Help help I’m trapped in a Graham Greene novel
August 20, 2013 6:41 AM   Subscribe

I am in a foreign country. I just had an encounter with another foreigner, on his way back to his own country, which went along the lines of “You’ll never make it here, you are destined to be unhappy, these are people for whom lying is second-nature.” I just moved here and I feel like I’m being sabotaged.

Look, I know he had a bad experience and he wanted a place to vent it from the “I’m an old hand” perspective and I stupidly gave him a platform (the hallway between our hotel rooms), but I am really feeling bad about all the things that he said. Most people I have met here have been nothing but gracious and kind to me – to a ridiculous extent. But the gist of what he said is that as an American, I will never understand them. I will never understand that underneath the kindness lies ulterior motives and an impulse to do dark things and a “lack of morality.” And that nothing they say on the surface can be taken to signify what lies underneath the surface. In short, the surface is just a guise for a tissue of lies.

He looked normal enough and he has been here for a long time. Just talking to him has seriously freaked me out. I feel like he’s trying to set me up to doubt every single interaction I will have over the next year.

How do I process this?
posted by spaceheater to Human Relations (36 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Plenty of Americans think this way about foreigners before they ever leave the country. Why assume his opinions were based on anything but that same impulse?
posted by Sequence at 6:47 AM on August 20, 2013 [10 favorites]

If someone said something like that to me, I would think, "Oh. Huh. A racist. How quaint."

And then I would move on with my life. I would not start looking for ulterior motives and trying to figure out what it all means. Anyone who ascribes any characteristic universally to an entire culture of people - especially a negative characteristic like lying - is a racist. Plain and simple. And their opinions should be looked at with the absolute highest level of scrutiny, because they're steeped in a twisted and toxic outlook on the world.
posted by jph at 6:47 AM on August 20, 2013 [11 favorites]

Wait, this is just some random guy who offered you his unsolicited opinion? Move on. You don't know anything about what kind of person he is or why he had the experiences he did. He's one guy. There are people who work for the company I've been happy with for eight years who hate it here. There are people in my neighborhood, which I love, who have complaints about it. There are people who don't like my perfectly lovely sister. There are people who sincerely believe Barack Obama is a non-American Muslim who became president with the intention of systematically destroying the United States! Everybody has different experiences of the same things. This one person's opinion has no bearing on your life.
posted by something something at 6:48 AM on August 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Sounds like a xenophobic racist to me Uncle Charlie.

You don't even know this guy. Why would you give any credence to what he's saying?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:50 AM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

The guy sounds like an isolationist othering racist who wants to keep everyone separate (especially now that he's had his adventure.)

Can you read some anthropology or sociology on the area where you are? This would require access to an academic library, but if you can find some articles about foodways or gift exchange or rituals of death and dying, it might give you some insight about how people in your new community care for each other.

These norms and mores are probably different from your home, but might also give you some insight into your own way of addressing these situations.

This comes with the caveat that while anthropology and sociology strive to be objective (now), by their nature the writing has a perspective. Maybe you can even find collaborative ethnographies of your new place. This means that people who are from there had a hand in deciding what got studied, and for what purpose.
posted by bilabial at 6:52 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

How do I process this?

"Christ, what an asshole."
posted by Coobeastie at 6:52 AM on August 20, 2013 [47 favorites]

My answer to the Third Culture Kid syndrome thread seems apropos here.

FWIW, your neighbor seems like a #1 who overstayed. You still have to find out which type of expat you are. Please enjoy the process.
posted by rocketpup at 6:53 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

So if everyone is really nice to you and helps you and such, but inside they absolutely hate you...what's the difference? I mean, all you can judge people on are their actions towards you, so if you're enjoying the interactions, then there's really no sense in driving yourself crazy trying to figure out their "true intentions."
posted by xingcat at 6:54 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

But the gist of what he said is that as an American, I will never understand them. I will never understand that underneath the kindness lies ulterior motives and an impulse to do dark things and a “lack of morality.”

