Why changing countries can be such a challenge

English: Montage of 15 Canadians from 14 diffe...
English: Montage of 15 Canadians from 14 different ethnic backgrounds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s an excellent, helpful blog post recently chosen for Freshly Pressed, written by one of my favorite bloggers, a Canadian woman who has since re-patriated:

I made the same mistake a lot of people make: assuming that moving to a “similar” culture is a cakewalk. Blaine is the first to admit he thought the same thing, and we’re not alone. A study published in the International Journal of Human Resource Management found that

“in the absence of complete information, expatriates may be creating stereotypes on the basis of language similarity. In particular, those expatriates who spoke the language of the host country expected an ‘easier’ experience…. In fact, these expatriates may need additional CCT [cross-cultural training] to help overcome their stereotypes or their inappropriate expectations.”

I know that several Broadside readers — like Conor in Korea, Katharina in Germany, Rian in Canada, Holly in Australia, Wanderlust Gene in Sri Lanka — are living far away from your homelands (Ireland, Ireland, the U.S., Canada and Australia.)

It demands a real re-boot of your notions of identity and belonging.

It’s not surprising to me that two of my closer friends here in New York, where I moved from Canada in 1989, are people who have moved around globally, like an American-born woman who met her French husband when they were both working in Tokyo. It helps to share international references with them — only about one-third of Americans even own a passport and many have no idea, (or interest in), how the rest of the world functions.

I left Canada in January 1988 to move to a small town in New Hampshire, (double culture shock after living in Toronto, Paris, London and Montreal).  I moved in June 1989 to a small suburban New York town, 25 miles from Manhattan — whose towers I can see, glimmering like Oz, in the distance.

I lived in Mexico at 14 and France at 25. But my adjustment to life in the United States has been tougher for me in some ways than either of those, for the reasons Maria so wisely analyzes:

People tend to fixate on language differences, but of course it goes much deeper than that — we often come up against values, attitudes, and behaviours that we mistakenly assume will be the same as ours. For Blaine, one of the biggest issues was the famous British reserve. “It’s true,” he says. “The stiff upper lip really does exist.”

“That’s funny,” says Aisha. “I find the Canadian veneer of politeness very difficult to penetrate. I find the British more direct — but maybe that’s just because I’m more familiar with the non-verbal cues.”

Canadians live, as many Europeans do, in a “nanny state”, a country where it’s normal to pay a lot of tax — income, sales tax, tax on gasoline and wine and beer, even stamps — and expect a lot in return: free health care and heavily subsidized secondary education, to name two most important. You can apply for government grants for all sorts of things.

Map of Toronto
Map of Toronto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a small country in population — 34.5 million — but enormous in size. Canadians tend not to move around nearly as often as Americans, for a variety of reasons. There are only a few major cities: Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary; if you don’t speak excellent French, Montreal and Ottawa can present difficulties.

One of the major  behavioral differences to adjust to between Canadians and Americans is their differing appetite for risk…Canadians hate it. They hate conflict. They hate confrontation. They’d rather simply ignore your calls and emails than say” “No, we’re not interested.”

Move to the United States and you’re in for some serious culture shock and some significantly different attitudes.

Standing up and speaking out carry risks. But in the States, people go to prison, (like entrepreneur Martha Stewart), and come right back into successful business, which still leaves me somewhat open-mouthed. But the good news is that if someone here thinks you can be professionally useful to them — i.e. make them some cash — they’ll take your call or email and might meet you. In Canada you need personal introductions through mutual friends to even get someone to take your call and even then they ignore you…

As a freelancer, that’s been a big — and happy — adjustment. But I’ve also learned, after decades in the States, to be both much warier and more persistent. Wary of huge initial enthusiasm, (professional and personal), which is very American, and too often quickly disappears, and being willing to make the 3rd or 5th or 10th email or phone call because so many people are busy and overwhelmed.

Martha Stewart
Martha Stewart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another difference is bare-knuckled American capitalism. We’re all simply units of labor. Employers can fire you for any reason at any time. One editor I know just left a job after four years, after being one of the founders of a thriving website. She got one month’s severance.

(Many Americans would consider her lucky to have gotten even that much. For a country that yammers on about liberty, American workers seem shockingly cowed and powerless to me.)

Instead of unions, Americans rely on the court system, (which operates by quite different rules than other nations), to try and obtain redress, if not justice. I routinely send — and pay for — lawyer’s letters to deadbeat, cheats and late payers, who abound in the world of publishing and journalism.

You fight for your rights here, and people expect it. It sometimes feels like a wearying game of “who’ll draw first” like cowboys reaching for their pistols in some 1860s saloon.

