugly Expat in 12 easy steps

  1. Judy says:

    Expat women like this in Dubai are known as “Jumeirah Janes;” Jumeirah being the original expat residential neighbourhood. Supposedly they spend their mornings in the beauty salon, have long lunches with friends, followed by a little shopping in the malls while their maids collect the children from school. When their husbands return from work in the evenings they insist on eating out in 5* hotels because they’re “too tired” to cook. 😉

    Although I lived in Jumeirah myself for several years I never knew one of these mythical creatures, however I certainly did meet plenty of unhappy expat women living empty lives “in the bubble.” Good post! 🙂

  2. Maria this hilarious and sad at the same time. Let me explain its funny because the way you wrote it makes these people sound like comics but it is also sad because I know one expat which fits each of those vices. Actually I know several expats who have all of these and can truly called Ugly.
    And yes it is not reserved to Americans only.
    Enjoy your Sunday. 😉

  3. 1Dad1Kid says:

    GREAT post! And can equally apply the points to long-term travellers.

  4. FutureExpat says:

    Oh, Maria, you are my hero! I’m printing this list and will post it on my obscenely large, American-style expensive fridge when I get to my tacky third-world hellhole.


  5. Maria says:

    Glad you all liked my post — thanks for those retweets as well.

    John: You know people who follow all 12 steps? I thought those were what Judy calls “mythical creatures,” sort of like Nessie or Sasquatch.

    Susanna: I had one of those fridges in Singapore! Now I’m utterly mortified. 🙂

    • Hi Maria! Loved the blog, and have had some of these experiences during short overseas trips (couple weeks here and there).

      What I’ve found is that what you DO is often not as important as how you ACT. Making eye contact while smiling and being KIND to everyone you meet is more important than what you choose to eat. Being willing to TRY new things will endear you to a local person more than whether you end up actually liking it or not, and you may discover a new passion!

      I’ve been to Nassau, Israel, Scotland and Ireland and found people there I could connect with and enjoy, even if only for a week or two. Caring about who you’re interacting with (learning their names!) and asking sincere questions to learn about them and their region generally warms the hearts.

      There will always be a few jerks out there who pre-judge you to be an Ugly American, no matter how interested and caring you might be, but it’s really been my experience that being interested and KIND is the answer.

      • Maria says:

        Thanks, Mary! Being interested and kind will certainly go a long way. Eye contact and smiling can be a bit trickier (in some cultures, they’re considered inappropriate or disrespectful) but you sound nothing like an Ugly American to me. Enjoy your travels!

  6. Crystal says:

    I totally agree that there is an “ugly expat.” I’ve met some moms who would only EVER send their kids to SAS (Singapore American School), never step foot outside of Little America (except to get spa treatments or shop), and hate Singapore.

    But I think that there are degrees to which every family integrates or doesn’t, and that it’s highly subjective. From some angles, we look like BAD EXPATS and from others we are doing ok or good.

    In our case, we’re genuinely not crazy about hawker food (more about contents…internal organs and such, and seafood are genuinely not things we want to eat) and prefer Western food. (I also love Indian food, which my Indian-American husband hates). Our 2 year old daughter has developed a deep love of Chicken Rice (a local dish) and has turned down an offer of McDonalds to get Chicken Rice instead. But most nights you’ll find us eating meat (prepared in a western way), veggies (I’m trying to learn to stir fry, but I still suck at it…so largely roasted/steamed/boiled/western), and tater tots or fries. I don’t particularly think it’s wrong, or disrespectful to our host country.

    Meeting locals can prove tricky. I remember being all excited about starting E back in gymnastics here, and picturing meeting local moms. I met expats and nannies. I joined a few groups for moms and tots…and met expats. Ironically, my “local” friendships are all by-products of my blogging…and I treasure them, but I’m not sure how to go about meeting local mums.

    We shouldn’t discount the value of other expat friends from your home country. There is something really great about being around others who are perceiving your new culture through the same lens of your old. I’m the baby expat in my circle of friends (for the moment), and they are really helpful sources of information and tips on how to navigate this often confusing new world. Moreso than the countless books I read on Singapore and adjusting to life as an expat.

    On the flip side, I was devastated when I broke my ankle just before CNY and missed all the pageantry and the Chingay parade, and had to settle for mall and zoo lion dances and living vicariously through friends’ blogs. Two weeks post CNY and Elanor is still asking me when we get to go see a lion dance again, even though all she got was a small taste. I can’t wait for next year.

    I also love the mid-autumn latern festival and hope that E will be more into this year (she was under 2 last time). This year we will try moon-cakes and not chicken out.

    The truth is that as a baby expat, I’m still learning to let go of the US. Some things, like tv via slingbox, food, air con, and my Gymboree addiction for E’s clothes will either never fade or take far more time than this first year. My life is so far from what I thought it would be, and what my friends back home lives are like that it’s sometimes scary to contemplate…and fear makes the familiar all the more comforting. But as time passes, some things that were terrifying before seem less scary or confusing.

    Give me 5 years…I’ll be speaking Singlish with the best of them. But for now? I’m more of an inch into the water slowly type than a jump into the deep end girl.

