An Unhappy Truth

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches   We’re back — four intrepid souls who swap guests posts each month from the far corners of the globe. We are:

The great philosopher Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Let the examinations begin! Our theme this month is self-knowledge, or what expat life has taught us about ourselves.

At Expatria Baby, Russell learned to trust his gut and remain true to his values in his search for a fulfilling expat life.

At In Search of a Life Less Ordinary, Linda learned that the more she actually learns about expat life, the less she knows.

At Adventures in Expatland, I learned that within my timid exterior  — deep, deep within — beats the brave heart of a gambler.

Please do read our stories, and share some of your own in our comments sections. We’d love to hear what expat life has taught you about yourself. And now here’s Erica, dishing about her realization that tolerance is much harder in practice than it is in theory. 


An Unhappy Truth

by Erica at Expatria Baby

An Unhappy Truth


Like most expats, I can say that expatriation taught me about myself. I have learned happy lessons about my capacity for strength in the face of adversity, about realizing that I’m flexible enough to take in stride a 24-hour evacuation from a country. Twice. I’ve become aware of the the rhythm of my settling-in process, and have acquired coping mechanisms for for adjusting to a new, foreign home.

Like I said, though, most expats learn these lessons. This month’s theme is Self Knowledge, and in that spirit, I’m digging deeper. For I have learned something about myself that isn’t much discussed in expat circles. Nor is it something that is tidy or happy, or easy to say out loud: I’ve learned that I’m xenophobic.

I grew up in small town Eastern Ontario, a conservative enclave, in a liberal provence. It was the kind of place where people proudly traced their ancestry back to the farmer who arrived from Northern Ireland in 1741 and broke the rocky, marginal ground. Outsiders were viewed suspiciously. There were, perhaps, four non-caucasian people who went to my high school. In this environment I clung to my liberal roots as a means of  defining myself. I was progressive; I embraced those very Canadian ideals of multiculturalism and diversity. I spouted forth the accolades of acceptance and tolerance and equality. I still embrace these ideals wholeheartedly. But in theory. I’m continuing to work on the practice.

France was my first expat home. I lived there on three separate occasions in my teens and early twenties. Arriving in Paris as a starry-eyed big R Romantic 16 year-old, I was enchanted. Standing on top of the Arc de Triomphe I breathed in the city. The streets radiated outward before me, and all I could think was history and beauty and life and this, THIS was a city. I wanted to live here. I wanted to be French.

Later, with my host family in Southern France, the bloom faded slightly. I craved whole-wheat bread, firm pillows, and late afternoon talk shows. Driving home from the grocery store with my host sister one weekend, someone cut her off. “Les arabs!” She said, “Ils sont con!” I was incensed. My progressive, tolerant, multicultural sensibilities were bruised. And so I sulked in my room for the rest of the weekend. “The French!” I told myself, “They’re such racists.”

Ten years later and I was in India and in love anew. Life was vibrant. Noise everywhere. Colours. Smells. Elephants draped with chains of marigolds paraded down the street flanked by white horses and marching bands. I spent my first month riding around the city in rickshaws, wandering alone through the narrow streets of old Delhi, flitting in and out of temples and shrines, marveling at my own tolerant and adventurous spirit.

When it was time to move into our apartment, it was up to me to organize the utilities. I asked our landlady, who lived below us, about setting up the internet. She gave me a vague response and moved her head side to side, halfway between a nod and a bob. I didn’t understand. I called Airtel, and still nothing was clear. I had no indication of when exactly I might get someone out to our house to set up the internet. Tomorrow? Next month? Later, a worker delivered our new washing machine. I then learned that it would take four separate visits from four different people to have it installed. “These people!” I thought. “They’re so unorganized. Why can’t they just give me a clear answer. Why do they make everything so complicated.”