Many New Yorkers speak to you as if they’ve known you for years — strangers on the street or train (!) have complimented me on my hair color, legs, shoes and other items in ways I still find forward and impertinent, if charming. I’ve started referring to people as “you guys”, sounding more Mafioso than elegant.

My husband is both American and Hispanic, a double cultural difference that plays out in all sorts of ways. There are days he hisses: “This not the time to be Canadian!”

Then I quote a Brit, (and a TV character at that), the Dowager Countess Grantham: “Why does every day involve a fight with an American?”

What adjustments have you made as an ex-pat?

How did you feel about it?

30 thoughts on “Why changing countries can be such a challenge

  1. I’m not an expat, but I agree with you about the claim of liberty in the United States. I think employers have milked the idea of the bad economy to keep us in our place and we have readily bowed to their demands of more work for nothing.

  2. Growing up an American citizen but largely out of the US proper meant that I had to adjust to what was supposed to be my own country – on multiple occasions! The East Coast is culturally different than the South or the West, personal engagement and cultural expectations are different and the rules for interacting with people vary widely. My personality is considered quiet for most Americans and loud for most Brits. My outlook is too emotionless where I live now, but my parents were told I was too fanciful in Germany. A girl can’t win. I was always pretty firm willed but moving to the US meant I had to learn to speak up and out a lot more forcibly to be heard because Americans are pretty argumentative and inclined to talk over people, which I wasn’t used to. I also find their emphasis on independence to manifest in weird ways (such as, and I’m not even kidding, refusing to wear coats or use umbrellas).

    Our upcoming move back to the UK is going to be interesting. Having grown up “culturally confused” (as the family term goes), I know it’s been nearly a decade since I moved from the middle of the Pacific Ocean to the Western US and so I’ll be out of practice adjusting to cultural shifts. I think I’ll be able to jump back into the swing of things, but we’ll have to wait and see if it’s more difficult than I remember.

  3. I’m Australian. I went backpacking throughout Thailand, Nepal, Tibet and India in my early to mid twenties and fell in love with travel. I enthusiastically soaked up the experiences of differing cultures. After that I decided it was a great idea for me to move to another country to live and work so I went to Vietnam. How different it was to actually live in a another country! It was a real eye opener and although I didn’t love it when I was there, I remember it as a good experience overall.

    Now I live in Singapore with my Singaporean husband who I met when I travelled through Singapore on my way to Vietnam. He is of Malay culture. I am constantly adjusting… and learning.

    For ages I thought his mother’s side of the family disliked me or didn’t approve of me because they would barely speak to me when visiting. On the other hand his father’s side were very chatty and helped make me feel included and welcome in this very foreign culture. I’ve since found out that his mother’s side do like me, they just don’t speak English very well and are very shy. Surprise surprise, like me (I am quite shy). His father’s side however are well educated, speak very good English and many have even been to Australia so they obviously feel a lot more comfortable around me.

    One major adjustment I am currently making is learning to be more forthright and introduce myself when visitors come. When we have visitors to the house I am expected to shake hands and say hello but no one would ever introduce me and when my husband speaks about certain people he says ‘one of the elders’, ‘my mother’s brother’s wife’, or ‘my cousin’. They always refer to people from their position in the family and not their name. For me this is baffling. I wondered how I was to ever learn people’s names like this?

    Recently, my parent’s and two brother’s came to Singapore for my wedding. This was the first time any of them had stepped foot outside Australia. We are from a small town without a lot of foreigners too. But the week they were here, they just approached people, shook hands, introduced themselves and started chatting like old friends. They weren’t having any of these same issues as I was. I realised I had been being far too sensitive and shy and afraid that people wouldn’t like me. I learnt a lot from my family who’d had no experience in the area. Seems an obvious thing to do but….

    I always saw this Malay culture as being so conservative and I was afraid of offending but I realised recently how relaxed and open they really are. It was me who was being the conservative stuck up one. Adjusting.

    As for the Singaporean workplace? Sounds like America. We are dispensable. We should be thankful that we have been given a job. We should kiss our employer’s er… feet. We are not valuable employees but as you said ‘units of labour’. Being from Australia, I am used to being thanked by an employer for my hard work and having a sense of value in the workplace.

    I could go on all day about the adjustments I’ve made or am currently making. We’re thinking of moving to Germany soon.

    1. Thanks for this…So interesting!!

      One of the many things that makes adapting so tough is that you think “Oh, it’s just me”…often we are alone in being an ex-pat and don’t have anyone to compare notes or experiences with. In NY, many Canadians are lawyers, doctors or work on Wall Street — $$$$$$$ — and come here into very well-paid jobs. I arrived with no job and no contacts or friends. And a lot of them turn tail within 3 or 5 years and go back to Canada.

