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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Don't Tell Me About Your Problems Living Abroad

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.



Anonymous said...

Yup. Good comments.

It doesn't always go so well.

It's amazing that we don't hear about the total catastrophes.

Mark E.

Anonymous said...

Great comments.
I've always been told I was "privileged" to get the opportunity to go abroad - to the US - and earning a lot more than what my friends earn in France.
A lot of the comments are about envy and jealousy.
Funny also, how they not too compassionate about medical costs here when I mention how expensive it is...
When it comes to family, the comments are slightly different. Some are happy as long as I am happy here. Some can't believe I chose to live so far away from my family and how it hurt them.

Ellen Lebelle said...

Oh, you hit the nail on the head.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Mark, Yeah, we don't hear about them but I've certain seen some train wrecks. And we talk about them amongst ourselves but I've yet to see someone write about it. Except in fiction. Passion Fruit, for example. That one I would recommend.

One that I've thought about writing about is a situation I saw when had only been in France for a couple of years. An American woman who had married her Frenchman, sold everything and moved to the Paris area. One month after she arrived her Frenchman announced that he had made a terrible mistake and he wanted a divorce. She didn't even have her residency card yet, much less a job or a permanent place to live.

@anonymous, I hear that word "privilege" a lot. And an assumption of great wealth. A great example of "contempt before investigation." The days when plane tickets were so expensive as to be out of the reach of the average person are long gone. People with limited cash who really want to go somewhere find some very creative ways of getting to far off places and staying. Most common one I see is teaching. You speak English or French, there's a country that wants native speakers for the schools and boom, you're in.

@Ellen, I just had to get that off my chest. I am a bit tired of conversations with folks in the US homeland about how horrible things are and how it's all the fault of part A or party B. Frankly from where I sit, they look pretty much alike. And this nonsense about it being the fault of one party and how putting the other into power will make everything just wonderful? Magical thinking. But the passion behind it is just amazing and frankly also a bit boring to listen to ad nauseum.

Anonymous said...

A bit off topic.

What I find interesting is the idea that somehow people in the traveler's destination county are all there for the travelers entertainment. That, somehow, residents of Paris, to name just one, are employees of Disneyland. No one should have a bad day, be rushed, or just be the grumpy guy who resembles the grumpy guy in their own neighborhood.

The places you visit or go to live are, just like your current place, inhabited by people who are busy, have real lives with their share of horrible days.

Consider those bilingual signs in off-shore airports - I don't often see them in US airports. And I am always grateful for the lovely people who speak English as their second or possible third language.

And, yes, I have been annoyed by rude people in other countries, but I am annoyed by rude people in the US. Get a grip guys.

Victoria FERAUGE said...


Oh yeah one of the things that drives me nuts about the Life Abroad formula is the "meet the wacky but lovable natives, observe and learn their quaint customs."

And just for the hell of it I'd love to see a different POV around some of those books: A French spouse talking about his American wife, British-Japanese kids talking about life with Dad. Wouldn't it be fascinating to talk to the Rebecca Otawa's neighbors? Only one I have ever seen is Giesbert's book about his American dad.

井上エイド said...

It depends on the context. Many of these people, although they'll never say it, are saying in code "I want this country to be more like my country because I'm unable to adapt." They'll never say this directly, and they're often unaware they're doing it: they make the assumption that How It's Done In Their Home Country is a Universal Standard.

You normally find these types in gaijin friendly (picture menus with English translations) bars and watering holes, using in foreigner hangouts like Roppongi, Shibuya, and Akasaka. They get going after two drinks. That's my cue to say "Check please! Sorry, early day tomorrow. Gotta run!" :-)

I don't know about France, but I do know that there are so many of them in Japan by proportion that they're kind of a lampooned stereotype; see #7 of "The ten gaijin you'll meet (#5 is a variant of the same thing).

Another trait of the "gaijin whiner" is that they're usually native English speakers and from G7 countries — the majority of the foreign population in Japan is Korean and Chinese (and to a order of magnitude less degree Brazilians, though many emmigrated in huge numbers in the early 2000s)

Sure Korean and Chinese have complaints about Japan, but the way they frame their complaints is different: it's never "Japan should be more like my country".

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Oh that list was hilarious (and a bit cruel).

"Why can't this country be more like MY country?" Well, yes, that's pretty common and I know of one Japanese in France who expressed that more than once after she arrived. So I'm not so sure that this phenomemon is limited to citizens of G-7 countries. It may be darn near universal - the difference may be that some individuals from some cultures feel a lot more comfortable putting those feelings out there in public (in blogs, for example, or books.)

One of the sterotypes on the list reminded me of something else I've noticed - an attempt to create an expat hierarchy of places. How is this game played? Well, living in France is much cooler than living in Canada or Mexico, for example. But living in Asia is much cooler than living in Europe. But Japan doesn't count because it's a modern OECD country and to be really REALLY cool, one needs to live in the REAL (not modern) parts of Asia like a village in Cambodia.

It's a really wacky form of one-upmanship and funny as hell.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Oh and I had to chuckle at the one aboutthe sterotype of the "middle-aged bankers who gripe about Japan's cultural oddities but end up hitting on 30-year-old office workers."

