Expat traps

I enjoy being an expatriate, but it's not the life for everyone. If you're an unwilling expat, i.e. you've been ordered to pull up stakes and move halfway around the world to an alien culture, life can seem miserable indeed. It's inevitable that people in such situations lash out in frustration, meaning they're usually not exactly pleasant to be around.

But even we willing expats are prone to falling into psychological and moral traps that are inherent to the very condition of being expats. I wrote earlier about a minor one, exotic food machismo. Here I'd like to introduce you to three much more serious expat traps.

Trap 1: I'm ever so clever! It's easy for expats to assume we're more clever and sophisticated than 'the locals'. There's a reason this trap is so seductive: expats by definition comprise highly unrepresentative samples of their home cultures. We typically work in mid- to upper-level jobs that warrant the maintenance of our expensive presence in a foreign culture. But it's very easy to confuse greater expertise in a narrow job-related area with higher intelligence. There are always going to be many, many locals who are far smarter than the average expat. Yet some expats come to believe in their own indispensability -- how could the locals ever be trusted to run things right?

Trap 2: The Moan Zone. Since many expats see lots of other expats on social occasions, we can become very good at verifying each others' prejudices -- and we quickly discover we can experience the best of two worlds when we want to whine. On one hand, we can look back with condescending glee on our poor benighted countrymen who've never traveled and 'experienced the world'. On the other, we can expound endlessly upon the deficiencies of our adopted land when compared to how 'things are done properly' back home: You have a bad maid? I have a bad maid! You couldn't get the deli staff at Park-n-Shop to distinguish the Parmigiano-Reggiano from the Pecorino Romano? What do you know -- I couldn't either! Hanging out in the Moan Zone can be fun for a while -- just about all of us know how to savor a good gripe -- but it soon turns sour, boring, and corrosive. And as you get more and more comfortable in the Zone, the harder it is to escape, since you're more unhappy, and find more and more things to moan about.

Trap three: The too-quick click. At the other end of the spectrum from the expat obsessed with the comforts of home is the one hell-bent to assimilate into the local culture -- or at least to think that's what he's doing. This is a trap the younger, more earnest expat is more likely to fall into. He arrives in Hong Kong (usually as a teacher or exchange student) brimming with enthusiasm for having a real live 'cross-cultural experience', having being indoctrinated with the glories of multiculturalism in school and university. Within weeks of arrival, he's lecturing just about everybody about just about everything -- from disquisitions on his homeland (usually its many flaws and hypocrisies) which he inflicts on his new Chinese acquaintances (often his students); to monologues expounding his intimate knowledge of Taoist burial chants delivered to other expats. He's well-meaning, but he's assuming he's able to force the 'click' of adjusting to a new culture to happen, when in fact it's likely to be months or even years in the future before it really can occur -- assuming it ever actually does! In fact, our too-quick-clicker rapidly diminishes his chances for true cultural adaptation by being too arrogant (albeit in a sort of back-door way) to shut his mouth, open his eyes, and let things soak in.

I can hear the chorus of expat denials already starting: I won't fall into any of those traps! But the forces that push you towards them are powerful indeed, since they are rooted deep in human nature. How well do you really resist them?