I'm a Jewish immigrant from Russia and I have heard the exact same thing said about Jews, Russians and Americans, each coming from someone who was not Jewish, Russian or American. The suspicion of an ulterior motive and lack of morality in someone who is unlike you is ubiquitous.
posted by griphus at 6:56 AM on August 20, 2013 [10 favorites]

A guy I work with is from another country, and he says stuff like this all the time, about and to other people who come from other countries.

I think it has less to do with the fact that he is foreign and much, much more to do with the fact that he is severely depressed and until very recently wasn't doing anything about it.

Seriously, one morning I said to him, "hey, we have that coffee you like in the kitchen," and he said "what's the point, coffee will just wake me up enough to see how terrible and pointless the world is."

Don't let it bother you so much. Grumpy guy has his own problems. They don't have to be yours.
posted by phunniemee at 6:58 AM on August 20, 2013 [9 favorites]

I was overseas for a few weeks recently, and read as much as I could about what to expect, mostly English and American blogs - and they were absolutely, utterly, completely different to my experience. I just couldn't get over how radically different their experiences were - or how they described them. People say negative things for a lot of reasons, and not always truthfully. Wherever you go, there you are. Maybe your stranger guy had a horrible experience because he is horrible himself.
posted by Kaleidoscope at 6:58 AM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Don't process it. It's his experience, not yours. I don't think it means he necessarily is a racist any more than having a couple of bad encounters in a town might make you warn people off going there because its "full" of assholes. It's an emotional statement, and as reliable as any other anecdote.

Lots of people have bad times in foreign places, a function of bad luck, bad experiences and their own bad judgment or lack of cultural familiarity. Having a bad time is especially hard on some people because of their own expectations and the crushing sense of isolation or alienation when things don't turn out right. My experience is that often people move abroad, consciously or not, because they are seeking a cleaner slate or to leave something behind.

Ultimately, you're not him and unless you have reason to think you're going to encounter the same people or issues and react in the same way, his thoughts on life the world and everything are not relevant.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:02 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's an old story about how a stranger drove into a small town, and asked the first person he saw: "I'm thinking of moving here, what are the people like?" The townie said, "what were they like where you come from?" The stranger said everyone in his hometown was mean and nasty and dishonest; the townie replied that "well, that's what you'll find here, too".

Another stranger drove into town and asked the same townie the same question. When the townie asked what people were like in this stranger's hometown, the stranger said everyone was friendly and helpful and as honest as the day is long..... and the townie again replied, "that's what you'll find here, too".

The point is, you'll find exactly what you expect to find.
posted by easily confused at 7:04 AM on August 20, 2013 [20 favorites]

I will never understand that I will never understand that underneath the kindness lies ulterior motives and an impulse to do dark things and a “lack of morality.” And that nothing they say on the surface can be taken to signify what lies underneath the surface. In short, the surface is just a guise for a tissue of lies.

If this guy had never left his own tiny American town all his life, he might very well say the exact same things about the people there. People say this about people, in general. It's a philosophy some people have, you know? It probably sometimes has some merit, but often it doesn't. So what can you do? Don't give the rambling of one stranger that much credit.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 7:04 AM on August 20, 2013

So there's a parable that fits well here:

A traveler passes an old man sitting along the road and asks, "Old man, what is it like in the town up ahead?" The old man asks the traveler, "Well, what was it like in the last town you traveled through?" And the traveler says, "Awful. A town in ruins. Liars and drunks and cheats, every last one of them." The old man replies, "Ah, well you'll find the same up ahead." So the traveler sighs and continues on his way.

Before long, another traveler passes along the same road and meets the old man, still sitting there. The second traveler asks what the town is like, and the old man asks him what he found in the last town. The second traveler said, "Good people, and children playing at the churchyard. Pretty gardens. Wonderful bakeries and pubs."

