Resolved to stay and fight?

The expat life has ups and downs. There are challenges and frustrations and of course occasional crushing homesickness. I try to write humorously about my frustrations with things here, and find that in general the whole “getting it off my chest” thing is quite effective. However, I had a pretty blunt-to-the-point-of-nasty comment on this blog the other day, that ended with the words “go home”. I also heard this from someone in the office last week–a phrase approximating “if the young and international employees don’t like it here they should leave; we don’t want unhappy people here and we don’t want this to turn to a workplace of moaners.” Now this was a particularly amusing line in some ways, since as Kate Fox notes in my favorite bible to understanding the English, no one is better at moaning than the locals here.

I suspect the real problem with the young and disenfranchised at my job is that we are NOT just moaning but looking for ways to fix what’s broken and improve it. This is where we run into clear trouble. Culturally it seems like the spirit of innovation that causes American institutions to evolve quickly is not here in the UK, and instead we are left with an over-reverence for tradition that does not allow for change. I suspect the best case scenario would really be somewhere in between–some hybrid of the old-world and the new-world ways. However, that’s tough to sort out in either place, as the resistance to being too much like the other place is a strong factor in keeping the status quo. We young and frustrated and work thus continue to be frustrated but less young than we were the day before. We face rigid constraints that make us feel that our jobs are more difficult than they have to be, and we do not see the benefits that the constraining factors bring to make up for this.

Some days I really do wonder why I am here and why I am subjecting myself to the pains of the expat life. I embarked on this as an adventure, with a spirit of “why not?” and with a lot of hope for the future. Now after a year here I can see the real structural problems and I’ve lost the dream-like state associated with the early move. It’s clear that some days are better than others in terms of both the real circumstances and my own mood. There are several things that keep me here, at least for now, even when faced with my darkest of days. First of all, even if went on the job market and took a job back in America, I’d be likely going to a different city and state than I have lived in previously. Having finally started to build a solid network of friends here, I find daunting the prospect of moving to an unfamiliar place where I am completely alone yet again. The pains of moving are always greatest in the first year, and that must certainly be the case with the current circumstances. There’s a certain element of the familiar about the problems I have here: both at work and outside of work, at least I know what I’m up against and can try to problem solve my way through it. Any new job would come with an unfamiliar set of circumstances. At the end of the day, I don’t really want to move back to the US but I am more open to the idea than I thought I would be at this point. If someone made me the right offer I’d have a tough decision on my hands. In the meantime, I’m not going to stop talking about the life here or living the life here. I’m going to continue to try to find the good in frustrating and often difficult circumstances. I’m not going to give up easily or without substantial thought.

It is true, though, the old adage. The English and the Americans are clearly divided by a common language. And basic cultural differences that are far deeper than I had realized. A friend of mine is another midwestern expat living in Germany and we discussed the fact that it’s actually useful for her to have the language barrier to remind her that she’s “not in Kansas any more”. I don’t get enough of that with the altered accent and vocabulary but I certainly feel the cultural differences increasingly deeply. And in the end that might well be enough to send me home.

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6 responses to “Resolved to stay and fight?

  1. NFAH: I am sorry – though not surprised – to hear that someone told you to “go home”. I am an immigrant myself and after nearly a decade, I still hear it because of my colour. I am assuming you have the advantage of at least looking like the ‘natives’!

    However as another old adage goes about “grace to accept what one cannot change” and in various versions “strength/ courage etc to change what one can”, I think problems need to be categorised into those two baskets (roughly; they do NOT make up the universal set of problems).

    Banking, to which you have dedicated several posts, is in the first basket. In every country. I am afraid your posts did betray your ‘first-time-expat’ status in this regard and contrary to the PR, not all British people like Americans.

    As an illustration of contrasts, I offered you a story of dealing with the US banking system as an expat. Someone else also contributed a story which showed that things have changed in the US – for the worse since 2001.

    Systemic fixes in industry however are easier than in society. Kate Fox in her seminal work also talks a lot about the class system in Britain.

    When immigrants come in, the locals do not know where to slot them. They cannot notch them to a class based on accent (since it is foreign), or schooling (all outside the UK and probably in better Universities and if here, definitely in Oxbridge), or jobs (although some are coming to be cleaners etc, many nationalities such as yours rarely come for two-bit crappy jobs).

    Can you begin to see their confusion? They have no way to know how to deal with you. And then you complain calling one of the British institutions ‘bastards’ πŸ™‚

    The trick is not in wholesale improvement – unless you are being paid to do it. The trick is to know how to work the system legally and to find solutions to your own problem. This works in all developed countries, including those giving loud lip service to systems and procedures. In some cases, you hire an intermediary and pay him/ her. But pretty much every problem where someone has been before, is solvable. Trying to reinvent the wheel will always cause more heartache than acceptable.

    Somehow I think you know all this already.

