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.