    • Maria says:

      I just realized that you’ve written an amazing blog post in my comments section! I hope you copy and paste this to your blog (or write a new post about it from scratch.) You feel strongly about the subject, and people will respond to that. Then maybe I can wander over to your comments section. 🙂

  7. Crystal says:

    A final thought…socio-economic differences are tricky to navigate.

    I recently posted an article about a Singaporean who made 1200 SGD a month. I commented that 1200 is our typical grocery bill, 1/2 our electric bill and 1/4 our monthly rent.

    Something that the books don’t talk about is how to navigate those socio-economic differences. My husband is paid a lot of money to swear at computers all day, and it’s only really recently that it’s begun to sink in how different our lifestyle is from that of a local.

    In my worldview, that we can’t afford a car, and that private school looks terrifyingly expensive (possibly prohibitively so) makes us middle class…which is where we were in the US.

    But unlike in the US, where I grew up poor and my husband grew up privledged, we don’t really understand what “everyday” “poor” and “middle class” life experiences are here. We can only look at ourselves and compare ourselves to other expats. I felt pathetically grateful to find a 4800SGD a month apartment after spending weeks looking at 7-9k rents and knowing that 6k was what would stretch us to the breaking point. At the time, I felt like we’d gotten a steal of a rent.

    If I had a local mom friend and offered to cover the cost of the cab and the zoo entrance fee would that be me “showing off” that I have money or helping out a friend for whom the cost was prohibitive? I don’t know.

    It’s easy to avoid being an ass about some socioeconomic things…but the more everyday sort of things are minefields.

    • bookjunkie says:

      We would think you were being very kind, but most locals would be too embarrassed to except it. They would feel they have to pay their share or it wouldn’t be fair.

      Unless it was something like a birthday party at the zoo and then it would be ok if you paid for the zoo entrance fee.

  8. Maria says:

    I’m not sure you realize it, but we’re on the same page here, Crystal. There are, as you pointed out, degrees of integration and they’re determined by a whole bunch of factors, including personality traits and amount of cultural difference between the home and host countries. What makes an expat ugly is an entrenched belief that her culture is superior, which leads to an automatic rejection of everything the host country has to offer. There’s nothing ugly about easing yourself into a new culture.

    I found it hard to meet Singaporeans too, and the ones I did meet came to me through my children. I would never discount the value of expat friends. (Most of my friends in Singapore were British.) Good friends are hard to come by, and we’d be crazy to turn up our noses at one just because she happens to be from our homeland.

    I’m not advocating a complete rejection of anyone’s native culture — that would be infinitely sad. But wrapping ourselves in a cocoon of arrogance and refusing to even contemplate that the host country has something good to offer? That’s kind of ugly, in my book.

    I’d also like to add that tater tots (with ketchup) were a staple food during our expat years, I’m not a fan of chicken rice or mooncakes, and after two years in France, I still don’t like cheese.

    • bookjunkie says:

      I am not a fan of chicken rice either 😉 Had too much of it when I was in school and became quite sick of it. It’s not that I won’t eat it, I occasionally still do, but I’d rather choose something else for lunch.

    • Crystal says:

      Tone is so hard to convey in comments. I wasn’t trying to be confrontational or defensive. The truth is that I often worry that I am a “bad expat”. I read blogs by others who dove into local culture far more than I and it makes me feel a bit insecure.

      What I was trying to convey (poorly upon re-reading the comments) were my experiences and struggles as an expat to integrate, and feeling like I often fall short of successfully doing so.

      • Maria says:

        Crystal (and I’m laughing as I type this), as someone who often felt there was a huge neon sign over her head that screamed “EXPAT LOSER,” I completely understand. It’s hard — especially when you see people who make it all look so effortless. But I like what you wrote above: “I’m more of an inch into the water slowly type than a jump into the deep end girl.” As long as we get into the water, who cares how long it takes us?

      • Shari says:

        Oh dear. I’ve just ticked quite a few of those boxes myself. Where to from here? I am in Chile and while this is the fourth country I have lived in, it has been by far, the hardest to adjust to. I wonder if perhaps my being an ‘ugly expat’ may have greatly exacerbated it 😦 Thank you for this much needed eye opener. I am in two minds as to whether or not I share this with my local partner… Oh, I preferred the blissful ignorance of 15 minutes ago! 🙂 (would that be number 13 on the Ugly Expat list?!) But really, thank you for sharing. Sometimes these things are hard to hear, but very necessary.

      • Maria says:

        I’ve ticked some of those boxes too, and I’ve noticed that I was ugliest when I was unhappiest with my location. Ugliness and unhappiness feed on each other, I think. I’m glad you found the post useful (whether or not you decide to share it with your partner. 🙂 )

  9. Elika Mahony says:

    Fascinating post! I agree with John as I have also met ‘ugly’ expats. I noticed you’re a mother of 2 TCK’s. I’ve been one all my life as I was born in the US, grew up in Kenya, my parents are originally from Iran and I am now an expat wife in China! I’m not sure what you would call my children – children of a TCK, expat wife? 😉

  10. Pingback: Does the Ugly Singaporean Still Exist? — Singapore Actually

  11. bookjunkie says:

    I encountered #7 at a mall in Singapore. The expat was talking commandingly, slowly and loudly to the customer service person. To me the whole interaction was quite hilarious as the customer service woman herself was pretty rude and answered in Singlish and the expat lady ( on second thought I think she was probably a tourist and not an expat) had no idea what she was saying. I think they were both equally frustrated.

