The Ex-Pat’s Dilemma: Where’s Home?

A New And Accvrat Map Of The World.
Where in the world are you? Where is home? For now or for good? Image via Wikipedia

If you’ve ever left your home country behind to live abroad — as many of us do for work, study, a partner’s job or your parents’ profession — you’ve felt the visceral punch of cultural dislocation.

You’ve become an ex-patriate.

(Not, as some think, an ex-patriot!)

The money/food/temperature/humidity/foliage/animals/language/flag/national anthem/what they eat for breakfast is all different, new, disorienting, unfamiliar.

What do you mean X is considered normal behavior? Are you kidding?

You might not be able to read road signs or communicate clearly with your physician, grocer, hairdresser, dentist or your kids’ friends.

If you stay long enough, and remain open to the culture of your new country (and there may be several along the way), you change, likely forever. Then, when you go “home” to the country you initially left behind, it now feels weird and alien.

I’ve worked as a cross-cultural counselor for Berlitz and loved it. I counseled senior American executives moving to (my native) Canada and Canadians moving to (my adopted land of 22 years) the United States. I love being the middleman, explaining the minutiae of daily life and social cues and faux pas.

Language skills are barely half the battle if you fail to understand the most fundamental attitudes underlying local choices, whether what to bring to a dinner when you’re an invited guest to knowing which local colleges are truly worth the time and money for you or your loved ones.

The learning curve is vertical.

I’ve just spent three weeks back in Canada, a mix of caring for my mother and vacation time, and it’s the longest I’ve been back since 1998, when I also spent three weeks here. But the culture shock this time, for a variety of reasons, has proven by far the hardest ever, partly because — surprise! — I have now truly adopted many of the behaviors and attitudes and expectations of my home just outside New York City.

In Canada, let alone Western Canada, many of these are deemed downright rude. Like:

Directness. In New York, where people rush about at warp speed all the time, few people waste time. It’s too valuable. So we often say exactly what we think, for better or worse, and get on with things. But being direct can lead to openly expressed differences of opinion which, in some cultures is a toxic choice…

Confrontation. In Canadian culture, about as popular as belching. Just. Not. Done. Those who do it or seek it are seen as boors and best ignored, no matter how urgent or pressing the underlying issue.

Expecting answers to my questions, promptly — if at all. Hah! I am appalled and frustrated beyond measure at the number of unreturned phone calls and emails, from banks, physicians, health care workers, academia. Everyone. I have an assistant, a woman my age who is very polite, tactful, calm, hired to help me promote my new book, a necessity for every author.

She is burned out, fed up and deeply shocked at the profound indifference she encounters from everyone she contacts. I had forgotten — and it’s one powerful reason I chose to leave Canada in the first place — that Canadians hate fame, fortune, celebrating success and those who achieve it. They sneer at it and deride it and make fun of it. Americans live, eat and breathe it. Talk about a cultural divide!

Expecting excellent customer service from the medical system. As if. In the U.S., where MRIs are as common and easily gettable (if you have insurance) as M & Ms (a popular candy, for the non-Americans among you), doctors are usually pretty responsive and respectful. Because Americans, who expect great service everywhere, can and will sue at the drop of a scalpel. Canadian physicians play a totally different role and they retain tremendous power as a result. There are so few of them and they are so busy. They expect deference. They don’t seem to use email. They may take a while to return a phone call. They are essentially paid government employees, and seem to have less accountability to patients or their families. A friend, with a chronic health problem, told me; “Doctors don’t return phone calls.”

But, after that plane takes off from YVR today, I will miss:

Civility. Essential to the Canadian character. It’s assumed and expected. I have retained the habit, which I heard a lot here, of saying “Take care” at the end of even the briefest conversations with bus drivers or bank clerks.

Compassion. In a nation where everyone has access to cradle-to-grave healthcare and $10,000 university educations (or less, per year), caring for strangers is how Canadian public policy enacts larger cultural values. In the mememememememe culture of America, where there is almost no social safety net and growing income ineqality, I miss this a great deal.