    So as the pidgin Latin thing says: illegitimi non carborundum. And get on with your career πŸ™‚

  2. notfromaroundhere

    Thanks for your comments. I agree, you can’t walk into someplace and try to change it. That was never my intention. I have been shocked and surprised by many of the things that I have found frustrating–I was not expecting them. And although you’re right about my being a first time expat, I’ve always worked in a global field, had friends from all over, was familiar with the drill. I did not expect it to be free of frustrations. I also note that writing a semi-humorous blog is a great way of venting the frustrations, and many of the things that I have written about are more along the lines of “oh my goodness can you believe this? ha ha” for the benefit of my friends and family back home. Others fall into the category of “things I wish I had known before I got on that plane.”

    The credit card issue does bring out my strongest ire because I’m getting the run-around, being told one thing by the bank branch and another by the centralized authorities. I was told it would improve with time and it hasn’t and doesn’t appear like it’s going to. I think those sorts of issues make me mad no matter where I am, whether home or abroad. It’s also just a circumstance that I find ridiculous for all the reasons I’ve already outlined. And finally I feel as though my institution/workplace could help and they are not. That is perhaps a larger question: if an institution does employ global workforce do they have any sort of responsibility to help with the transitions? I could make an economic argument that they should if it is a factor that diminishes worker productivity.

    The problem that appears now is when the frustration that arises due to these little annoyances along with the other more large and systemic things that you allude to–the culture and class wars–demoralize me to the point that I do have a hard time doing my job. That’s where I sit at the moment and it’s not fun.

  3. NFAH:

    Two things struck me at once “a semi-humorous blog” and “for the benefit of my friends and family back home”.

    Sadly humour does not always travel well between cultures. Further a public blog such as yours can easily be found by unintended audiences, such as me and the man who told you to go home; Vox btw would have been a good choice of platform to restrict access to your content.

    Besides yelling “go home” at foreigners is the flavour of the day in Britain at the moment, as you would have seen from yesterday’s muddle with numbers.

    “The credit card issue does bring out my strongest ire because I’m getting the run-around, being told one thing by the bank branch and another by the centralized authorities.”

    Here is a small tip: British people love forms and are shit-scared of written complaints. Send in writing, keep copies and threaten to take it to consumer court and to write to the consumer agony aunts in the main dailies. You will get immediate action.

    “And finally I feel as though my institution/workplace could help and they are not.”

    This again does not strike me as surprising. You are lucky if you have not yet heard “This is not my job” at your workplace. I heard it within 2 days of starting my first job here. Few if any will go beyond the boundaries of their written role descriptions and helping ease someone’s life – unless and even if part of job description – does not come naturally to most people here.

    I am sorry you have to suffer so much. I am sure you have done the written complaint thing so time to up the ante once and then make an informed call.

    Good luck and best wishes.

  4. notfromaroundhere

    Thanks much for all your comments. I think one thing is true: I definitely feel like it would be the wrong thing to restrict my contents of my blog to an American audience. I am definitely of the opinion that diversity is a positive thing but it is inevitable that it would be at least somewhat painful at times. Call this a manifestation of the classic “growing pains” on the part of everyone: I am growing in my own intercultural knowledge and perhaps some of the people around me are too. If I restrict my blog to the US, for example, I risk “preaching to the choir” and I don’t think that’s a good thing. If you look back through my blog, most of it IS humorous. It’s only the last few weeks, maybe two months at most, that I hit some sort of a point where my frustrations started to be more angry and less funny. In the ten or eleven months before that, I was largely amused by the things I found. I suspect I’m now in the period where the “honeymoon is over” and my real life here is starting to be a normal, real life, and that’s why it feels frustrating to still be so “foreign” in issues like banking when otherwise I’ve been here and reasonably settled for more than a full year. Regardless, you make an excellent set of points and I really appreciate the “conversation”. Perhaps I need to make a list now of the things I LOVE about England and the reasons why I’m happy here so it balances out the vitriolic rants about the banking system πŸ˜‰

  5. NFAH: Thanks for your response.

    I think you are right about the honeymoon period being over. Cosy is now truly cramped; “oodles of character” now showing up its decrepit state πŸ™‚

    You say: “Perhaps I need to make a list now of the things I LOVE about England and the reasons why I’m happy here so it balances out the vitriolic rants about the banking system”.

    I am sure you have found plenty and they outnumber the bad ones, which is why you have managed to stick it out.

    Let me start you with one – Edinburgh πŸ˜‰ Ha ha! I used to live there and much as London is great, the breathtaking beauty of Edinburgh was awesome and I loved going out first thing in the morning..

    PS: the joke in there is that somebody I know phoned DTI and asked about something about which RDA covers Carlisle and they said we do not cover Scotland. Carlisle is in England. Tells us something, no?

    Good luck and keep writing.

  6. Pingback: 10 good things about England « Not From Around Here

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