    • Maria says:

      I’d like to think I’d rise above it, but realistically, I’m pretty sure if someone talked to me as though I were an idiot, I wouldn’t bend over backwards to help her out either! 😛

  12. Expat Mum says:

    I’m not sure that Americans have the monopoly on Ugly, after all, you only have to go to Spain for a week to find some very ugly Brits. Sometimes when I’m on the Continent and I come across these chavs, I do my best to sound American so that I’m not classed as one of them. And the expats, at least back in the Raj days, were even worse!

    • Maria says:

      The monopoly has officially been dismantled — It’s free market ugliness out there these days.

      (Completely off topic here, but “chav” is one of my favourite Britishisms. How does that go over in Chicago?)

  13. naomi says:

    oh man Maria … this is brilliant.

    Can I link to you for my Saturday Snippets next week?

    Will come back tomorrow to really deep read all of the comments and try to add my two cents… thanks for writing and sharing this!

  14. Erin says:

    Funny and interesting article…thankfully I am not that person! Surprisingly, I took very well to being an expat wife. We are on year 2 in Taiwan and we extended at least another year because neither of us want to leave. I went from a full-time lucrative career in California to being married and moving to Taiwan in a blink of an eye — it was even the first time my now husband and I were gonna live in the same city (we had dated long distance while he was working in Europe) and I had to get used to that, being married, cohabitation…all in a very non-English friendly country. Considering it was only my second time in Asia ever, I had a bit of culture shock at first. It helped that I came out for a week beforehand just to check things out and then went back home and packed my entire house up and left my job.

    We do have a few local friends, but alas the culture there is quite different and since most people work until late in the evening, we do not see them all that often. We also have a few expat friends from work, but they cycle in and out so often, it’s usually only for a few months.

    The comment about not eating local cracks me up. One of my husband’s coworkers is like that, but we are quite the opposite. Considering we have a strong passion for culinary travel (and it’s part of what I write about) we are always eating fact, I made a pledge when we moved that I wanted to avoid Western food at all costs. I’ve been away from Taiwan for 6 weeks now traveling and I am dying to get back next week because I miss my food! LOL I’ve learned how to cook a number of Asian dishes from other countries as well so if we aren’t exploring the local food scene, I’m trying to cook it at home.

    Mandarin is obviously one of (if not) the most difficult languages to learn. We’ve picked up a few basic words, but since we are traveling so often we have not started lessons yet. I hate to start with a tutor and then take off for 6 weeks like now. It’s definitely something we want to study and we try to learn new words whenever possible.

    In regards to social media, I am on the computer all day (writer). Social media is actually an active part of my day, but we’ve found it actually helps quite a bit in this situation — the local friends we’ve made have been online. Through common interests on sites like Twitter, we’ve made several friends and even found out about a great Australian wine store that does wine pairing dinners each month. Usually we are the only western couple there, but many of the locals do speak some English or are the ones who went to school in the US so we can interact It’s been great.

    This is a great lead in to the drinking…we do actually drink a lot — wine. I continually bring back some of my California wine collection each trip, but we’re using this opportunity to learn about Australian and French wines, which are cheaper and more accessible in Taiwan. We’ve been to wine shows, met a local vineyard owner, tried local Chinese style “wines”, been to Whisky shows, etc.

    I think we’ve assimilated into a good life. So many things are actually much better than the US — especially when it comes to mass transit and health care. I love learning about the local culture and what we consider “strange” holidays (i.e. tomb sweeping day). We’ve spent the last two years traveling around Asia and other parts of the world on the weekends because we can — it’s cheaper for us to fly to Hong Kong than it was for me to fly from Northern California to LA. Instead of living near one Disney theme park, now I have two that I visit 5-6x each per year (Tokyo Disney was one of my dream destinations as a kid).

    Since we’ve been over there, my sister in law has since become an expat in Singapore. She’s a single mom and her daughter does go to an American type school, but her friends are locals and my niece actually speaks more fluent Mandarin than we do at 7 years old! Since my sis-in-law is a single mom, she does have a nanny who she treats more like family than anything else (we’re even friends with her on Facebook).

    I just wish some people would be more open to the expat experience. Unless you are a traveler and dying to see the world, most of these people have no desire to ever leave the US, let alone live in a foreign speaking country. We’re hoping to keep staying expats for as long as we can — whether my husband goes back to the Netherlands for work or whether we stay in Asia permanently, but if he goes back to the US, there is no job waiting for him, so we have extra incentive to stay abroad. I have to say, without a doubt, becoming an expat was the best decision I’ve ever made and it’s opened my eyes to so many new and exciting things. I almost think I will have reverse culture shock if we move back to the US. LOL

    • Maria says:

      I love reading stories like yours. Your excitement about expat life comes through in your site (which is gorgeous, btw.)

