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 huipiles 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.  


  1. Will definitely share this one around. I'm ordinarily a very happy expat, but I've definitely reached my traditional February dark days up here in Norway. The trick, I think, is to be aware of the possibility, and to keep all ungenerous/xenophobic thoughts to oneself. They'll be fleeting! :-) Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

  2. Great post! I am an American expat in Norway. I attended a lecture yesterday that discussed the psychological theory regarding acculturation, immigration etc. There are several methods for acculturation, and the wrong acculturation can help produce the "bitter expat." According to the 20+ year expert who was also an expat, it usually just takes a few years for people to get over that honeymoon phase. If their acculturation process was not the best method, then it brings with it extra psychological burdens and stressors. Very fascinating! :) And just as a word of caution: immigrants/expats who do not hold on to some of their home culture run the risk of more psychological illness down the road. It is important to hold on to the positives of your American culture and make it work in your new Swedish life. :) Lykke til!

  3. Hi Norway!

    Audrey, I totally know what you mean about the dark February days. This time of year becomes a bit tricky to stay positive about all elements of life in Scandinavia, even as much as I love snow. I agree that the negative thoughts are almost always fleeting (except for, "seriously, I didn't know it was possible to become this pale!" that one is hard for a Californian ;)

    Thanks for the comment Kelly! Sounds like an interesting lecture, makes a lot of sense to me. I probably had as positive/healthy of an acculturation process as one could. Regarding holding onto the positives of my American culture, I agree with and have also read about the importance of that. I hold pretty fast to the positives and perspectives that being American gives me and think they enhance my experiences here, especially in my job, networking and navigating/building friendships. I think my love for the States has grown alongside my more outside and nuanced perspective of it. Keeping close with friends and family and in touch with what's going on in the country is also important for me in retaining my American identity, as well as having the couple of very close North American friends here in Stockholm. It's interesting being an expat who LOVES where I came from but lives abroad anyway, since that is not always the case.

    I highly recommend this piece on existential migration, about voluntary migrants, for how it addresses these and related issues of identity, belonging and the concept of home.

    Magazine article version:
    Full version:

  4. HI Corinne,
    I arrived in Norway 3 days before you landed in Sweden. It struck me recently that my nearly 5 year old American-born daughter has now spent more than half her life in Norway, and that was kind of a shock.
    I have struggled a bit with acculturation, mostly due to the Norwegian bureaucratic screw-ups. I have a small group of local American "girlfriends" that I meet up on occasion--maybe just 2-3 times a year. It's nice to get together and chat in English with someone, but when we don't have much more in common than the fact that we lived in incredibly different parts of the United States, had different upbringings, cultural backgrounds, etc, I find that it turns into nothing but a bitch fest about Norway, which I really don't need.
    I look forward to reading your recommended piece.

  5. This is an awesome post. As a new expat, having moved to Sweden just two months ago now, you're doing exactly what I strive for. While I know breaking into the social scene will take some time, there's no way I'll surround myself with 100% Americans or sit around complaining about the country and people I chose to immerse myself in. I love it here and can't fathom going back at this point. Thanks for putting it into words so well.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Jamie! You have exactly the right attitude, IMO ;) I really wish you success, happiness and friendship here in Sweden. It's possible :)

  7. 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."

    Go girl!! Thumbsup! That - allthough he responded - shut the ugly mouth of that miserable poor loser. A bunch of bitter losers sitting and venting their frustration, which they do not dare to say face to face to the natives. I saw the same syndrom in a english-speaking forum about Norway. But some of these fuckers had left Norway so they didn't have to suffer anymore. They forgot that not everything can be like home and that it depends on themselves also. No one however have dared to say anything like that to my face.

    You are above these losers. -Hugs

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  9. Wow that line you quoted about the guy saying "Sweden would be quite alright, nearly perfect, if it weren't for the Swedes." I met an expat in Thailand once who said almost the exact same thing verbatim. Just switch out Sweden and Swedes with Thailand and Thais.


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