And the old man replies, "Ah, well you'll find the same up ahead."
posted by mochapickle at 7:06 AM on August 20, 2013 [12 favorites]

Hey, former study abroad advisor here. Your guy seems to have missed the point of being a guest in someone else's land...which that he brought his own baggage along and seems to not have unpacked it. Your first goal isn't to understand the locals, or be understood by them. It is to respect them, by being curious and open and holding off on cultural judgments. He seems frustrated that it wasn't what he wanted it to be, while you can appreciate it for what it is. Have your own experience and decide for yourself. Trust your own experience and judgment and let yourself be transformed by it in your own way. If in a year you find that guy is right, then so be it. But it may be something different all together. And You are more and just 'American', anyway, you are who you are and need to have your own experience.

This is like a bitter guy who points out his exgirlfriend is crazy and you need to run. Really, it isn't clear what the story is, and the only way you can figure it out is your own personal experience with her. You two may get in swimmingly. So, respect that that guy's experience is his. One data point. Don't ignore it, but put it in context. Give yourself more time and experience to meet others and form your own opinion. I think that is part of the whole nail biting joy of being abroad....not knowing, but trusting that others have navigated that part of the world successfully,and you can too. If not, you would have been satisfied with like, the 'African safari' tour at Disneyland in Florida or something. But you're adventurous! So go and have your adventure. See what happens.
posted by anitanita at 7:08 AM on August 20, 2013 [7 favorites]

I was going to post the same story easily confused and mochapickle mention, except I couldn't remember it very well and thought it was in a bar with a Buddhist monk or something. Thanks, y'all!

That disgruntled guy you talked to was the first person in the story, and odds are good that you will be the second. Just keep doing whatever you were doing before he laid all his bile on you, don't assume ill intentions, and you'll be fine.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:10 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's always good to remember that any new culture will take some adjustment and interpretation. Say, for example, in one place looking someone in the eyes is a sign of forthrightness and avoiding eye contact is interpreted as dishonesty. But in another culture, making eye contact would be extremely rude and not making eye contact would show respect. You'll be confused and offended a lot if you expect gestures, habits, and ways of speech to translate easily from one culture to another.

But assuming that these differences are motivated by ill will? That guy is just an asshole. There is no part of the world where people are universally "bad" or "greedy" or... anything. I mean, if you came to the US and hung out with only, I don't know, Wall Street traders or something, you'd go away with a vastly different impression than if you met a group of librarians. Maybe this guy has only been finding jerks in Country X because he's a jerk and like attracts like.

Short answer: don't let one asshole with a bad attitude take up any more space in your head.
posted by MsMolly at 7:10 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know--that kind of sounds like an awesome interaction to me. How mysterious! He's probably a burned out spy, with scars from when his local contact turned out to be a double-agent and turned him over to the secret police. Only after two years in an underground prison, living only on semi-stale local pastries and that not-very good brandy they give to dogs, he broke out and made it to his safe house, stopping only at the international newsagents to pick up copies of the International Herald Tribune and Us Magazine. After a lengthy debriefing, his spy agency superiors worry that he might be a turncoat himself and keeps him under constant surveillance.

To ensure that his handlers know his allegiances still lie with his home country, he continually stops other foreigners on the street to tell them how much it sucks there, the people are crummy, and they charge you for ketchup at McDonald's. And they don't put ice in drinks, even on hot days!

You were just a bit player in his elaborate charade.

Good luck. Though do try the dog brandy, it's actually pretty good.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:13 AM on August 20, 2013 [22 favorites]

Listen. This is a specimen of expat you were guaranteed to encounter. They are not just racists. They are a particular brand of curdled idealists: people who went overseas needing to have something about *themselves* either reaffirmed or denied, and when they didn't find it - failed to find the right stage to act out their savior complex, weren't met with the gratitude or submissive warmth or blind admiration they were hoping for - they felt betrayed, and in turn, became hateful and bitter.

I get it. These people are disturbing to encounter. And the reason, I think, that they're so much more unnerving than your garden-variety racist is that you can see the traces of the kind of idealistic person they used to be...the person you probably are now. Guaranteed, that's why they spent so much time buttonholing you in the hallway: because in their twisted heads, they were trying to do a good deed. They were thinking, "Oh, here is an innocent version of myself. Let me clue them into the realities I had to learn the hard way."