      I thought your name sounded familiar — we’ve corresponded before. I interviewed you for a story on expats and social media. You had a broken hand at the time — hope it’s better now.

  15. jamieonline says:

    Thi is the BEST blog post that I have read since joining WordPress back in October! I laughed (the kind of laugh that is silent, because it’s so funny that no sound comes out).
    I can totally relate to many of the points…. I wonder if I did them – After all I am a Brit in The Netherlands. Surely we Brits no better……….
    Loving exploring your blog. It shall be added to my Blogroll immediately. I hope to bring more readers to you in due course. My expat friends will love it.

  16. shobavish says:

    Kudos on a great post! As an immigrant, expat, repat, I love conversations on home, identity, assimilation, integration, cultures, sub-cultures and what not…this is all a journey to more self-awareness, right?

  17. Great post.

    I have been in the US for 22 years (from Toronto), of my own choice, and still do not feel assimilated fully, for a variety of reasons. But, back in Canada right now for three weeks, I feel the culture shock much more forcefully this time (while trying to promote my new book and doing battle with the BC healthcare system for my mother, now in a nursing home here.)

    I plan to blog about this bifurcation and will link to this great post. I am embarrassed to say I have not fully embraced all things American, as I am so appalled by the income inequality, political ugliness and power of the religious right.

    When I am in Canada, I love some things here I miss (candy bars, civility, calm, a much stronger economy than the US) but terribly miss the gung-ho risk-taking I so value in business. I am finding Canadians so (*&^$@!@*)ingly risk-averse I can’t wait to get back to New York if only to get some things DONE. Even my American assistant, a woman my age with plenty of high-level experience, was ready to quit within weeks after dealing with the foot-dragging and silences.

    • Maria says:

      My brother has lived in the US as an academic for about ten years now, and he says the same things you do. (Except he still calls them “chocolate bars.” LOL!)

      I’m happy to have you link to my post. (I would’ve replied sooner, but I just spent about an hour on your site and had a hard time tearing myself away.) Good luck with your new book; hope you survive all the promotion.

  18. Yes every time I whinge about tea I am guilty of no.6. But I quite like winding the Canadians up though. Is that so wrong?
    My favourite tea experience here is having to book 24 hours in advance at a local tea room for afternoon tea. 24 hours for a scone with jam and some sarnies? There you see, I’m off again.
    Great post!

    • Maria says:

      They were probably scrambling to find gold-leaf tea, or whatever it is you drink. 😛 Perhaps your reputation preceded you? (I didn’t tip them off, I swear.)

  19. Michi says:

    Inspiring post!! I’ve actually had to live with an ugly expat and needless to say, I moved out!

    You made some very good points!

  20. munchkn says:

    Oh wow, do I know people like this. I was an expat kid from the age of six, and between then and now (at the age of 19), I’ve seen snobby moms and even snobbier teenagers with way too much pocket money and no interest in the local culture. I hope I don’t come across the same. If anything, I’m an ugly expat in England, as I feel more out of place in an English-speaking country than I ever did in Asia. (I’m originally from S. Africa.)

  21. Thank you for todays laugh!
    I just broke up with a man who acts out all 12 of those steps without leaving the city we live in!! He considers any dish that does not include ketchup and salt only as ethnic. He live with my son and I – and did not try to learn our local customs (especially with Holiday traditions!) He talks about how backwards everyone is – especially while doing every day tasks, such as pumping gas, driving, shopping, walking; no one else in town did anything right! Good thing we live in America and already speak English! Though he did often complain about America’s “tolerance” for other languages….

    I have never been an international traveler, but I hope to be someday! I will be sure to keep the rules in mind! (Or I can do the opposite of what my dear DJ would have done in my home!)

    Thank you – keep bloggin!! 🙂


  22. Celia says:

    Great post! As an expat wife who has lived in Singapore (5 years) and now in Beijing (2 years so far), I’ve encountered all of those people and could sometimes only cringe in embarassment for them.

    • Maria says:

      Thanks for commenting. I subscribed to your blog and I’m looking forward to reading more about your life in Singapore and China.

  23. cynplicity says:

    Your blog was listed as the #1 Fastest Growing Blogs on my Dashboard and the fact that it yelled out “Expat” was enough for me to have to check it out 🙂 I saw this post and I had to respond 🙂 As a former TCK and now Adult-TCK I have encountered some “Ugly Expat” as an adult which never occurred to me they existed as a child. But in retrospect I think I had probably been somewhat of an Ugly Expat without being conscious about it.

    I grew up mostly in Thailand and went to an international school but for whatever reason as a child I opposed to learning the Thai language (I can speak but not enough knowledge to be able to read – except numbers and the first letter lol – or write or hold a more intelligent conversation besides “How are you?” “I love you” and “Where is the bathroom”). I have nothing against Thai culture, in fact I love it and consider that as making up a huge part of my identity as opposed to my passport country (Taiwan). I had been encouraged many times by my mom who has the level of a 6th grader but for whatever reason I never did. But now I do regret not learning it.