Later, in China, I found myself marveling at the height of the skyscrapers, the speed of the trains, and the spiciness of the peppers. “Life here will be good,” I thought. “THIS is a country I can get behind.” Until someone elbowed me in the ribs as I was scrambling for the train, or I lost my place in line, not nimble or aggressive enough to fend off the encroaching queuers, or I had to dodge a taxi, hellbent on usurping my pedestrian rights. These people! Why don’t they learn some manners!

For a long time, cognitive dissonance allowed me to think these thoughts while still ignoring their significance. I just didn’t like this country or these people. There was obviously something wrong with them, not me. I am a liberal. I am enlightened. I embrace diversity and multiculturalism and tolerance. Until the pattern repeated itself here in Japan, and I finally understood. It wasn’t them at all. It was me.

I was falling prey to the ancient human tendency of defining the world in terms of ingroups and outgroups. My expat friends were my ingroup. Everyone else was an outgroup. I was moving into a foreign country, and expecting it to operate according to the standards and norms of my own home. I bristled at difference, pushed back against what I didn’t understand, against them.

It’s an uncomfortable truth of expats: we all tend towards ingroups and outgroups, regardless of how pure our liberal, multicultural, tolerant credentials are. We all gather together, groups of foreigners, and complain about them. As expats we must acknowledge this tendency and then rail against it with every fiber of our being. We must remember that we are guests. And while we may not relish ALL aspects of our expat homes, the problem most certainly does not lie with them, but rather with us.


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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22 Responses to An Unhappy Truth

  1. I think you’ve exposed the dark underbelly of living cross-culturally Erica. It is human tendency to value what we’re used to; when we’re feeling alienated, disoriented, tired and/or overwhelmed, we default to what we know and miss. Sometimes I think many of us do reach a point where we may have maxed out on a particular culture and just need to move on/back. This is true regardless of where you come from and where you’re living. You need only read expat blogs coming out of the US or Canada (our home countries) and at some point each will go on a diatribe about ‘they’ and ‘them’.

    Not everyone lives in an expat bubble. Stephen Covey (author of the long-running bestseller ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’) shared the old truth: seek first to understand, then to be understood. The more friends and acquaintances you make with members of the host country, the more difficult it becomes to think in terms of a separate ‘they’. I remind myself that the Dutch are my friends Annette, Katja, Marja, Joos, Jan, my kind and generous neighbors, etc., not the amorphous ‘they’.

    • expatriababy says:

      Linda, that is certainly good advice – seeking to understand before being understood. I will say, however, the in my experience, it was much easier for me as an expat in Europe to break out of the us vs. them mentality. While customs and cultures and even food were foreign to me, I still had the context with which to understand. In Asia, and particularly in Japan, it is much harder to avoid the “us” bubble. Everything is so much different; my Western brain doesn’t yet have the schema in which to file away all these new experiences. Everything is that much harder to understand. For example, I can understand on a cognitive level why someone might give a vague answer about installing the internet, but I probably couldn’t ever truly appreciate all the various cultural cues that go into that answer, and I probably couldn’t ever really appreciate the “why” from an emotional perspective.
      I don’t think that I’ll ever stop finding certain aspects of certain cultures frustrating (my home culture included), just as I won’t ever stop finding certain aspects of other cultures lovely. But time and experience and perspective allows me to see these frustrations with some distance and appreciate that they are normal, and I hope that next time I’ll do a better job of being able to keep the positives in the forefront of my mind.

  2. Russell says:

    I enjoyed your honesty in this month’s post, Erica. It’s not easy to admit that you’ve not always integrated (or tried to) as the book on ‘Expat 101’ suggests you should. I don’t think you even need to be part of an ingroup. I’ve typically kept away from the clicky expat communities but have still found myself bitching, griping and complaining about the local people I’ve joined in my new home. Sometimes you just can’t help it but it pays to keep re-assessing the way you operate to make sure it’s under control.

