It seems that the longer expats stick around the developing countries they choose as a second home, the more irritated they get. Things are a little different in Mexico than in, say, the U.S or Europe. Here, the gas truck blares its jingle out of a gigantic static-y loudspeaker every morning; here, the term “ahorita” (right now) refers to an occasion 3-6 hours down the road (or maybe mañana).
It may seem pathetically obvious that yes, when one lives in Mexico, things—like time and noise and customer service—are a little different. But believe me, the longer the expat is away from home, the more shocking and abrasive this concept is. It’s a travel paradox.
You see, a pattern I’ve noticed with expats – and I’m referring here to expats who’ve chosen to settle in developing countries – is that the longer they actually live overseas, the more the differences get to them, until expats start referring to the locals with a condescending “they” as if they were an alien race that had somehow invaded the streets of the quaint, pretty little Mexican town or the upscale Beijing neighborhood where these expats had previously lived in much deserved tranquility.
I am terrified of becoming one of these they-sayers. It is a very easy trap to fall into. I think the longer expats stick around a place like Mexico, the more a sense of entitlement starts to creep over them (ok, fine, I’m including myself in the “them”) and the more they start to feel indignant if they’re not greeted with a smile and served their coffee within the allotted corporate three minute time slot.
This is scary for the following reasons:
A) because it reeks of imperialism
B) because it makes expats into hypocritical assholes
Why do many expats move to developing countries? I think for many, the answer is one of the following:
a) I’m tired of capitalist-consumer U.S workaholic culture
b) I want something more “real”: all sorts of problematic ideologies behind this but hey, I can identify with it. Some sort of relationship with people that feels more natural than, “And would you like a blueberry nut bar with that, sir?”
c) I like colorful walls/coffee/the laid-back pace of life/the challenge of another culture/the insanity of a big foreign city/the freedom to enjoy things like blue sky and learning another language and a sense of community
d) I want to be more aware of everything around me and want that jolt of travel and excitement that comes from sipping a 10 peso beer in a darkened Mexican cantina on Friday afternoon
e) Life where I’m from is boring, is a given, is simply too routine, and/or I don’t fit in
Great. So a second home abroad gives one or all of these experiences to expats, and also – many times – gives them an incredibly reduced cost of living and the freedom, in my case, to live as a starving artist without quite starving and with the ability to even afford a whole liter (!) jug of Corona from time to time. Cool.
So why all the bitching? And why does it increase the longer one is away from home, when one should supposedly, be increasingly tolerant of cultural differences?
I remember a fellow teacher at the language school where I taught in Oaxaca going on a rampage about a BranFruit bar. BranFruit bars, for your information, are nasty, mangy little turds of granola bars cemented together with neon-colored “jam.” They are mass-produced by Bimbo, your friendly neighborhood junk food corporation. Why in the world it occurred to this girl that BranFruits would be a healthy local breakfast, I don’t know. Is Mexico known for specializing in fibrous granola bars? No.
But these are the kinds of things that, after awhile, get to expats. She was ranting and raving about how unhealthy the food was here and how they couldn’t even make a frickin’ granola bar right. And the thing was, I sympathized with her. I was irritated because people walk veerrrrrrryyyy slowly and I walk with the rapid, every-second-of-my-day-is-filled-with-purpose stride of the Busy American. I’d zoomed around who knows how many meandering grandmas and school kids on my way to work (after leaving home, as usual, with exactly 16 minutes for a 30 minute walk.)
So I could identify with the BranFruit rage. But at the same time identify it as disturbing. This is my Number One Fear as an expat: the creeping sense of entitlement, the outrage, the sense of being offended by the very same things—cultural differences—that caused me to come here in the first place.
Of course, I should insert a disclaimer here saying that some things, of course, merit complaining—serious racial or sexual discrimination, being harmed or mugged, being manipulated or taken advantage of… But I think the average expat has the intellectual capacity to distinguish between basic cultural differences and these other, more individual or wider societal issues.
DailyGood: 20 Ways to Travel
Are we just born to complain? I tend to keep away from the constant complainers, because they are the ones that seem permanently unhappy; I often wonder why they stay in one place if they are that unhappy. I've certainly complained throughout my travels, but I think that there has to come a point where we accept cultural differences enough to be able to live with them for a certain time period. What do you think of the article? Do you find yourself complaining more about a place, the longer you live there or do you find yourself accepting more and complaining less?
Nope, not me. Lived 19 years in Mexico and another five in Central America (that accounted for half of my adult life by 2000). Home sweet home. Never missed The USA. Never felt culture shock, was never lonely or depressed. Never felt I'd made an error by going there. Never felt discriminated. Never complained (in Thailand, Korea, China, yes). Loved all the differences. Got the wrong guy, PB. Made the wrong assumptions, PB.
^I never made any assumptions. I only posted the article because I thought it could make for interesting discussion. So you never complained when you were abroad?
The article was about expats abroad, but yes there are complainers everywhere. Perhaps we are just made to complain. I felt the need to post the article because I liked it.
It could be that as our life takes on more definition and our routine becomes more established we may feel more in control or our destiny. Things start to fit together in many ways and we feel that we can now function rather than merely react to what is happening around us in our new adopted country. That may extrapalate into expecting the best from the world we left behind being added to what advantages we have found in our new homes giving us some kind of utopia. In a sense, we've broken free of our bonds of birthplace, have the power to negotiate the problems in our expat lives but the breadth of vision to apply the advanatages we left behind to improve our lot.
Of course, when we cannot get the advantages we left behind to translate to our expat life, comparisons are then made and are obviously going to be negative - such as failing to follow simple rules of the road that would massively reduce daily carnage in Thailand. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognise the advantages of everyone driving on opposite sides of the road when travelling in opposite directions but Thailand can't make the leap. Thus the control/self discipline left behind in first world countries which would stifle the chaotic but colourful life of Thailand that so appeals actually becomes desireable in certain areas.
Just an example of what the article is 'driving' at
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I never complain. It's too hot, I can't speak enough of the local lingo and I just can't be arsed!
aren't u the guy who bitched all day long when the US embassy wouldn't give u any free money ?Never complained
I think one trap you can fall into is thinking that your home country has stayed the same since you left.
So you're not really negatively comparing one country to another - you're actually negatively comparing 2010 with, say, 1990 and not realising it.
Very interesting phenomenon.
Older guys in Thailand are a caricature unto themselves. The slower pace of life leaves them with nothing to fill the various voids which were the cause of them leaving their home countries in the first place. The younger ones are sometimes so full of themselves (I was reading Stickman before this: Jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeezus...) that the dizzying highs and the inevitable crushing lows cannot be sustained for long before a kind of emotional rigor mortis sets in. Then the wings melt.
I married two separate women to save them from poverty - which was big o' me.
But if you come and go over a span of say .. 30 years, another conundrum appears. You realize you don't fit in anywhere. I like to call this campsite shock. It's beyond culture shock, and beyond reverse culture shock. I don't know where I'm going, forgotten most of where I've been, might as well gather some twigs and get a little fire going. Maybe some innocent lamb will wonder by and settle in for a bit of R&R.