    In retrospect I think I didn’t want to be the “same”. I met a lot of Taiwanese-Thai families who were Taiwanese by ethnicity but bred Thai and I didn’t like who they were – they were a bit of the snotty type. So I didn’t want to be associated with them by rebelling against the language. Yeah, I know, not the language’s fault.

    With that said, in my adult years I have met a lot of pretty Ugly Expats that always make me wonder why in the world they decided to move to a foreign country. If one hates the country so much why does one continue to abuse the land of their host in such a way that the country is much better off without them.

    When I visited Seoul, I could not get my mind around how they have pretty much a mini “United States” in a foreign country. I mean, really?

  24. Hi, I am pretty new here at wordpress, but I just have to say I love your 12 ways to be an ugly expat!!

    I was laughing (quietly as it is 11pm already in California State) and had to nod so many times!! Before I became an expat here, I have seen some (I probably should say a few as I was pretty lucky to meet many) expats back in Tokyo where my home is that are actively trying to be ugly expats. I especially love no.11 as I have seen MANY expats drinking waaaaay too much there.

    At the same time, no.10 and 12 reminded me that I should not be an ugly expat who checks facebook and e-mails every so often and cannot be nice to her husband. hahaha

    I wish I can click millions likes for this post. Nice to meet you and looking forward to reading your posts more in the future!!

  25. thewondermya says:


    what a great post ! my ex bf is from a different country and lived and worked in mine for two years and barely managed to learn five words with half of them being part of the airplane routine speech… i saw him in your post and smiled. being you where you don’t belong can be tricky specially if you decided to close up and behave like a a…..
    keep writing please !

  26. Pingback: Become an Ugly Expat in 12 easy steps (via I was an expat wife) « There and Back Again – Alaska

  27. Maria says:

    Lots of Ugly Expats out there, by all accounts!

  28. Pingback: Bad Expat (part 1–ur doin it rong) « Expat Bostonians

  29. Crystal says:

    I apparently have far more to say than I thought I did…first half of my blog post trying to figure out whether I’m a bad expat or not is up on my blog. Thanks for the encouragement to write it!

    • Maria says:

      You’re welcome! I’m so glad you wrote the post — I just read it and it’s fantastic. I tweeted it, too. And for the record, I’m voting “no” on the bad expat question. A bad expat is one who’s not open to the idea of trying new things because she automatically assumes everything from her culture is better. From what I’ve read, that’s not you. Trying something and not liking it in no way makes you bad or ugly or any of those negative labels. Refusing to try it because it’s not what you’re used to — well that’s something different entirely.

  30. Pingback: How Singaporeans Actually Feel About Expats in Singapore — Singapore Actually

  31. Let’s see… I’ve definitely practicing 2, 10 (except for Farmville for goodness sake), 11, and 12.
    #7 is not my fault. Expats attract other expats like flies, so many of my friends speak English, as do my Brazilian relatives (my husband is a native of the country we newly reside in…) And for necessities sake, my daughter’s doctor speaks English, she went to a bi-lingual school where they mostly speak English (I admit that was a bad decision). OK – this should be added to your list as #13- do not blame yourself for your cultural and linguistic laziness, blame everyone around you…

    • Maria says:

      I would have loved an English-speaking doctor when we lived in France. The two places that made me sick with nervousness were the bank and the doctor’s office — I wasn’t comfortable taking chances with our health or our finances. Having said that, I did learn a lot of very useful vocabulary in the Emergency Department. (An itch = une démangeaison. A sprain = une entorse.) LOL.

  32. Pingback: The Ex-Pat’s Dilemma: Where’s Home? « Broadside

  33. Pingback: Life Outside the Expat Bubble « kelley's blog from the wall

  34. Kristin says:

    I currently am and have been an expat in four countries and repatriated to the US once. That US repatriation was the most dismal experience of all, and I would not like to repeat it. After spending three years in Saudi Arabia, we moved to North Carolina in the mid 1980s, and I’m telling you it took a whole big long time there to ever come to grips with the fact that I was actually back in the USofA. Even this many years later it brings up all sorts of feelings in me. I love the expat life. I’ve always loved it. When I visit the US I miss the chaos, the uncertainty, the changing rules . . . . everything about Latin/South America. I finally came to understand why locals don’t want to get too close to us: we leave, and they grieve. Over and over and over. I get it. I leave and move on to another adventure. It’s just not the same thing. I do have local friends, and I love them. Learning Spanish well early on really helped, and we sent our son to a Chilean school for four years. His bilingual-ness is now reaping rich rewards for him, and he thanks us often. Would I be happy had I never experienced this life? Absolutely. I believe that I take my happiness with me. I don’t try to find it in every new locale.

    • Maria says:

      I also found repatriation to be the toughest experience, even though it was something I was looking forward to by the end of our last assignment.

      I’m so glad your son has benefitted from living in Chile (and that he thanks you — that’s a bonus!) And I love this sentence: “I believe that I take my happiness with me.”

