The Expat I Don't Want To Be
I happened to think about it yesterday. "How long have I been here now, exactly? I've been saying something around 2 1/2 years for a couple months now...when is that official? I landed in Sweden on August 12, 2010... and tomorrow is February 12, 2013. As in, my official 2 1/2 anniversary." Wow.
the Swedish flag my friends and I flew over our tent at a music festival in California
I have very few non-Swedish friends in Sweden. The ones I do have are ones I met in my masters program in Lund, that stayed in Sweden like I did and got jobs. Then I've met one or two through work. I have spent hardly any time in groups of expats, and haven't yet felt the inclination to join any organizations for Americans or anything like that. The biggest reason is simply that I'm very happy and satisfied with my social life. But there's more to it than that; it's that there is sometimes a vibe among expats that I want to avoid.
Note: expats are not those who study abroad for a year or take a work assignment somewhere for 6 months. They've been in a place longer than that... long enough to know at least a moderate amount about the country, the culture, the people, the lifestyle, even sometimes the language. They lived in more than one apartment there. They've dated or married someone from there, perhaps. They've had to process visas and deal with the government's bureaucracy, usually.
And often, after all of that, expats develop a streak of bitterness. It may be well-meaning and witty, but is occasionally demeaning and vicious. If you google "bitter [or] complaining expat" the results are endless, coming from around the globe. It's a common syndrome. There are theories that expats get more bitter and bored after three years. There are discussions about the rage that bubbles up within expats at little things, and how over time, their annoyance doesn't diminish... it only grows. "What particular thing gets you on the bitter expat crazy train? Everyone has it..." this writer says. And I think it can be toxic. At the very least, it's contagious.
It's not that I can't identify with being frustrated with the experience of living abroad, and more specifically, things about Sweden. Of course I can. I have never sworn as much as I did in the first three months of living in Sweden. Even knowing Swedes for two years before I moved here, having experienced the culture beforehand and read a ton about it, things of course surprised, confused, enraged and hurt me. Every once in awhile they still do. Also, please understand, I think expats are some of the most dynamic, resourceful, adventurous, sturdy and interesting people around. It's confirmed to me time and time again. But this all is on my mind as I recently heard more than a few negative comments about Sweden while sitting in a pub largely frequented by western expats that I went to on a couple occasions. I don't need to repeat them all here, but one hit me so deeply it was almost physical:
"Sweden would be quite alright, nearly perfect, if it weren't for the Swedes."
Rough. They really meant it too. I asked him more about it, but hid my deeper reaction to the statement..I felt sorry for this guy and how lonely he must be even though he likes "other things" about the country, I was angry at him for being so rude and essentially dismissing all the countless people here I love so dearly. But it's not something I haven't heard before, and to feel excluded or too different is a common feeling as a foreigner, not particular to Sweden, even considering the reserved culture.
Living abroad, even if you adore the place, can make you fragile, that's the root of much of the complaining. There's a vulnerability ever present, just around the corner. This expat writer (living in Mexico) nails it:
"Who knows when that occasion will come, just when you feel that you’re in the intimate little cave of culture, huddled round the campfire with everybody else, when suddenly BOOM a wall goes up and you realize that nope, you’re actually outside looking in.
[There's] a sense of vulnerability inherent to the experience of living in another country, in another culture. For as much as you may dress in and explain the subtle differences between mezcales, you’re still an outsider. Even the huarache-wearing down-with-the-people revolutionary living in the barrios outside of town is, at the end of the day, foreign."
Sweden feels like home. Swedes often feel like kindred spirits. But I know that proverbial "campfire" feeling, when suddenly the wall pops up, so well. And maybe because I just love this country so much, and maybe because it's how I think I can flourish here, but I won't cope with that wall by being the expat that many around the globe know to always have a hint of bitterness.
A college friend used this quote the other day from the writer Pat Conroy:
"I would like to have seen the world with eyes incapable of anything but wonder, and with a tongue fluent only in praise."
I love that. It's clearly impossible and also not practical to always live that way, but every expat should reflect on what they might be missing out on if they see things too often through the lens of what's missing, what should be, what hurts, and what's annoying.
That same night in the pub with the expats, I commented about some Swedish thing that I like, and one of them called out, "the next thing you know, you're going to be eating sliced cucumbers with your breakfast!"
I smiled and responded, "Oh I totally already do that. Been doing that for a long time now."
He laughed, saying how weird that was. Yeah, I thought to myself. I used to think so too.
But now... I actually find it really delicious.