I’ve lived in the UK for over 20 years so the early expat days are a little foggy in my memory. I belong to some expat groups and each of these groups has members who have lived in the UK for anything from next month to thirty years. I mostly enjoy these groups as a place to share stories and laugh at our experiences. And it’s fun to be reminded of some of the things I used to think about a lot when I was still shiny and new in this expat life. Usually, at worst, the chatter on these threads is frustrated or annoyed about a cultural difference. Sometimes, more rarely, it becomes angry.
The anger is directed towards the UK and the people in it. When I see these threads it is always the new expats who are joining in.I can see the frustrations that have inspired the rants and I can see the inexperience—and sometimes close-mindedness, that have fuelled the rants.
I have mixed feelings when I read these threads. Sometimes I ignore them. Sometimes I feel indignation for my host culture. Sometimes I feel real frustration and anger towards the original poster and all the others who have joined in and I want to join in as well, but with a comment along the lines of ‘grow up.’
On the other hand, there are other times when I feel more sympathetic. Not because I agree with their anger, but because even though the early days are not always easy to remember, I do remember how rough those first few years can be. And then I feel sorry for the people in the threads. I want to show them a better way. I want to hold their hand and walk them through the chaos and then point them in the direction out to the light and say, ‘yep, it’s tough, but there’s a bright side to this and here’s a way to find it.’
But sometimes I can see there is no bright side for these strangers who post their stories. This woman is in a relationship that reads awfully abusive but she is afraid to leave her British husband because she is worried she will be prevented from taking the children home with her. That woman’s husband convinced her to move to the UK because it would help his career, and then he travels over 50% of the year so she is left on her own to learn how to live in the country she wasn’t sure about moving to in the first place.
Another woman moved to the UK for love, but her British husband has out-of-the-blue lost his job and she is still struggling to get her first job in the UK and what started out as a fairy tale has now descended to nightmare as she doesn’t even have enough money to go home to work for a while and return.
I can see why these people are struggling. Culture shock and homesickness are worst in the first few years and if you’re also struggling with the basic needs of security and companionship, then life is going to be very difficult indeed. I can then see why people get so angry about things that otherwise seem so easy to deal with. Several years ago I wrote about how we can apply Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to expat life and I see it’s relevance again and again. The hierarchy of needs is an excellent tool for new expats, but it won’t solve their problems, just allow them to understand why life can be so tough sometimes.
Emotional resilience is a frequently talked about skill amongst the expat community. I am a big supporter of emotional resilience for everyone, not just expats. It helps us deal with all kinds of life’s hazards. But it isn’t so simple to say that if these angry, bitter, sniping expats would just learn how to develop a bit of emotional resilience they’d be fine. And seasoned old expats like myself could do well to remember to be more patient with the new expats, even if that’s the only way we can offer help.
So now when I see these threads I either post a link to a site I think might be useful, or I offer a supportive word or I just walk on by, knowing they’re just venting and they don’t need anything other than to get the words out. The need to vent is something I certainly do remember about my early days.
How do you deal with new expats who complain all the time?
Or are you a new expat who has faced an experienced expat who has been less than sympathetic?
Michelle Garrett is an American expat making a life in Britain for over 20 years. Yes, she's still homesick for the States and yes, she'd be homesick for Britain if she moved back there!
Michelle is a freelance writer and blogs at The American Resident.