      One thing I have found very frustrating is how anti-American many Canadians are, without ever having taken the risk to live and work here. I miss elements of Canada but there are aspects of living here, clearly, that I also like and value.

  4. I’m not an expat but have met a lot of expats in the course of my working life. One thing most expats fail to realize is that they should not be expecting the locals to adapt to their expectations but rather they bring themselves to accept the local cultures and values. After all, won’t it be easier to change just one mind than a million of minds?

    1. Yes, true.

      But every expat also brings their own memories and values with them, from their family, work and country. There are values here in the U.S. — disposable labor — I will never value or accept, even though it affects me every day. My questioning of American values led to both my books, both examining American issues, and both very well reviewed by Americans. A fresh perspective can have value.

  5. Thank you for the mention! We (Canadians) are not too different from Australians, for the most part I find it pretty easy to adapt myself to the culture. There is a ridiculous fixation with England and english food here (which I find boring).

    They have lots of harsh things to say about the aboriginals (I’m referring to racism). That’s the one thing that get’s to me.

    For a nation founded on criminals, I guess it’s not that surprising of a mentality.

    The news here bothers me.
    Last week, a young boy went missing. Was not found for 24 hours… Guess who they interviewed? His dad! It’s so inconsiderate, but it’s always a tragedy in focus, and the parents heart breaking emotional interview. It’s all for what? The viewer? That’s the last thing I’d like to be doing is an interview while in that situation. I believe the reporting here is very low class, and quite frankly borders on obscene.

    Women here are also represented as “slutty” or “nags/annoying” in ALMOST EVERY commercial. It’s mental how behind the times they are.

    Gay people are not openly accepted as it’s quite popular to be a homophobe here.

    Sometimes this place seems like it’s just full of bogans (rednecks).

    I know Canadians aren’t perfect, there are racists and sexist people there as well. When I sit down and think about the nation and the people I’ve encountered…and the way society runs itself here I just shake my head.

    Australia has a lot of growing up to do.

    1. I guess it’s safe to say I’ve not really adapted have I? I’d rather keep my Canadian values (of supporting equality, acceptance, understanding and politeness).

    2. I hear you!

      I visited Sydney and Melbourne in 1998. I loved Melbourne in every way but came away with very unpleasant memories of Sydney. People had a kind of rough, crude, rude way of behaving — while living in a lovely place and with sophisticated tastes — that really shocked me. (People say NY is rough, but Sydney was rude. Very different.) I ate dinner in a nice restaurant there with a man I met on my flight. We were chastised (!!??) twice by the waitress for being loud (we were not) and then told to leave the restaurant…as we did, the entire room applauded.

      I have never anywhere in the world been so humiliated.

      1. New Zealand’s people are so relaxed and open minded…the complete opposite of Australia. I hope I don’t get hate mail for writing my opinions on here…haha.

        I feel for you, I cannot believe that happened to you. How ridiculous!
        I loved what you wrote about France in another comment, to be rich in life, and taste and not focus on materials and money. That’s the good life.

  6. Love this post! I find it weird being a Canadian. I’m actually a Chinese-Calgarian-Canadian. I like to mix the two languages when I speak. I like to use chopsticks to pick up salad. I’m never 100% sure about how to behave like a Chinese or a Canadian. I love learning French but can never find anyone to speak it with me. In all the confusion, I tend to go with the flow and adopt whatever norm fits the situation.

  7. Studying abroad in London forced me to think a lot differently about America and the way we do things here. I think I actually learned more about America being away for a while than I had in years of living here. I was talking to a friend there about how I would really like to live there when I’m older but that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to make as much money there. His response: “why do you need to make more money than everybody else?”

    Well of course lots of money is really nice, but I think beating out everyone else has been instilled in me as an American. We sure don’t like to share our wealth here, like you said.

    1. This is exactly why being an ex-pat is such a valuable, life-changing experience. I lived in Paris when I was 25, and came back to Canada forever changed by it.

      One of the things I loved so much in France was their values: good food, friends, family, intellectual argument. All things I cherish! Money? Sure. It helps, a lot. But to just have $$$$$ and no taste or time to enjoy life…that’s crazy. That’s American! I see so many people here working insane hours to get $$$$ to do….what? Have a lot of stuff, then grow old and die, just like the rest of us slackers. 🙂 I work to live, which makes me VERY out of step with other smart, ambitious people here.

