The Grumpy Expat: How My Brain Works Sometimes

One of my favorite comics by the incomparable Oatmeal, whose observations are invariably spot-on.  This one's from a comic called, "If My Brain Were an Imaginary Friend,."  It's relevant to this post.  Really.

Today's topic, dear readers, is "The Expat Brain and How It Works. Sometimes."  We'll be investigating the daily realities of living in a foreign culture and how our brains perceive them.  Or, at least, how MsCaroline's brain has been perceiving them.

MsCaroline has moved enough - and is old enough - to know that no one, anywhere, has a perfect life.  If Keeping Up With The Kardashians has done nothing else for society, it has shown us that even the beautiful, the famous, and the über-wealthy have their crosses to bear.  The strings of pearls will get tangled during our photo shoot for Playboy. The new custom-ordered Bentley will not be ready for pickup when it was supposed to be.  Sex tapes will be released.  These people - they're just like you and me, putting on brave smiles even in the face of the most devastating crises.

With that in mind, MsCaroline did not expect to find her life in Seoul to be just one glamorous expat adventure after another.  She knew there would be down days, just like everyone has no matter where they live.  What she was not prepared for was the recent irrational reactions of her brain*** when these incidents took place, in which it (her brain I mean) repeatedly asserted something along the lines of "This is all crap, and if you were living back home, nothing like this would ever have happened."  

Anyone who has read any of MsCaroline's early posts when she was still in the US can see that that is a load of BS patently ridiculous, but try telling that to MsCaroline's subconcious brain structures, which delight in annoying her lately with unwanted - and completely improbable - commentary about how everything unpleasant that occurs is somehow directly related to her life as a guest in a foreign country.

Experts on expat living refer to this sort of reaction as the end of the 'honeymoon period.' According to them, when one first arrives in a new country, one's brain is bathed in endorphins and dazzled by the strange, exotic delights of living in a new culture.  Everything is seen through the lens of a besotted newcomer.  Life is glamorous, interesting, different, and new.

But after a few months, the glow begins to fade, and the expat finds that life in the fascinating new culture has the same ups and downs as it did in the last place - and sometimes, even more, leading on to subsequent stages of frustration and even rage.  This happened to MsCaroline (more or less) last Autumn, and -she assumed - that she had moved on to the acclimation stage, accepting her life in a new country and even beginning to put down some roots.  She was surprised, however, to discover that, for an expat, these feelings can resurface, even after quite a while.

"Oh, MsCaroline,"  you are saying, "Living in a foreign country is an adventure! You are living a life that many would love to experience!"

MsCaroline realizes this, and - when she is feeling more rational - agrees with you.  However, right now, as she mentioned, her brain is getting the best of her - even though she realizes its assertions are specious at best.  As evidence, she submits the following graphic organizer:

Unpleasant Incident
Normal Response
Irrational Expat Brain Response
Lost for an hour underground in the subway station looking for a nonexistent exit.  
This could happen to anyone and keep in mind if you’d studied more Korean you probably could have avoided it.
Korean is too hard and would it have killed them to put up a sign – just one sign – somewhere in English? This would have never happened back home.
Discover transportation card – recently loaded with more than KRW2,000,000 (about $20) suddenly will not work, with the line backing up behind her and no one available to help her sort it out in English. 
Sometimes magnetic strips on cards stop working, and if you’d studied more Korean, you could have explained yourself and gotten some help.
Back home I could DRIVE everywhere without fear of death and with certainty of easily finding ample parking and I did not NEED a stupid card to get on and off the bus every day on my way to work.
Umbrella turns inside out due to powerful winds and rain on the way to bus stop. Miserable huddling in rain at bus stop under broken umbrella ensues.
Your umbrella would have turned inside out just as easily back home in this sort of weather. 
Back home I could DRIVE to work and didn’t NEED to stand in the rain with a disabled umbrella for 10 minutes at a bus stop with no kiosk to protect me from the rain.  If my umbrella had turned inside out, I could have run quickly from my CAR to the building without getting soaked.
Message is left on apartment door stating ‘You Get Mail!’(Yes, it really said that) and apparently describes a package waiting for you.  A phone number is circled in red.  You call it and no one is available who speaks English to help you.
If you'd just learned more Korean, this would not have been a problem. Besides, the postal service in the US wasn’t exactly a paragon of efficiency, and you couldn’t always guarantee that you’d get someone who you could communicate with there, either.  Take the note to work and ask one of your Korean colleagues to help you. 
Back home, I would have been able to READ the damned note left by the post office BEFORE I called, before I went to the management office at my apartment building, and BEFORE I finally got a colleague to look at it and inform me that the package was for a Mr. Cho and had been sent to the wrong address. 
Unfortunate biting incident takes place during otherwise-idyllic reading of ‘The Little Engine That Could.” Perpetrator insists she was just pretending to be a ‘biting sort of animal’ which, of course, required biting.
Children bite each other sometimes.  It happens.
The children in my country never, EVER bite each other.  And anyway, I taught high school in my country, so they were past the biting stage.  All classroom interactions in my country were peaceful and enjoyable at all times.
“Super Margarita” ordered in Mexican restaurant turns out not to be a margarita at all, but instead a liter of tepid soju served in a margarita glass.
If you had read the menu more carefully, you’d have noticed that the ‘Super Margarita’ was in the section under the menu marked ‘Soju Cocktails’ so it’s your own fault.
Margaritas. are.not. made.from.soju.  This is an inviolable fact of nature understood by every rational being in the universe. This would never have happened back home.