Uh yeah I know someone who tried that (years ago) and he ended up being threatened with a sexual harassment lawsuit. Have no idea if the threat was real or not but I do know that she walked away with a pile of cash since his company absolutely did not want the accusation to go public.

Inaka Nezumi said...

"And just for the hell of it I'd love to see a different POV around some of those books: A French spouse talking about his American wife, British-Japanese kids talking about life with Dad. Wouldn't it be fascinating to talk to the Rebecca Otawa's neighbors? Only one I have ever seen is Giesbert's book about his American dad."

You might be interested in the book(s) ダーリンは外国人 (Darling is a foreigner). They are actually manga, I think, though I have to admit I've never read them myself. But written by a Japanese woman about life with her foreign husband.

I think I have seen Rebecca Otowa profiled once on TV, or else someone in a very similar situation.

You might also be interested in the TV show YOUは何しに日本へ? (What are you doing in Japan?), where they hang out at the Arrivals gate and nab some foreign-looking person who has just entered the country, and try to get permission to follow them around as they do whatever they are doing in Japan. See Japan through the eyes of a foreigner. Monday nights on TV Tokyo.

Inversely, there is also a Friday night program where they hunt down Japanese people living in various locations around the world, and ask them how they came to be living there and what life there is like. (Usually the answer is something like, "Well, I popped out on a lark for a bit of adventure, then life happened, and now here I still am, decades later." Similar to a lot of foreigner-in-Japan stories.)

井上エイド said...

"I know of one Japanese in France who expressed that more than once after she arrived. So I'm not so sure that this phenomenon is limited to citizens of G-7 countries."

Japan is a G-7 country. ;) I picked the "G-7" moniker at random as a euphemism for "rich, highly developed countries with high standards of living and stable democracies".

I say that because these people are often unaware that the bulk of their problems fall under the mocking hashtag of "#firstworldproblems".

For example, a G-7 #firstworldproblems person is someone who will complain that the free Wi-Fi coverage that has sign-up pages in English in Japan is horrible. And that the McDonald's in Japan doesn't automatically give you six packs of ketchup with your order of fries.

A person that came from a less democratic or developed place will be amazed that they can get cell phone reception anywhere in the world.

井上エイド said...

P.S. regarding your example of Japanese complaining in France, there's actually an expression for that in Japanese:

"Paris Syndrome" (Japanese: "Pari Shōkōgun")

It's most commonly used as a term of derision to describe Japanese (usually female) tourists that get upset that the Paris they visited or lived in didn't live up to the romantic, fashion, and art movies of Parisian life and romance published in the sixties and seventies.

Have a nice day!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Nezumi-san, I will look for both the TV shows and the manga and report back.

I also had a contact that surprised the hell out of me. A Japanese woman who wants to have coffee with me and talk about life in Japan as viewed through the eyes of a foreigner. I was a little perplexed when I got the note because frankly I've never had a native in France be interested in my perspective.

@井上エイド And I stand corrected. How did I miss that one? Clearly I have a few stereotypes to overcome.

There is a "Paris syndrome"? You've got to be kidding me. On the other hand I can see it. Paris is a wonderful city and I love it and the people I know there. Because I love it I feel entirely comfortable saying that it is often very dirty, it smells and the standards of polite behaviour are very different from Japan. I can see how Paris might not live up to someone's expectations. Thanks for cluing me in.

Unknown said...

Oh thank you! Being the Cinderella Story for the family back home is frustrating as hell!

You met a great guy, moved to southern France, and you have complaints???

Frankly, I would have had less problems staying within my familiar environment. (and I think I went through a Paris syndrome type of period where I lost it for a while there).

I often say, "In the story of Cinderella, the story didn't go on to tell of the struggles she had faced with his environment. Look more at "The Little Mermaid".. the pain in every step, the muteness, the confusion, and the eventual choice to kill the self and become another. "

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Leah, That's it EXACTLY! Thank you. I love that term Being the Cinderella Story. And don't you dare change the plot line by being human...

Carolyn Barnabo said...

Hi Victoria - just discovered your amazing blog. Can't believe it took me so many years. Sigh.

Anyway, brilliant post. The 'privilege' word (also 'lucky') really gets to me at times but I try not to let it any more (lived outside US since 1995).

Cheers from Felixstowe on the east coast of England.

Carolyn B

Leslie in Oregon said...

Thank you for the reminder. It has been a long time since I lived abroad, and I have forgotten, or buried memories of, many of the challenges I faced and how they made me feel.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Leslie, Maybe it's like childbirth. If we didn't forget all the bad parts, we would never have the nerve to do it again.

I saw a wonderful quotation the other day - not sure where it comes from. But I thought it was the perfect answer to someone who asks why people go abroad in the first place:

"A ship is safe in harbor. But that's not what ships are for."

Victoria FERAUGE said...


Welcome to the Flophouse!

Thank you so much for reading and for your very kind comment.

Glad to have you here and if you have a chance I'd live to hear about how you ended up in Felixstowe.