Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The American Expat Psyche

I'm sure I'm going to get flak for this but what the heck. I've worked on this post on and off for a couple of weeks and at the moment, I've got nothing else to say. So here goes:

American expats are a odd bunch, much more diverse than I might have expected. Although come to think of it, I don't believe I gave a moment's thought to what the American expatriate community in Paris might be like before we got here. Too many other things were on my mind.

But, I suppose if you'd have asked me, I might have guessed that there would be wannabe Hemingways working on never to be published novels in chilly garrets, fashion afficianados worshipping at the source, and junior year abroad girls who found their Frenchmen and never went back home. In fact, I haven't met those folks. Most of the stories are far more ordinary, far less romantic.

Perhaps shocking to those of you out there pining for your time in Paris, not everyone is happy to be here. Some come kicking and screaming, dragged overseas by a spouse's job and the only way they cope is to try to re-create the most loved aspects of their former life and to take as many trips back home as possible. Paris for them is one endless sea of headaches and aggravations, an uphill battle that can only be licked by running away. They can complain (and loudly too) although sometimes they just suffer in silence.

Others have lived overseas in so many different spots that they kind of glide across the surface. A lifetime of foreign postings has taught them to cope by sampling, rather than submerging. They find the things they need to make life meaningful and no need to venture any further. And if your last post was Seoul, and your next one is Dusseldorf, I can imagine that the motivation to be on full absorb mode is pretty low. Why learn French anyway if you're going to be here and gone in a blink of an eye? Americans get lucky because they can get by in English here in Paris. (Although tell that to the Dutch expats. Every one of them I've met is fluent in four or five languages.)

There are the retirees, the undecided (still spending half their time here and half there), the cobbling-together-a-living-however-I-can sorts, and every now and then, the folks who have made their fortunes early and have arrived in Paris, still trying to figure just what they're doing with the rest of their lives.

And then are the self-loathers. Yes, they're happy to be here, blissfully happy in fact. Good for them. They think Paris is divine not just in its own right but in comparison to what they left behind. It's superior in every way to the U.S. where, as they're more than happy to tell you, the food is crap, the people obnoxious, and there's too much focus on commercialism, among other things. Somehow they don't seem to notice that many of those those things can actually be found in abundance in France too -- processed food, cranky people, and a whole lot of shopping at a whole lot of chain stores (many of them French owned and operated). Yes, this is the France of today. Not the France of some fairy tale.

And me? Well, let's just say it was a surprise to find myself overseas and since I know that I'm not in it for the long haul, I'm doing my best to enjoy what's here, endure what's tough, and unravel what I don't understand. No dreams of glory, no pretensions of ever being able to assimilate. Put a name on that if you can.


Carolyn said...

Great post. I agree the expat community (whether American, Australian, or other) is as diverse as the individuals who inhabit it.

Cheers and I'm off to look for Paris Vu du Ciel while we're here!

debbie in toronto said...

very interesting you say just enjoy what you can, endure what you have to endure and at least once a week just stand on one of the bridges for me and look up the river at the one can complain about that!

Belle de Ville said...

When I was in Europe I always found those self hating American expats to be boorish.
It is possible to love life in Paris or elsewhere and still appreciate the US.

Duchesse said...

I was an expat for a number of years (and am planning on being one again in the near future) and I must say I hated self-loathing Canadians and Americans when I was abroad. I also found that the "quality" of expats varied a lot from one country to the next (depending on the stringency of immigration laws in any given country). It's normal to experience culture shock and to go through different stages of adaptation: doesn't make anyone a lesser traveller:)

I have a friend who's been living in Paris for years with her Parisian husband and she's not enjoying life there, which is a big shame. But sometimes, your energy just doesn't resonate with that of a particular city, and it's important to recognize it and move on. Or bide your time until you do and make the most of the experience.

Once again, I admire your attitude about the whole experience, Anne.

Starman said...

Very astute observations.

preppyplayer said...

I would be a good expat-promise.
I would appreciate my time there challenges and all- especially if I knew my company would pay for me to go home twice a year. And also if I knew eventually I would settle back in the states.

My sister is an expat in Germany and is HATING it. Literally is in a depression, 40lb weight gain and all. I envy her the adventure and she envies me that I am in the same little town in NJ for 25 years. (THE only person who would envy me THAT!)

Good post :)

Karin (an alien parisienne) said...

Great blog! Yes, these are very spot on!

My boyfriend has been here 20 years, the one that came to Europe as the would-be Hemingway and then married a French girl. Two kids and one divorce later, he is now more or less permanently here. I am more of the reluctant expat myself. He and I met briefly when I was in high school and again when I was in college, and then re-met online over four years ago. I up and left my life in the States to be with him. I am the more reluctant sort of expat, but only because I always envisioned an expat life in the more exotic Asia as I had already spent time there and had dreams of going back. I had the "expat wannabe" thing down, but PARIS? How... cliché, I used to think, lol. It's so Western! I wanted the Lonely Planet Rough Guide kind of expat life! Paris seems so cushy, so luxurious by comparison.