  35. Kyle says:

    On one hand I agree. On the other hand, don’t turn friendships away just because they’re not “local.”

    There’s really nothing I despise more than people who shut out an entire group of people just because they don’t mind their idea of what their expat experience *should* be like.

    • Maria says:

      It’s the closed mind and ethnocentrism that makes an ugly expat: the cultural blinders that lead to an “us vs. them” sense of moral superiority. I would never suggest that friendships with other expats aren’t worthwhile, any more than I’d presume to tell people what their experiences should be like. I just happen to intensely dislike spending time with expats who do nothing but point out how much better everything is where they came from.

  36. Judy says:

    Hmmm. Can one be an ugly repat? I think I certainly have been one at times – looking down my nose at those who haven’t led the expat life. Now I’m thinking a little deeper.

    Also thanks to Kristin for “I take my happiness with me.” Can I turn that into a fridge magnet? 😉

  37. Aisha says:

    I find this quite fitting. A reminder of the nightmarish expats in Azerbaijan. Sadly, after some time you find yourself picking up some of those terrible habits. It’s disgusting.

  38. dogear6 says:

    I found your post to be a good laugh, if only because it is so true. My experience wasn’t with living overseas. . . it was with living in South Dakota. I was amazed at the women who resented living there because their husband accepted a high paying job at my employer.

    No, it wasn’t Chicago (where I was from). But there were things to do, good restaurants (local, not chains), theater, and events. And a good amount of stores. For a better shopping fix, Minneapolis was 5 hours away and Omaha 1.5 hours away.

    There were really nice subdivisions, big homes, and a private country club where you could be a big fish in a very small pond. We didn’t live in one of those – we were in an older area – and our neighbors were wonderful. And for the most part, locals, not out-of-towners.

    And the women would not give it up and try it out. I felt sorry for their husbands and children. Needless to say, eventually they moved back away again.


  39. Neetha says:

    Funny post!
    I stumbled upon your blog from suite101..
    I’m happy to find an expat wife like you here in this blog-o-sphere… 🙂 I’m an expat mom just started experimenting with life… 2 years and counting.
    Looking forward to read great posts in the future..

  40. Neetha says:


  41. Excellent article, related humorously but actually not funny. We live in Merida Yucatan where things are no different from what you describe on your blog. In fact, I’ve been reading lots of non-coommercial expat blogs and find they are amazingly similar. I think a lot also, about our impact on the local populations and how our presence changes their sociology. Suddenly, the men aren’t as successful as the women who are maids in expat houses. Villages change – few people are home during the day. ETc.

  42. Toria says:

    Is it possible to be a part-time ugly expat, or is it an all-or-nothing kind of thing? I am sure I have done or said most of the things on this list at least once, especially the drinking. I have always spoken a bit of the local language wherever we are, and I have never done the servant thing. And I’ve never played Farmville. But years abroad, especially too many years in one place, does make one jaded.

    I am approaching five years in India, and this year, I realized that it took me two years to really feel comfortable here, and 4 1/2 to feel totally UNcomfortable. Familiarity breeds contempt, I guess??

    • Maria says:

      I’m living proof that it’s possible to be a part-time ugly expat. (More or less reformed!)

      I think it’s true that living abroad can make you jaded. Maybe that’s a sign that it’s time to head home? I’m planning to write a blog post about that very subject so I’d love to talk to you about it a little more.

      • Toria says:

        Hi Maria! I never replied to this and may be too late, but I wanted to tell you that yes – I’d love to talk more about this if you’re planning to write something about it. I believe in the part-time ugliness, and I think it’s actually necessary for survival. But finding the right line between “necessary for survival” and “just being a jerk” is a tough job! 🙂

    • Judy says:

      I agree about the too many years in one place. If you arrive with the “right” attitude (ie positive) determined to make a go of it, then inevitably you can’t sustain that forever. Turning a blind eye to the things you don’t like and being the perpetually smiling guest is hard work. I think that’s one of the main differences between being an expat and an immigrant. As an immigrant you consciously take on another country warts and all and have the right to criticize and even make changes if you can. As an expat you always feel obliged to be polite.

      • Toria says:

        And Judy – boy, do I agree with you about the difference between expats and immigrants! True true true!

  43. GlobalCoachCenter says:

    Love it!

  44. Sprinkle says:

    This is hilarious! I’m a TCK/expat and watch these people come and go (as fast as they can) all the time. Great post!

  45. Tonito says:

    Just discovered this blog and post! My first expat or experience abroad, I can certainly say that I was an ugly expat, but my following two stints, I became a “pretty” expat 🙂 But it was only in embracing new places that I became happier. Once again, great post!

    • Maria says:

      Ha ha — I love the idea of the “pretty” expat. I’ve never thought of it like that before. I’m glad you uncovered your expat beauty, and thanks so much for liking the post.

  46. BC says:

    How about some expats being “ugly” to other expats? Life in a compound can be challenging and you do not have to be a local to experience the “ugly” expat behavior! Specially when people are so critical an vocal about your lifestyle (single expat woman who works in a male dominated environment). There is room for more steps here! #13 should read: Try your best to put everybody in the little box they belong to: Anglosaxons, French, Latinos, single expat women, people with kids, or whatever categories you fancy according to your own prejudice and socio- cultural background.