It's a scary lesson, but in a way, it's one that's good to learn now. That kind of expat - the disillusioned idealist - is what's waiting on the other side for you if you're not careful. Because the "ridiculous graciousness and kindness" you've encountered is, in a way, a lie. You're encountering the incredible surface politeness that foreigners - particularly white ones, though I don't want to presume - often encounter when they first enter poorer cultures with strong traditions of hospitality. And beneath that is all of the messy, occasionally unpleasant, occasionally wonderful reality in which most people - like people everywhere - are predominantly self-interested, sometimes dishonest, and - frankly - not all that invested in being nice to strangers unless said strangers have something they want.

The process of acculturation to a new culture is discovering what lies beneath the surface of that politeness, and accepting the vast, vast reaches of what you don't understand. Done right, it does not have to be an embittering process - it can be an extraordinary enriching one. And the best way to keep yourself from becoming this guy is to set aside your expectations about what your experience will be like and the ways it will serve you. Don't doubt every interaction you have, but do come to it with a baseline level of humility about how much you understand and how much more you have to learn. That's the lesson you can take away from this encounter, and if you keep this man in mind as an example of what you don't want to become, it will serve you very, very well.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:13 AM on August 20, 2013 [36 favorites]

Okay, I know this is marked "answered", but here's a thought: I worked in China for several years, speaking some mandarin and making a bunch of friends, both local and ex-pat. In a sense, I never "understood" Chinese people (in their great individual, regional, etc variety) because I am not Chinese, and because in particular I grew up in a society profoundly different from China. This sense of "not understanding" kind of crept up on me - it really revealed to me how powerful culture is and that people really are different from one another, as the poet wrote. And it crept up on me how American I was - oh, a bad American, with atypical values and a lot of discomfort with US culture, but not merely some kind of misplaced European or something.

And you know what? That was okay! Kind of neat, even. It didn't preclude making friends, learning or building skills. Some of the most exciting moments in my time in China were moments of "ZOMG, now I see that this essay isn't badly structured, it's just structured in the correct Chinese short-argumentative-essay style, which is not USian!" Sometimes I felt a total fool because I realized that my best attempts to be polite had fallen flat, but even there it was educational.

Honestly, if your Greene-ian pal is going home after a stressful job, he probably has a lot of in-the-moment feelings that he's venting to you that don't reflect his actual experience or his actual deeper feelings. (Which doesn't excuse racism, ever, of course, but it does mean that even he probably wouldn't describe his situation that way when he wasn't stressed and miserable.) There were days when I grumbled and cursed and generalized because I was homesick, stressed, confused or afraid; there were times when I had terrible experiences which were rooted in my inability to negotiate the cultural landscape to access help or clarification. I had angry feelings. This did not reflect either a great truth about "Chinese" culture or a great truth about my feelings. They were just transitory angry feelings that even at the time I recognized as resulting from stress. (I also once had a really embarrassing crying breakdown in a movie theater that I regret now, but that was because I was 22 and really anxious.)

I will never understand that underneath the kindness lies ulterior motives and an impulse to do dark things and a “lack of morality.” And that nothing they say on the surface can be taken to signify what lies underneath the surface. In short, the surface is just a guise for a tissue of lies.

This is just [racist] nonsense, though. I mean, ask yourself: cultural differences are real, but we're all carbon based life forms with opposable thumbs, etc. How could a society possibly function if everyone were grossly immoral, lying all the time, etc, particularly if this weren't some kind of momentary historical social breakdown [like a time of civil war or totalitarianism where all institutions are dangerous and corrupt]? I mean, that just doesn't make any sense. People aren't "lying all the time" or "immoral" in this unspecified society; all that this dude means is that he can't cope with cultural norms outside his own. People in this society have different ways of communicating than what he's used to, and he's had trouble with that, and he decided to describe it as "lying" instead of "different modes of communication". People have different loyalties and ways of relating to each other than he's used to, so he's described that as "immorality".