    That said, the Aussies drive me bloody mad with their peculiar ways! (he says, waiting for some good ole Australian backlash on these comments – Kym?! 😉

    • expatriababy says:

      Thanks, Russell. Your comment made me wonder about something (and not just the ways which my countrymen have caused you annoyance!!! *kidding* *kind of* *also curious*). I wonder if the experience of being a serial expat in some way influences one’s ability to integrate à la Expat 101. If one knows that one only has 3 years in a particular country before packing up and moving off to an entirely different place and culture and language, does one then have less motivation to integrate? If everything feels so transient, can one suffer from integration fatigue? Just a thought experiment for my Saturday morning!

  3. Sine says:

    A very courageous post, Erica! I just wrote a post myself about racism in South Africa, so I know what it takes to bring these thoughts to paper. You did so well with it. I found myself in everything you said, if I’m honest. Just like you, I like to think that I”m so liberal and tolerant, but the “they” is always present in my thoughts. In particular, I think those “they” thoughts about my own German compatriots – they mostly annoy me to no end when I run into them abroad! I’m almost more tolerant of the new people I meet where I’m unbiased and curious, but just as you describe, that love at first sight sort of fades after a while. I think it all has to do with our human tendency (probably bred into us by early survival skills) that we group everyone into categories. We just can’t help ourselves. So if we see the slightest tendency in a group of people that share something with each other, like language or race, we immediately associate that behavior with that group. Thus, prejudices are formed and then where is the border to racism? So yes, we have to keep reminding ourselves to counter that tendency and remain curious and interested and nonjudgmental, so I’m very glad you put this all into writing. I will try to live by it!

    • expatriababy says:

      Thanks, Sine for your suport. Yes, I was worried about posting this. I seriously considered writing something a lot more bland, but this idea just wouldn’t leave me alone! I agree that a tendency towards xenophobia is natural, and likely inborn. Yet, still not something that should be easily accepted. There’s a lot to be gained by stretching beyond our comfort zones and accepting what is different. The process can be frustrating, but I believe that it will often result in more well rounded perspective.

      • Maria says:

        I’m so glad you did write this, Erica. You took what many of us feel but are afraid to say, and put it out there. That took guts and honesty.

  4. Pingback: The Ex-Pat’s Life…Where’s Home? « Broadside

  5. Monica says:

    I think that’s the beauty of being an expat. You go through all these experiences, you blame everyone around, and then, one day, you learn so much more about yourself, only by leaving your comfort zone, your home, your people.
    Living in 3 foreign countries so far, I also did this blame-it-on-the-host game, in the first 2 of them. From it, I got a momentary relief, coupled with longer term more difficult adjustment issues. One day, like you, I learned that it may be me, and not them, and it may be much easier if I’d just try to accept the culture and immerse in it. Now, living in the 3rd foreign country, I promised myself I won’t do the same mistakes again, and I enjoy every moment much more! Ironically, now I spot various expats constantly complaining about the culture they chose to live in. 🙂
    Thanks! Insightful post!

    • expatriababy says:

      Thanks for the support, Monica. I’m so glad to hear that you’ve settled into your third expat post with more ease. I’m hopeful that the same will happen for me wherever we end up. I’m just curious…would you say that your most recent posting is “easier” or more difficult than your previous posts? I ask because I’m searching for hopeful signs that I’ll do better job of adjusting and accepting difference on our next post, wherever (and how difficult) it may be.

      • Monica says:

        Yes, it’s definitely much easier settling in a country while accepting all its cultural traits at the same time. But I think it also very much depends on the person settling, and on the country itself. I am a person who gets excited at novelty, unfamiliar places and lack of routine. Some people really get scared of all that…
        In my 3 moves I realized the more you push away the culture, the more it will push you back to show you that if you chose it, you’ve got to learn to accept it too. My most difficult move so far was the second one, to Germany – and that is because the moment I stepped into this country I didn’t want to be there, I was fooling myself that I’d only be there for a few short months, I didn’t want to integrate, make friends or learn the language – and you can imagine that with this recipe, I had the hardest time! But I still strongly belive that it has something to do with the culture itself too! I happened to be in a closed culture with unfriendly people to add to the mix. 🙂
        And when I made the 3rd move, I consciously chose not to make the same mistakes, to learn from my past and to take, at least at the beginning, only the best from the new culture. You wrote it better, you must know it: acceptance of difference and looking with an open mind are the keys! 🙂

