I met a young newly-arrived American student in France a couple of years ago and she reported having this conversation with her family back in the US:
"Uh, I'm not doing so well here. I...."
"Sweetheart, you are living in Paris, for heaven's sake. What kind of problems could you possibly be having? Don't you know how lucky you are? Please..."
I was reminded of that conversation when I read a reader review that described Rebecca Otawa's book about living in Japan as "whiny." Huh?
Oh, those ungrateful expats and their First World problems.
I thought that this was one to talk about because there is an empathy gap here you could drive an 18 wheeler truck through with space to spare.
Folks, the "firing line of life" does not suspend itself when a person buys a plane ticket and lands on a distant shore. Just about anything bad that could happen to a person in their home country can and does happen abroad. Nobody is inoculated against depression, substance abuse, serious illness, or marital problems just because he is 6,000 kilometers from home. On the contrary, all these things can be made so much worse when a person doesn't speak the language well or know the country well enough to find the resources he or she may have taken for granted back in the home country.
I find this notion that expats should not talk about the darker side of life abroad a little wacky. If the American student cited above had called her parents from some city within the US to talk about her struggles, would anyone expect them to reply: "Sweetheart, you are living in Sacramento, for heaven's sakes. What kind of problems could you possibly be having?"
So a person can have real problems in Peoria, but he's not allowed to have them in Paris (or Kyoto or Sao Paulo)? That's just horse manure, mes amis.
On the contrary, my experience has been that many expats are very reticent, even ashamed, to talk about their problems living abroad. A woman married to a European who is supposedly living some sort of fairy tale life (and her friends and family at home are living it vicariously through her) has one hell of a time admitting that the marriage isn't going particularly well or that her children are embarrassed by their foreign mother and her funny accent and they make fun of her in public. Since when is she not allowed to say how much all this hurts just because she's living in, say, Vienna?
Do people living abroad sometimes go over the top with the complaining and fail to cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude? Absolutely. Because they are human beings, not saints. To expect otherwise is to hold them to some impossible standard solely because of an accident of geography.
And to be brutally honest here, I've noticed a fair amount of complaining from my compatriots back in the homeland over the years.
So here's a proposition for you, my fellow citizens back in the good old US of A. I promise to sit through yet another whine-fest about the evil Republicans (or nefarious Democrats) and how all of this has personally affected you if you return the favor and really listen to a few honest words about what's going on where I am.