Now, in real life it may be frustrating sometimes to you as an outsider. Or there may be real dysfunction - a corrupt state, institutionalized sexism, etc. But those are just standard, though dismaying, factors that appear at times in all societies. It's like the dude got food poisoning at a restaurant there and was all "oh, people from my country can never eat the noxious, poisonous food of this country, where all the cooks are careless and ignorant!!!" instead of saying "I got food poisoning! Guess I won't go back to that place again, this is just like that pizza place back home where I got so sick".
posted by Frowner at 7:21 AM on August 20, 2013 [8 favorites]

Hey, this is the same thing people told me about moving to the South (U.S.). While they were right in some aspects, I've been here about 4.5 years and it's no different than anywhere else. Some fake assholes here and there... some racists here and there... some awesome friendly people here and there, etc.
posted by KogeLiz at 7:21 AM on August 20, 2013

The important thing to remember is that when you do find people who treat you badly -- and you will, because there are always going to be people like that anywhere you go -- you need to not let yourself fall into the trap that he did and ascribe whatever negative behavior you came across to everyone around you. Expect to find both good and bad, and don't generalize the latter.

For what it's worth, this idea of people being nice or polite to your face but absolutely otherwise behind your back is definitely something I've heard a lot abroad about Americans. I don't think there are many countries about which you wouldn't hear something similar. Cultural expectations clash and people don't know how to read each other, that's all.
posted by egg drop at 7:30 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hearing this kind of thing can be really disheartening, I know. But think of it as practice for times in the future that you're bound to hear other foreigners complain about your newly adopted country. Those people will always be out there, and they can be very vocal. Keep in mind that people can mis-attribute their misery. They might say that Country X makes them unhappy, but it might actually be many other things: their family, their relationships, their job. Focus on your experience and trust your perception. Also, tread carefully at online expat forums; they can certainly be very helpful, but I have found that they can also be breeding grounds for this type of bitterness.
posted by neushoorn at 7:44 AM on August 20, 2013

I've lived in another country for three years. It's a place that some Americans think is full of "lazy, corrupt" people. I've also heard plenty of bitter-expat ranting about how "they" lie all the time, they tell you one thing but do another, everyone just wants to get one over on you, so what if you think everyone is nice to you, your time will come, blah blah blah.

Usually the person making these complaints has these traits:
- They don't speak the local language well.
- They don't have local friends -- they just hang out with other expats, so they never learn the subtleties or perspectives of the local culture.
- They believe the way things were done at home is right and everything else is wrong.
- When something bad happens, they focus on that and tell the story repeatedly as proof that the local culture is wrong.
- They come from a low context culture and struggle to pick up on social cues.

The last point has been key for me as an American abroad. I don't know how familiar you are with cross-cultural terms, so forgive me if I'm telling you stuff you already know, but it was helpful for me to learn this: The US is a low-context culture, meaning there are explicit, usually consistently enforced rules about behavior and you don't have to be very sensitive to pick up on them. There are literal signs everywhere, like in an airport. For example, there are lanes marked on the street and cars usually stay in them. There are marked crosswalks for pedestrians to use.

Many other cultures are high context, which means "right" and "wrong" depend on who's involved, the history between them, their position in the social hierarchy, the possible future ramifications of the act, etc. To continue the traffic analogy, there might be lanes faintly marked, but they're optional. There are few or no official crosswalks; to cross a busy street, you wade out into the traffic at a constant pace and the other drivers (ideally) notice you and adjust their trajectory. Rather than being aware of rules, they're aware of each other.

There might also be a lot of face-saving, meaning, yes, they do say one thing and mean another. An expat needs to learn how to hear the other thing they're really saying. Unhappy expats whose language use is limited to requesting food in restaurants and who have few local friends aren't going to learn how to hear what's really being said.