  6. Sine says:

    I totally agree with Monica. I’m not saying I’m free of that ugly judgmental thing, I still fall into that trap often, but I’m much more accepting of cultural differences now than I used to be, and as a result a much happier expat. I remember when we lived in Singapore, I was constantly annoyed by the “cannot’s” and the smiling without doing anything, etc, and now when I think back I can’t believe that I would have been annoyed at anything in such a beautiful and overall efficient country (now that I’ve moved to South Africa!). And now here I think the best thing that ever happened to me was moving to a place where “just now” means maybe this week or probably next. You become so much more relaxed about everything, and realize the world still turns and is quite beautiful. But Erica, you’re right, it’s not like one day you just have a revelation and then you’re over your xenophobia – it’s a much more gradual process and you have to keep working at it every day.

    • expatriababy says:

      Sine, you’re right about that…it takes time and experience to keep batting down xenophobia, I think. Like you pointed out, previous expat experience may not make adjustment or culture shock easier, per see, but it can help you put your current situation in perspective. When I lived in China, there were a lot of things I didn’t like (crazy public trasport comes to mind), but now in Japan, I find myself missing so much of what China had to offer and regretting that I didn’t appreciate it more. I feel like over the years and over the countries, I’ve come to better understand what makes for a good life abroad, and I think on the next move, I’ll be better able to seek out those things and appreciate much more what I find. Hopefully. Fingers crossed.

  7. expatlogue says:

    A really thought-provoking post, Erica. It’s been swirling around in my head since I read it on the day you put it up, but children and life have prevented me from getting a comment down lit now! I think everyone will recognise ourselves in that, and it was a courageous piece to write. I do believe that it is an inherent human characteristic, this need to sort, based on DIFFERENCES and not similarities, probably some Darwinian survival thing. But that led me on further, to thinking about not just how we see others, but how others see us.
    I have heard from people who have tried their utmost to throw off their national stereotypes and have felt exasperated with peoples insistence on judging them this way anyway. It reminded me of my own experience with my husbands family. I am Irish and my husband is Pakistani so we knew things were always going to be tough. We have been married for almost nine years, in which time I did all I could to bridge the cultural abyss between his family and myself. I learned Urdu and Punjabi, studied Arabic, immersed myself in Bollywood films, wore shalwar kameez and learnt to cook Punjabi cuisine ( I make great chapattis too!) but for all the surface acceptance, I still had to listen to criticism of white people and all their faults. I believed (perhaps naively) that I was not included in this criticism because I would be identified to other family and friends with pride, as being “different”. But, in the end, cultural differences won the day and I was admonished for not being “Pakistani”, something I could do nothing about, but was nevertheless held responsible for. When it came to the crunch, ranks closed and I was left out in the cold.
    So, in our mixed-race marriage, we are like many expats, caught between two cultures, accepted by neither, it is something we must learn to accept. Your perceived xenaphobic failings are common to us all. Whatever we do, we will always be defined by big badges like Nationality, we cannot run from them, no matter how hard we work personally to distance ourselves from them. I almost sacrificed my own identity to try to fit in. I realised it was a lot healthier to understand who I am and be accepted on my own terms. If someone has a problem with that, it’s their problem, not mine.
    Well done, an excellent post, but don’t be too hard on yourself 🙂