  47. Kay says:

    Re # 9: Where we are (SE Asia) the expats are known for “spoiling” their maids– it’s the locals who think they don’t need a day off or air conditioning in their quarters…

  48. Ellen van den Bergh says:

    What a great blog, one I can relate to. I have been an expat for 25 years and just returned to the mothership: The Netherlands. My Dutch relatives and friends were disgusted for me “how can anyone settle in Holland after such a great life in exotic places”? I decided to treat this move as any move I did in the past: positive, open minded, excited about all the new possibilities etc. And so again I love my “new” city, home, culture etc. I do not complain about the rain but enjoy the change in seasons, the winter with sweaters, heater on, hot chocolate etc. The Fall with the beautiful colored leaves and walks on a windy beach. I enjoy being able to bike everywhere and of course I can still enjoy international cultures as I live in The Hague. I am delighted there is a mailman bringing my mail to my doorstep. I love it that rubbish is collected every week and the choice in the supermarket makes grocery shopping still a trip to heaven. Little things like gift wrapping even in the smallest stores brings a smile to my face and the clean public transport that is working according to the timetable (most of the time). There is one thing I am still not used to (I thought!): the complaining nature of the Dutch. The weather is always a big issue, it is too cold, too warm, too wet, too dry, too windy….. What that is concerned I realized last week that I really settled with the “locals”. I heard myself saying to the neighbor with a whining voice that it was too cold for the time of the year and when was summer starting!!!!! Yes…. I have re-integrated 🙂

    • Maria says:

      Ellen, if you could bottle your positive attitude and sell it, you’d be a billionaire! (I’d buy it for sure.) I’m glad you’re happy back in the Netherlands — it sounds like a pretty awesome place to live

  49. Gabby says:

    Oh I know plenty! Thats why I avoid them!…. Some have local wives who are equally repulsive!

  50. MaDonna says:

    I just ran across this list….SO great. I’m posting on my raisingTCKs FB page, because you know the “Ugly Expat” is probably going to raise some “Ugly TCKs”.

  51. Such a great post! I am heading into my 5th month as an expat wife in Abu Dhabi and I am struggling! I am definitely guilty of a few of these. Thanks for the eye opener!

  52. Bosmosis says:

    I’ve been living in South Korea for several years, and have come across several Ugly Expats. The ones I truly don’t understand are the ones who stay here. I know one guy who fits several of the categories you outline above, yet he has been here 15 years and counting (and is oddly proud of this fact and celebrates the anniversary of his arrival every year). Weird.

    Nice blog, by the way. I recently came across it and will be checking out more of it in the future.

    • Maria says:

      Thanks for checking out the blog. I know what you mean by the bitter “lifers.” I suspect the reason they stay is that they know they won’t fit in if they go back home. Better the devil you know, and all that.

  53. Marion says:

    I think I am sometimes an ugly “inpat” …. I am back to my “home” country and I have trouble working with my French colleagues who view me as a weirdo (I don’t speak French with an accent because I am French but yet I don’t behave like a French because I lived outside France for so long) … It is hard to adapt and I do miss the states and the island I grew up … The French think France is so great and sometimes I do remind them that it is not a perfect country… I did offend some of my french colleagues when I told them the best food I’ve ever had was in the san francisco bay area! So I can be a somewhat “ugly inpat”sometimes 😉 though I have arguments … I always say ” yes French food is good but there are other kind of cuisines that are equally delicious!” So I am not too ugly, just love messing with my French peers…

    • Maria says:

      You don’t sound very ugly to me! You sound more like someone who’s travelled and understands that there is a world outside her home country. You’re a “hidden immigrant” — you look and sound like you belong, and yet your expat experience sets you apart. Good luck with your re-adjustment.

  54. Reblogged this on Southeast Schnitzel and commented:
    An excellent article by my “Twitter Friend” Maria Foley (@IwasAnExpatWife). Make sure to follow her blog, “I was an expat wife.”
    This is required reading for EVERY expat.

  55. Maria, I laughed at your blog, it is well writen and thought provoking. I have been an expat by choice for 20+ years and I am guilty of being sometimes an ugly expat (especially complaining about local bureaucracy or simply craving for some food I can only find in my own country) BUT, I would never judge another expat based on my own experience.

    In fact, I think there is no such thing as an ugly expat, only lonely or frustrated people who simply don’t know how to get their basic needs met. Not everybody get cross-cultural training or can afford to hire an expat coach before moving abroad to understand what specific challenges they will face in a new country. They never heard about words like “TCK” or “trailing spouse” or “culture shock” and why should they ?

    Lets be practical and realistic : If you don’t speak the language, never visited the country and know nobody there, I would strongly suggest that you call first your embassy to get in touch with other expats who can understand you and how you feel, provide resources they tested such as medical centers, shopping etc.. You will have more chance to be a happy expat !