My experience in this country is completely different from what the bitter expats claim to experience every day. It's like I live in a different country. When I get trapped in conversation by a bitter expat, I listen for cues about what he did to create the bad experiences he's so obsessed about. The bitter ones are useful as examples of what not to do, and nothing more.
posted by ceiba at 7:48 AM on August 20, 2013 [19 favorites]

Also know that when expats get together, they complain. Because the natural thing to do is to compare where you came from with where you are, and no matter which aspect of the culture you're talking about, you'll like either the new place or the old place better, and will complain about the other.

It's true that you can never fully understand a new culture, because you've not grown up in it. And if you stay long enough, you'll no longer be fully a part of your old culture either, because you'll have missed too much. The compensating benefit, and it does compensate, is that you see both cultures differently, recognizing hidden assumptions and underlying values that natives don't.
posted by sesquipedalian at 7:50 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

As someone who has lived overseas for an extended period of time before, I have two comments:

1) There are good people and bad people in every country. Just like you seek out good people in your home country, likewise seek out good people in the country you are visiting.

2) You can become jaded when you stay in another country for a while because there are inevitably things you will not like as much as in your home country and you will start to harp on those. But when you go back to your home country you will miss a lot of things in the country you were visiting and will harp on the things in your home country that didn't bother you so much before but now bother you more because of the new perspective you gained living abroad. Alas, you will find no place is perfect.

For example, you visit a country and find people are very hospitable, polite, and considerate. But later you also find they are materialistic, not so sanitary, and sometimes dishonest. You go back to your home country and find people are less materialistic, more cleanly, and more honest, but they do their own thing and are not as hospitable towards visitors. Welcome to the world of no place is perfect.
posted by Dansaman at 8:13 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

By way of anecdata: I started a new job last year, and a contact from my old job emailed me before the switch to tell me that my choice of employer was "Interesting." When I asked what she meant, she said I was about to enter a world of terrible internal politics, and warned me something like: "Just be careful who you make friends with when you're new - they might not really be your friends."
She claimed to have told me that as a favour because she liked me and thought it would be useful for me to know. I had a similar reaction to you - totally freaked out about the nightmare I might be about to walk in to.

More than a year later, I still have zero idea what she was talking about. It's a great place to work, with very little internal politics, and I'm quite happy there. The way you process something like that is to stay away from people who talk like that, and let your own positive experiences overwrite their doom-mongering in your mind.

People are weird.
posted by penguin pie at 8:17 AM on August 20, 2013

I just moved here and I feel like I’m being sabotaged.

Someone is "sabotaging" you because they said something negative about their own experience and warns that you will have negative experiences, too? Get ahold of yourself.

I think a lot of very outgoing people move to a new place and wonder why all of their social habits and skills don't carry over to the new place. Since there's nothing wrong with them, they figure there must be something wrong with everyone else. And then people focus on the negative, and their negative experiences loom as the dominant thoughts in their minds.

Proceed with caution, but don't let it get to you.
posted by deanc at 9:10 AM on August 20, 2013

This type of attitude is really par for the course among a certain type of person in expat communities. It won't be the last time you encounter it. If you don't learn to ignore it, it can color your experience in a really negative way. I suggest making an effort to avoid expats who spout this kind of stuff. (In fact, avoid expats in general; mix with the locals for a better experience.)
posted by tiger tiger at 9:18 AM on August 20, 2013

The anxiety you feel, the insight he shared with you that shook you up so much, is really a universal thing that takes place in all kinds of contexts. I've been in lots of settings where I've had a weird moment where I've thought "I don't understand anything" or "the world is a very dark place and everyone is acting from dark motives and I will never fully understand this." You can have those moments without ever leaving your home country.

There may be cultural situations where there's a more shady, transactional, patron-clientalism that is threatening and dark to outsiders, but it can be understood. It's anti-intellectual to suggest that you'll "never fit in" or "never understand" a culture.
posted by Unified Theory at 9:36 AM on August 20, 2013

pretentious illiterate for the win.