I also had no idea when I came how long I would be here. We were just giving the "living together" thing a try.

Now it is looking like it will be a more permanent stay, and I am really having to think about what that means. Which kind of expat will I be, now that it looks like I am HERE? For good?!?

Oh and yes -- the self-loathers. Even though I am very much a "live and let live" kind of gal, those folk really make me want to say, "Ewwwww." LOL.

I'm really glad you posted this, flak worries aside. :)

mtnbiker404 said...

My aunt, originally from Canada, is married and living in southern France now. Originally she was living in Switzerland with her husband when they first met, but they're there now. Anyway, I'm sure she absolutely loves life there.

My roommate from Japan works at a daycare in Toronto and is really starting to hate life here. She can't get used to the people or our customs. I think it depends on each individual and whether they can adapt or not.

You never know exactly how you'll do until you're fully submersed in a city and all it's trappings.

Lisa said...

Very good post. It is so hard to verbalize all the different expat styles. As an American, living in Canada, I find it odd that I am an expat, having spent most of my summers up here on vacation. Not sure what category I fit into. We have tried to do as much as we can and assimilate as well as possible, yes, love those inconveniences but it is what it is, deal with it and move on... As far as the self loathers, sometimes it is easier to love the one you are with, I think living somewhere else just opens your eyes to the differences and you can fight them, accept them or embrace them and make the most of the experience. I often wonder if this is unpatriotic though.
My daughter falls in the category of that junior doing the semester abroad....she leaves Paris in 2 weeks and will be a very sad girl, she has loved every minute! Oh to be young again...

jonnifer said...

Well no flak so far, that's a good sign! I'm know far more France-sucks expats than France-is-magical ones. I prefer the latter, even though they're both making the mistake of oversimplifying things.

Anne said...

Guess as long as I'm beating up on Americans it's okay. Thanks for all the feedback folks.

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

As a recently arrived expat, I have to say AMEN to all of this. I'm trying to absorb it all, but at the same time, it's hard to be illiterate (I don't speak French, but do speak German. I live in France, but work in Switzerland.) There are things I totally love about life in Europe and things I totally miss about life back home. It's often a OTOH-OTOH proposition for me. Fortunately, I'm not one of those American expats who things everything needs to be like America. Frankly, I'm happy it's not. Now, if I could just figure out how to say "I don't speak French. Do you speak English?" in proper French politasse, I'd be miles ahead!

Nathalie said...

But I don't think this is just American and Canadian expats at all. I certainly see the different 'styles' of being an expat among a variety of nationalities, and would add that it also depends a lot on where the expats in question live, questions of language and things like how many others from their country of origin also live there.

One thing I do think, though, is that Americans (it's a little less so with Canadians in my experience) get extremely defensive very easily about their country of origin and other expat Americans' critical attitude to it. I honestly haven't come across another nationality which takes criticism of their home country by fellow-citizens and fellow-expats so personally. (I say this as someone who's lived outside my home country for most of my adult life.) Why would you consider someone who criticises their home country as necessarily 'self-loathing'? Is it not possible to regard that person as voicing legitimate concerns and quibbles with his/her home country? Lisa, why would you even think you are being 'unpatriotic' in considering assimilating elements of your new country of residence?

I do think also that the US/Canada is simply so big and so culturally shuttered and inward-looking (in some ways) because of its size, that many Americans simply find it harder to live abroad without continually comparing it to the US - because their life experience has been so homogenous. I think nationals of smaller countries, or those with more land borders to other places with completely different languages and cultures, find emigration considerably easier, because we always knew those places were there, and different to us.

I'd be interested to hear from Americans on that - also on whether a compounding factor isn't that the USA's self-image is very much built on being a golden place for emigrants to go to to make anew home, rather than for Americans to emigrate from...?

Tom Reeves said...

Hi Anne,
I haven’t met any self-loathing Americans yet, although I have been living in Paris for seventeen years. None of the Americans that I know have expressed such negative views about the U.S. as the ones whom you qualify as self-loathers. Most of the Americans I know seem comfortable with themselves; they like Paris, they have adapted to the French way of life, and appreciate the advantages of living here, as compared to what would be a radically different life-style if they were living in the U.S.

Lindsey said...

I guess you could say I'm that Junior in college study abroad gal. I initially came to France in High School and then again for 7 weeks the summer before my senior year in college. Within a week, I met the person who is now my husband. It wasn't planned, it just happened. Of course, my dream had been to live in France so it kind of facilitated the dream becoming a reality. No it wasn't easy, I am ashamed to say I had those moments of self-loathing on occasion butI knew I wanted to be here.

Could I live here forever? I could see it happening regardless of whether it's truly what I want. I'm bilingual but until I get to the point where the French comes JUST as naturally as my English, I think we're staying put. So this could be a lifetime!

Great post, great observations.

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