    • FIrst, Aisha, you HAVE to share your secret for making good chapattis. Mine always come out oval and too stiff.
      Second, thanks for the support!
      I think you’ve hit on an interesting point here – just how deep our cultural roots actually run. We can go to great lengths to integrate to a particular culture, but I do think that there will always be something that sets us appart. I don’t think, though, that this is necessarily a problem. Like you said, accepting and embracing these differences is the key. Trying to change one’s culture and integrate totally doesn’t really work.
      Incidentally, I’m also in a cross-cultural marriage. My husband has a particular personality quirk that I’ve always found a bit annoying, but I accepted it as part of him. Recently, I’ve come to discover that it’s actually a cultural thing, an outlook shared by many Swiss. With the knowledge that it’s cultural, I actually find it more annoying…. weird, eh? But I’m practicing my cultural tolerance and learning to accept it for what it is!

  8. Hey Erica! Lovely post! Yeah, xenophobia and racism are some tough demos to comfort in the mirror…I thought I had exorcised them all before coming here to Japan, but learned that, like alcoholism, you’re just a sip away from spiritual skid row. I learned I had the capacity to be a racist in NY. But the lesson learned here was that with Constant lifelong vigilance and conscious absinence from the triggers and enablers (found in those expat cliches quite often I’ve found) you could hold on to the you that makes the world a better place and keep the demon at bay!.Thsi is the first time I’ve read a post from an expat (besides myself of course hehe) that was willing and courageous enough to fess up. Most I’ve found would rather avoid the issue or convince themselves that it is human nature to dehumanize outsiders…i refuse to subscribe to that thinking! Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Loco, thanks for the kind comment. I think it is, to some extent, human nature to for ingroups and outgroups BUT it’s also human nature to do all sorts of unsavory things. Becoming a citizen of the world necessitates reining in these unhappy human tendencies and civilizing ourselves, controlling the urge to dehumanize, as you put it.
      You’re right, though, that most people would rather ignore this issue. But for me, it’s too important not to look at clearly.

  9. Nicola says:

    To Monica, sorry that you hated your time in Germany but your comment, “I happened to be in a closed culture with unfriendly people to add to the mix” sounds very ignorant and belligerent.
    I, too, lived in Germany and I think your comment is unfair. Food for thought…

    • Monica says:

      Nicola, I am only writing about my perception and my living of those experiences, I am not making generalizations about the entire German people. Perhaps I expressed myself poorly: I was living in a high-standard, international, yet close-minded community, part of the German culture (if you will), and I did have unfriendly German nationals that I had to deal with on a regular basis. I did not hate living in Germany, as you put it, but I resented the way they (the people I met and interacted with, those Germans) treated me and anyone around.
      Yes, it is unfair and ignorant to make generalizations. However, I was just talking about my experience – and I did mention, if you read the entire paragraph, that part of my negative experience was my attitude as well.

      • Sine says:

        In defense of Monica – I am German myself, so is my husband, and Germany is probably the one country we don’t want to live in again. A big part of that is weather, but the other big part is the culture. I find the way Germany is still male-dominated, and how many people think they know everything better very annoying. See, that is how stereotypes form, and I don’t think we’ll ever be completely rid of them. Because a lot of them are grounded in fact. What we need to do to combat them is not trying to see completely through them, because that’s impossible, but to be accepting of them, just like you would be of an elderly slightly crazy aunt. The interesting thing for me is that I can be much more accepting of new cultures where I don’t actually yet know all those annoying traits in detail, than of the culture I grew up in which I know so well.

  10. Monica says:

    Sine, thank you for your opinion. Now I have another German to like! 🙂 I don’t even want to get into the subject of male-dominated culture, and what I had to put up with from German male-colleagues whom I had to train or be responsible for ; me being a Romanian (so, Eastern-European lumped together) woman…
    I also think sometimes combatting, in a collaborative way, is the preferred solution, and not complete acceptance or tolerance.

  11. Alexandra says:

    This is a great post, great reminder and kind of gave me that *snap* back to reality. I am here (in China) it is my choice and next time I am involved in a conversation with foreigners that goes this way I can choose to not be a part or stand up for what I believe.

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