      I live in a suburb north of NYC surrounded by some VERY rich people — some towns have a median income of $250,000 — but meh. Competing with others materially seems a total waste of time to me.

  8. “This is not the time to be Canadian” — I’ll be laughing at that all day! It’s true, though. I find the compulsion to be “nice” often gets in the way when I’m trying, for example, to make a source understand that I’m working on a tight deadline and really need that interview NOW. I have an absolute horror of causing offence and I’m constantly apologizing, sometimes for things that aren’t even my fault. I am an uber-Canadian who wouldn’t last five minutes in your world — they’d eat me alive! (BTW thank you for the link. I love being on Broadside.)

    1. I’ve often considered giving “mean” lessons. 🙂

      One of the things that working in journalism in NYC through three recessions (!!) is sheer bloody minded persistence…I feel ill every time I make ANOTHER call or email (while knowing some Americans call every hour or every day, not every few days or weeks)…but it almost always produces the result I want. Being tough/determined/assertive is not the same as being not-nice…although I know (sadly) I have deeply offended some Canadians when I go home with this style.

      One major change is that I used to make a lot of self-deprecating jokes (very Canadian/British.) They don’t do that here; they boast. Adapt or die.

      1. I love self deprecating jokes, and my partner doesn’t always get it! I recently told him I can’t always be my funny self around him….is that sad? I think it shows a minor (or major?) culture difference (he is from New Zealand).

  9. “This is not the time to be Canadian!” I love it. I find too often being Canadian gives my co-workers free reign to tease, make fun of, and generally harass me. To which I vehemently defend my Canadianness and the cycle starts all over again. I must remember to bite my tongue when someone mentions a Canadian actor or musician because the Americans don’t care if those famous people are from Canada. Somehow I do because it justifies where I grew up as a real place, not some northern neighbor to ridicule.

    1. Ouch!

      It’s probably little comfort to realize they’d probably do the same if you were French or German.
      Hey, we invented insulin, without which half of Americans would now be dead.

  10. leah j. wolfe

    “One of the major behavioral differences to adjust to between Canadians and Americans is their differing appetite for risk…Canadians hate it. They hate conflict. They hate confrontation. They’d rather simply ignore your calls and emails than say” “No, we’re not interested.”

    haha, come to Iowa. We fear change like most people fear spiders and snakes.

  11. As much as some might like, I’m not an expat. But I hear what your saying, though usually Americans are unusually slow to rouse on truly important issues it’s usually because American sheeple are usually bogged down trying to band-aid everything. I knew a Brit expat who lived here for about 5 years and got so miffed with Americans that packed his bags and moved home. Sadly, if I para-phrase and American TV show I think it just about sums up many people’s thinking on the American work sense these days; “American (Ferengi) workers don’t want to stop the exploitation. They (We) want to find a way to become the exploiters.” The quote is from Star Trek Deep Space Nine and is spoken by a character named Rom. I don’t understand the average American acceptance of the way American business treats them, it’s a topic that I’ve delved into on several blog posts. They don’t seem to understand what was fought for, won and now they’re giving back. It’s as infuriating as it is sad.

  12. Seeing as I’m linked in this post I suppose it deserves a response… 😉 Joking of course. This is an issue which rings true with me. I agree with what was said here, and from experience I get a lump in my throat reading it because I have had my own ups and downs moving around country.

    Korea has always been good to me work-wise, and also for my social life, family life, and plenty other reasons. After I got married in 2008 we decided that we’d move to the UK temporarily so that I could study, and we figured it would be ok seeing as we were close to Ireland. We spent a great honeymoon summer in Ireland and then moved over to the UK. And from there things started to go a little pear shaped. It was hard to find work, even for me with teaching qualifications and experience (I needed pt work), and for my wife who had several years full-time experience working in international trade.

    Returning to Ireland a year later didn’t actually turn many stones over in this regard also. Of course it being 2009 Ireland was not doing particularly well economically, not that it’s much better now but we can save that for another discussion. My wife however, did find work in Dublin, and it was a good job with decent money and plenty of benefits but it was a night shift which soon started to wear us both down. In the end I gave up looking for work in Ireland and focussed on returning to Korea, which was harder than I thought as many ‘good’ jobs only interviewed in Korea, but in the end things worked out and we came back.

    The thing is, you never really know how things will pan out and you just have to go with your instinct. Fortunately we were younger and enthusiastic enough that we weathered the challenge, and more importantly we’ve learned what needs to be done to get the most from a bad situation.

    Anyway, kind of by chance I wrote about this the other day in more detail. Mind if I link? http://ifihadaminutetospare.wordpress.com/2013/03/15/a-lesson-in-perseverance/

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