I’m aware that it’s perhaps a lot easier and simpler in a nation of 30 million (Canada) than in one with 300 million people, and one with a history of racial brutality.

Shared cultural references. I really enjoy being able to talk about almost anything with people who know exactly what I’m referring to, whether its Air Canada, Big Turks (a fab candy bar) or the NDP (the leftist political party.) Fewer Americans seem to know or care much about life beyond their borders.

Here’s a terrific post by a former expat wife and mother, who lists 10 ways to be (come) an ugly expat.

And for those seeking practical advice and face-to-face help, there’s a conference March 17-19 in Washington, DC, held by Families in Global Transition.

Have you been an ex-pat? How did you like it?

And how was it when you re-patriated?

16 thoughts on “The Ex-Pat’s Dilemma: Where’s Home?

  1. I can totally relate! When people ask me where I’m from, I have to give them a list of options! It must have been quite gratifying for you to realise how NY has become your home – seems like you’re taking the best of both!
    Travel home safely, and happy reunion with your man!
    Sunshine xx

  2. The expat’s dilemma: friends in the new country compain that you don’t seem keen on shedding your old habits — like civility, courtesy, patience — while friends and family in the old country complain that you have become “so American”.

    1. So true!

      I was always derided when living in Canada for already being “American” — too brash, aggressive, openly ambitious. I find I’m always about 20% off, not quite American nor Canadian “enough.”

      Which might be why I feel so at home in France! There, for sure, je suis une etrangere.

  3. BP Quadius

    I could write a whole entry about this topic myself. I spent a total of 9+ years in Nürnberg Germany. While I did have the luxury of working for the U.S. Army (yes I’m a former soldier) when I was not on duty I lived in the “economy” (slang for everything outside of our army post).

    I tried to learn as much German as possible and to become accustomed to all of the different customs, and I was aided by my German wife, but I always face the battle of being an outsider. It wasn’t until I returned home four years into my second tour there that I truly felt like a outsider in my own country. I was used to efficiency and that’s not what you get in our airports. While Germans are often pretty rude, I always found them to be quite hospitable if you try to speak their language. When Americans are traveling they almost always expect someone to speak their language. We are an arrogant bunch sometimes.

    You have captured a lot of the problems beautifully. It is a dilemma when you live somewhere for so long. Although, it can also be a problem here in the states. If you’re from somewhere in the Southeast, you’re going to be in for a rude awakening if you try to live in New York city. Just an example. Of course the reverse is also true. 🙂

  4. BP, it’s interesting you know this so well.

    I often wish, intensely, for some of the qualities I found living in France (a devotion to beauty, order, long lunches!) in the U.S. which I find workaholic and offers almost no social safety net. I wish for the Mexican love of family; the English enjoyment of nature and eccentricity and the American willingness to take risks.

    One thing I truly value about NY, and it’s got good and bad, is how quickly things move and how direct most people are. I know the South and elsewhere can move more slowly and with greater gentility, but one of the things I get crazed by in Canada as well is that faux politeness that never leads to action. I’d rather have someone be a little (or a lot) brusque and get stuff DONE than have lots of sweetness and never get anywhere. But others might feel the opposite!

  5. globalcoachcenter

    Interesting. 🙂 I have to disagree on one thing though — and I am doing that without knowing the Canadian health care system. But I’ve known and experienced health care systems in more than 5 countries and I absolutely HATE the US system. The bureaucracy in doctors’ offices is overwhelming; no one cares about your health — they only care enough NOT to get sued; the admin gate keepers are rude; the doctors spend a total of 2 minutes with you during which they type away on their laptops and rarely listen, etc, etc, etc. I had better experiences in every other country I have been too — and believe me I have been to quite a few.

    Bottom line — health care should be about “caring” for people and their health. I hardly ever feel anyone cares for my health in the US. I am just another “case” on a conveyor belt of insured “cases” who must be prevented from filing a law suit. 😦

    1. I hear you!

      I agree, in general, but have also managed to find (with some looking!) American doctors who look me in the eye, know what I do for a living and understand that I am NOT a machine to be repaired as aggressively and expensively as possible. I have zero hesitation letting every single one of my physicians know when they are rude or dismissive of me and my concerns; there ARE (unless you live in a very rural area) plenty of other choices out there.