Also, I've lived overseas in a few different parts of the world and I've heard these sort of negative expat opinions in each location, and I've found them off-base in some, and somewhat on-point in others. I wouldn't go into the experience expecting to have a terrible time, but I would be realistic - people are people. Cultures actually do vary, and truthfulness may differ depending on that culture's view of what truth means and whether it's even important. Some cultures place more of a premium on hospitality, which is generally an agreeable quality to visitors and expats, but can coincide with a certain phoniness. One country I lived in, the people were resoundingly and openly xenophobic. Not everyone for sure, and I learned who to spend my time with, but it was a trait I saw again and again during my time there. Another the people were very savvy politically and schemed a lot and I did not feel that I could trust people the way I could elsewhere. Other countries the people have repeatedly wowed me with their grace and hospitality and courage. I think the same is 100% true of my home country (the US). I don't think it would the easiest place to visit, I don't think it's comprised of the world's most honest people or most hospitable culture. But there are still plenty of wonderful people here and a fantastic stay can be had here. I think being curious, open to opportunity, and realistic are key to having as good an expereince as possible. (And I've been fortunate enough to have fantastic experiences for the most part.)
posted by semacd at 10:01 AM on August 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

When I moved to a foreign country for grad school, one of the very first people I met was a lot like you described. She was American like me, and had been married to a local guy for nearly 10 years. Mind you, New Country was highly homogenous and very white. She had dark skin and a physical handicap, and marital problems; she had also been through the process of trying several times (and failing) to adopt a child with her husband. I can never know the kind of exclusion, racism and disingenuousness she must have experienced. We started to form a friendship at the time but I was struggling with my own culture shock and depression and decided I was better off without her influence. Leaving myself several years later, having made some of the greatest friends of my life, I can see looking back that her bitterness came from a pretty dark personal place, but also admit that there was some truth to what she foretold me (basically: "they're only superficially nice, they'll never really accept you, they're all racist, it's a closed society").

On the other hand, like semacd said, this is one of the things that makes culture shock what it is: that other peoples' idea of things we take for granted, like "morality", "truth" or "sincerity", are challenging to our own. You can miss the point of travel and cling to your own definitions, like this fellow has, or relax and let go. Enjoy your stay!
posted by Lot's ex-girlfriend at 3:20 PM on August 20, 2013

I just moved here and I feel like I’m being sabotaged...I feel like he’s trying to set me up to doubt every single interaction I will have over the next year.

Well, suppose he is. Suppose he spotted you in the hallway and launched a deliberate diabolical plan to set up spaceheater doubt, doubt it all, mwahhh!

So? He's leaving the country. It's not like he's going to have other chances to sway your views.

Foil his evil plan by refusing to buy into what he told you.
posted by yohko at 5:39 PM on August 20, 2013

I lived in China for several years, and this kind of expat there was SO common. China is a hard place for expats in general- it can be very frustrating because your entire cultural framework is turned upside down; it can be hard to adjust, and people will do thing you won't understand completely. So culture shock inevitably comes. Some people cannot or do not want to deal with a culture so different, and so they opt for the "easy" way out- blame it all on the culture. These people are sad, frustrated, and unhappy. It absolutely doesn't have to be that way for you. Sure, you will experience culture shock and challenges that cause you to question things, but you can turn that into an incredible learning experience if you let it. My advice to you is to surround yourself by positive people as much as possible, and make friends and acquaintances with locals.

Honestly, people can blame this kind of reaction on racism, and I don't disagree, but until you've really experienced culture shock from living long-term in another country, it's hard to imagine how difficult it can be. All of us at times (who have lived long-term in a vastly different culture) feel frustrated with everyone and everything about the culture. The trick is to keep it all in perspective, remain positive, surround yourself with positive people, look at it as a learning experience, and make local friends. Good luck!
posted by bearette at 5:47 PM on August 20, 2013

Angry Expat Syndrome
posted by Mister Bijou at 2:08 AM on August 21, 2013

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