As you can see, the ordinary slings and arrows of life, when viewed through a disgruntled expat lens, can sometimes be overwhelming, but MsCaroline is confident that she will prevail. She's said it before:  life in another country is not so different from life at home, but everything is a bit more complicated.

99% of the time, MsCaroline is grateful and thankful to be living here, having these fabulous experiences, and sharing this adventure with her family. Sometimes, though - you just miss home.  MsCaroline is not sure if this is a universal feeling, but she hopes that she is not the only expat who ever feels this way- even after 18 months of living somewhere.  She is looking forward to a speedy return to normal brain function and the vibrant renewal of appreciation of her good fortune in living in one of the most exciting cities in Asia.

***See? I told you the comic was relevant to this post.


Stacy said…
It's not just your expat brain. I had a similar meltdown just yesterday. You'd think I'd have frigging learned since I have been a married expat since 19 freaking 87. I was standing poised to go to Bible study, two dozen muffins in my hands because I was responsible for snack. And the driver was late. And my phone wouldn't work because I hadn't paid my bill because I hadn't received a bill in two months. (Or so I found out.) But I couldn't understand the recording in Arabic when I tried to call. And I just knew that if I were somewhere where I could drive my OWN CAR, not necessarily home but perhaps my last posting in KL even WHERE THEY SPEAK BLOODY ENGLISH, THIS WOULD NOT BE HAPPENING.

So thank you for the reminder and making me laugh.
MsCaroline said…
Yes, yes, yes! I just needed to hear that from someone else! You hate to sound whiny when most people think it's a great opportunity (and it really is - mostly) but there are days when you just think "why must every single thing be so difficult?"
MsCaroline said…
Yes, yes, yes! I just needed to hear that from someone else! You hate to sound whiny when most people think it's a great opportunity (and it really is - mostly) but there are days when you just think "why must every single thing be so difficult?"
The comic is spot on and so is the table!! I was nodding along with your examples of 'irritational' (but completely understandable) reactions.

And it happens even in countries where they speak the same language as you. For me it's usually about customer service in Britain--no I don't mean people have to bend over backwards for me, I mean that it would be wonderful to even be acknowledged when you walk into a restaurant and instead you stand there watching no less than 7 (I counted) staff walk past and when someone finally does stop they say 'can I help you?' like you're in their way and you want to say 'only if you want a tip' but instead you just say sweetly 'I have a reservation...' because you've learned that One Must Apologise in Britain, even if in the Right, and even if one is the customer.

But rationally? That's actually quite rare these days. It's just me being a hyper sensitive expat, I know!

So no, it's not just you :)
MsCaroline said…
Michelloui - I suspected as much, but it does seem like everyone else is living a charmed version of the expat life compared to mine at times! I've heard many British people themselves complain about the customer service in the UK, so obviously you're not being hypersensitive. It's just good to know that everyone has days like this!
BavarianSojourn said…
Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this post. It made me laugh so much. I always have lots of things "that would be so much easier/different/better" if were at home... Oh and "Sods Law" things happen to me so much more in my "host countries"! I am so glad it's not just me! Love that cartoon as well! :)
MsCaroline said…
Emma - You are so welcome -it does seem that things go wrong at a much faster rate (and higher intenstity) overseas, doesn't it? Of course, it will be interesting to see what happens when we move back home and things start going awry - who will I be able to blame then? ; )
Trish said…
Not being an Expat, I can't quite join in with the other commenters about this topic but what I will say is I'm most impressed you were able to put a table in a blog post. How did you do that?

ps: very funny post!
MsCaroline said…
Trish, I cheated and created it in a word document, then copied and pasted. I was actually surprised it worked!
As far as the expat grumpiness goes, I'm sure you have ample 'this would never have happened back home' stories from your travels!
Stacy said…
Me again! I had to share this with my Facebook friends, many of whom are expats because I knew they would enjoy it. Thanks again.
MsCaroline said…
Stacy - thanks for sharing it! It's actually been very nice for me to hear from people who have similar experiences. I just imagine all the other expats sailing through their days without a hitch - or, at the very least, handling those hitches rationally!
I LOVED this entry! Stacy forwarded it to me- I'm an American expat living in Kuala Lumpur and you completely struck a huge chord with me- and gave me a great monday morning laugh! I blog about my experiences too- Best of luck in Seoul and I'll check in from time to time:). Kimbra

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