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Expat Writing – A Veritable Minefield

I’m been writing about US/UK stuff for about ten years now, so what have I learned? (My spellcheck is American, by the way.)

You can make fun of your home country almost ad nauseam and you won’t get much of a backlash as long as it’s well informed. Being a British expat makes it easier because of our well-known self-deprecating sense of humor – most Brits chime in with me. Viewing the UK from afar as I do these days, I can see the strengths and the weaknesses possibly more clearly than I did when I lived there. I can also voice my opinion on the weaknesses without fear of insults, obviously as long as I’m not implying “I’m so glad I’m out of there” as some expats do. That must get irritating to read if you’re actually living in that terrible place.However, the assumption, unless otherwise stated, is that even though you’ve left your country of origin, you think of it fondly and any criticism is either well-intentioned or just gentle ribbing.

But – No matter how long you’ve lived in your host country, and even if you’ve become a citizen, it’s not as acceptable to criticize it. I have been in the US for twenty-three years and became a citizen in 2002 (paying taxes long before that). I am allowed to vote so I consider it my responsibility to be informed before exercising that right. Being informed obviously leads me to have an opinion on one or two things, and, when I feel the circumstances are right, I will voice them. (Discussing politics or religion in the US is a whole nuther post however.) It doesn’t always go down well, and I’m told, the US isn’t the only place where an expat will experience this.

First I’ll get the “I don’t know how long you’ve been in the States but I’ve never heard of that” response. Possibly the most infuriating one, to which I usually politely ask why, just because the commenter has never heard/seen/tasted an item, it’s automatically wrong. This country is huge, and if there’s one thing I’m finding is that it’s a bottomless pit in terms of experiences, for both visitors and natives. Someone who has lived her entire life in Texas and Oklahoma for example, can’t really opine on what goes on in New Hampshire; the slang, the food, the climate are all different.

Then there’s “The problem with expats is that they don’t understand this country”. That’s usually when the commenter doesn’t agree with me, but can also be heard in the above example where the topic is new to the commenter. My response (if my original point is factually correct) is that actually yes, I do understand this country (or a particular issue) I just don’t happen to agree with it. This can get tiresome or hilarious as the commenter simply repeats his/her point, insisting that I “learn to read”. No matter how many times I suggest we “agree to disagree” they come back with increasingly offensive suggestions as to how I might come round to their way of thinking. Huffington Post commenters are particularly good at this; my last run-in ended with the assailant suggesting I’m autistic. As you can imagine, my response shamed him into shutting his mouth and skulking off to offend elsewhere.

Or there’s the deliberate ignoring of words like “In general”, “usually” and “for the most part”, which I sprinkle liberally throughout my work. (If I’ve learned anything over the past ten years it’s that some people lie in wait for errors, typos and generalizations.) Never fear, there is always at least one commenter who will cite the only exception known to man. Despite the fact that the next ten (American) commenters will say “Well it’s true in this part of the country” the original detractor will stick to his/her opinion that I’m “clueless”, making it up (why would I?) or hallucinating.

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I’m sure it’s true for all writing to some extent, but when you’re righting about what some might think isn’t your domain, you need the skin of a rhino. And a good proofreader!

Toni Summers Hargis has a new book – “The Stress-Free Guide to Studying In the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students”. (Summertime). She is also the author of “Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom” (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.

Read Toni's other Expat Focus articles here.

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