      I think much of their behavior, as you point out, is driven less by “care” and more by fear of a lawsuit. I also think, when physicians’ education (as in Canada and other nations) is heavily government subsidized, there is a different relationship between doctor and patient…in Canada I knew full well that my high taxes had helped educate my doctors so felt more of a partnership with them. The Canadian judicial system also makes it much more difficult to sue and awards lower amounts, so that incentive to go after your doctor through the courts is tempered.

    2. Loved this article with one exception – I have to agree with globalcoachcenter about the US healthcare system which in my experience (14 years in Silicon Valley) has been appalling. Our experience has been that the health care companies reimburse doctors for office visits and nothing else, so doctors demand you come and see them. I’ve never managed to figure out email or phone healthcare in the US. Even the phone-based nurses just sends you to see the doctor every time you call. Then they leave you sitting in their waiting room to wait at their pleasure since they’re busy and important – just like in Canada.

      And of course you get that delightful American “surprise” a couple months later when the insurance and the doctor finally decide what you get to pay for your part of the event.

      Enjoy your doctor emails! I’m very jealous.

      1. Well, I admit I have not yet been able to get a dr. to email me. I hear some do…Unicorns?

        I came home two days ago to find $1,000 worth of surprise medical bills refused by my insurance company for the physical therapy I demanded (from a physiatrist, not the surgeon who just wants to replace my hip, right away). I am sick to death of dancing between dox, insurance greedheads and hospitals.

        Having had 3 orthopedic surgeries in the past decade, and facing a major one with hip replacement, I know to ask a LOT of questions about costs before even considering an operation. Sadly, I have now seen four of the group practice’s six doctors so far. I think I get some sort of discount by now!

  6. Judy

    Excellent observations. I haven’t lived in the US but I repatriated to Canada a couple of years ago from the Middle East and noticed many of the cultural differences you mention. I thought I’d done a pretty good job of keeping up-to-date by reading online, keeping in touch with friends and visiting regularly, but there were still huge gaps – things that had changed and things which I’d forgotten.

    I attended the Families in Global Transition Conference for the first time last year and will be there again next week, now as a very involved volunteer. I highly recommend it, even for the ex-expats, as I realize now that I will probably always feel something of an outsider no matter where I live.

    1. Thanks!

      I always feel like an outsider. I did in Canada; and fairly obviously did while living in Mexico and France, although I love both countries. I feel an outsider in the U.S. in some essential ways, and always will. I like being able to toggle between identities…

      What are some of your toughest adjustments? Do you think you’ll move overseas again?

      1. Judy

        I would say the toughest things are adjusting to the Canadian workforce and making new (additional) friends. Employers here seem far more interested in what I used to do in Canada 15 years ago, than what I did overseas. In fact they seem no more interested in my expatriate experience than if it had been a vacation. As for friends I’ve had most success connecting with other expats, but because that’s because I’ve actively sought them out.

  7. Judy, I find this as well. It’s a little (or a lot) sad that people are uninterested in what has been probably the coolest experiences of your life! But I think they can’t relate to what they don’t know. I gave up trying to explain the daily reality of my life here because until you’re a part of it, it’s all abstract.

    My closest friends here in the U.S., probably no accident, are people who have lived overseas and understand what life is like beyond the U.S. or Canadian borders and systems. I don’t know many Canadians here; in NYC, many work in law or finance, and I don’t meet them.

  8. Where’s home? Such a good question. I’m from the UK, I’ve lived in France, Argentina and now live in Spain. When I’m in Spain I find myself talking about home = the UK. And when I’m in the UK, I talk about going home to Spain!
    Maybe it doesn’t matter?

    1. I still refer to Canada as “home” although I have not lived there since 1988….I’ve lived in England, France, Mexico and the U.S. so all of these, in some ways, also feel like home.

      I think “home” might be where we are the happiest….and that might be many places!
      Thanks for stopping by…

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