    Here a great article from felllow expat coach Margarita Gokun Silver:
    I like particularly habit # 5: Happy expats know that feeling sad at times is part of the game ( and that you are allowed to vent your frustration )

    • Maria says:

      You have a much more generous spirit than I do! Thanks for the Global Coach Center link. I wish I’d read it before I wrote tomorrow’s post: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Expats. Margarita, I swear, I didn’t rip off your blog title!

  56. Admin says:

    soo funny! and don’t forget for the one linked to the ‘don’t eat local food’ you can add ‘spend extortionately large amounts of money shopping online (back to the UK) buying British food and paying for your shopping to be shipped out to you – or driving miles to the local Iceland store to buy frozen British food and cakes…. chortle!
    A great post – you are braver than me – I’ve been thinking about writing a post about ex-pats – haven’t been brave enough yet … perhaps I will now!!

  57. sophie says:

    In Qatar, it’s not the Americans who do this, but another group who speak English. Especially when it comes to drinking.

  58. David lee says:

    Maria, You forgot the following bonus points as ugly expat.

    Rave on and on about the expensive weekend waterskiing, travelling, eating at expensive restaurants in front of the locals

    Boast about how convenient staying at The Sail is and that one can wake up 15 mins before work.

    Complain about bad Singaporean drivers when driving to work, when you know that most of your colleagues take public transport to work.

    Not paying cheap meals with your local colleagues when your monthly rental expense is easily equals to your local colleagues salary.

    Having a colonial mindset, that expects all Asians to be at your beck and call, taking advantage of their helpfulness and kindness for granted.

    Triple bonus :Stealing the credit of your Asian colleague especially you have no clue at all how to do your job .

    Quadruple bonus when your Asian colleague’s salary package is 1/5 of yours.

  59. Horrifyingly true. I encountered this article when searching for blogs about being a bored housewife. After our trip overseas, my whole outlook has been changed. Quite the opposite of this funny commentary, I am parched for cultural immersion while living in a narrowly defined cultural area of Middle America. However, I am working to find a balance that doesn’t cause me to be the Ugly American to my dear All-American friends. I could almost write an antithesis to your article about the things I could do to be Ugly here in the US, like refuse to make meatloaf, insist on eating with my hands out of a common family platter at a host’s dinner table, and barter the prices when I go shopping with my girlfriend at the mall.

  60. Sam says:

    Great blog Maria, well said on all points! However, one point i wish to add is that (i think you made this point but maybe could give some true life examples? Fairness and balance in writing is important) there are many wealthy Chinese who act like they own the plane, the bus; or the train station when they visit other locales. I have lived in Singapore for several years and have visited the region for more than a decade. I lived in several other countries for many years including Canada, China; and South Africa. But, maybe the biggest difference is that I married a Chinese Singaporan (I am from Canada and Caucasian). To be honest, to develop a deep relationship that continues to grow, with a soul from a completely different culture and religious background, takes extreme patience and love. Both of those qualities go a VERY long way toward enabling us to accept other cultural norms, to build friendships with souls from completely different cultures; and to respect differences — even big ones — in people, or choices they make or beliefs they have, in other countries, even when those differences are quite ‘mysterious’ to us “,).

    • Maria says:

      Good points, Sam — patience, especially, is in short supply when we’re stressed, and as you know, expat life can be very stressful at times. The ugly expat post was rooted in my frustration with my own ugly behaviour in moments of stress, as well as the behaviours of others around me, who seemed to be permanently stressed (or perhaps permanently ugly!) Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  61. Pingback: Episode 9 – The Ugly Expat | Two Fat Expats

  62. David Hansen says:

    I have to disagree with number 3. If you spend all the time alone, how can you be perceived as ugly to anyone but yourself.

  63. David Hansen says:

    #9, why not just NOT have household staff?

  64. Victoria says:

    Have you ever run across the other Expat, the one who is “holier than thou” who brags incessantly about how Mexican (Asian, African or whatever) they’ve become, would die if they were seen eating a hamburger and french fries? Or if you even say something as simple as “It’s hot today!” (even after 5 locals you’ve talked to earlier have commented on the heat) they tell you that you should have researched where you were coming and if you don’t like it you should go back where you came from….

  65. Jane says:

    Maria, this is HILARIOUS. After spending 25 happy years as a foreigner the UK (note: not expat) with stints in about 6 other countries I found myself in Mexico City and until I found my feet I needed to network with the “Mexpats” and “newcomers to mexico city” because I did not speak Spanish when I first arrived. You have described the majority of them PERFECTLY! I think another post may be needed though to describe the insult flinging that takes place in their very own face book pages which were designed to support the members but instead enable them to spit venom anonymously and argue with people they probably have not even met. If you are not certain what I mean, join a couple of them and you will see within 24 hours how vicious some of them can be. Of course some of them are delightful but the ugly ones are ugly indeed. Thank you for making me laugh out loud in my new home (again) Monterrey, Mexico where I am hoping very much that the ugly expat is in the minority.

  66. Colleen says:

    Very good post!:) However, I fear I have sometimes been one myself!!

  67. Monty says:

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry …right now I’m doing both after reading this
    Expat for 5 month

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