What About The Bitter Expat?

Frustration is usually built up by the constant not meeting of expectations. And this can happen easily and often when you find yourself in a new place. Let’s look into it, what else makes the “bitter expat”?

Photo by Ostap Senyuk on Unsplash

I was doing some research the other week and I came across this term, “bitter expat”. It was on a forum, and one of the main topics was: “How not to become a bitter expat?” So it seemed to me that this is actually a thing, since people were responding without asking what the phrase itself meant. After I did some more reading, I realized it was something I was perfectly aware of, and probably so are you, but I didn’t know it had a name.

Let’s put it this way: have you ever met someone abroad who was just constantly ranting and ranting, nothing ever being good enough for them, and usually starting or finishing their rant by saying something like “this is how it goes in this country”? So basically, the bitter expat is someone who lives outside of their home country, but is never quite happy with their life, and blames everything on the culture of the country they live in. But let’s look into it, what makes the “bitter expat”?

Expat Mental Health

This is something we can’t stress enough. The growing number of expats and TCKs (Third Culture Kids) results in major changes in psychology and therapy as well as in the work organizations. I myself was an expat for nearly a decade, and in my experience becoming or not becoming a bitter one doesn’t really depend on where the person lives, or rather on personal aspects. First of all, leaving one’s home is never easy. One may have perfectly good reasons to move, but that doesn’t make it not hard. Then finding oneself in new and unfamiliar surroundings, perhaps even alone, is again something that makes it all the more harder.

What I want to say is that there are some major factors in action that don’t have anything to do with the country, but the person. And of course all of these will meet the culture- and country-related problems at some point, resulting in the “bitter expat syndrome”, which in my opinion is most easily avoided when someone knows how to make the distinction between personal and cultural issues, and is able to see where cultural problems end and where personal ones start. So let’s stick first to the personal issues, before we go on with the cultural ones!

Frustration

Is the major cause of the bitter expat syndrome. I’m sure you noticed that when someone is constantly ranting, it’s always about mundane, everyday issues. When you hear people in shops or on the street, ranting, they are usually not talking about the big questions of life, but rather everyday things. It can be the quality of some product, the long line at the counter, the food being too hot or too cold, the service being too slow, etc., anything like that. And people often argue that these issues are specific to the country they live in, and they can genuinely believe that the country, and the culture itself are the reasons of their frustration.

But then again, as someone in a forum put it: they still don’t move back home, but they don’t let go of their frustrations either. And all these small, mundane things are slowly piling up, until they become a big, general mass of frustration. As I was saying, the globalized world demands new directions in psychology as well, and psychologists and therapists are more and more emphasizing the dangers of becoming an expat, with regards to mental health. Before one can get on with the cultural issues, culture shock, and everything that awaits them in their new life, there is a step which shouldn’t be skipped, as it’s the one that works as a basis for everything there is to come.

I would sum it up as a strong character, working towards being a well-balanced human being. What is really important is that one knows really well what they want, has the necessary drive and motivation, but openness and humility at the same time. It doesn’t matter where you want to move, one thing is sure: without humility you won’t find your peace. Staying humble is a moral value that will surely guide you no matter the country you live in and the people you meet. Knowing that the world is not there to serve you, but rather you are in it to offer something to it, and learn in the meantime! I think this is an attitude that can save you from becoming a bitter expat… and a bitter person. Then what about the next steps?

Learning The Country

There are expats who end up in their host country after looking at more possibilities and choosing one, and then there are the ones who move because of a job or studying possibilities, or going with a spouse etc., so they don’t move for the sake of moving to a new place, but because of a major life change that makes them move to a certain place. In this case there is no choosing the country, and one has to make the best out of whatever the new place has to offer. In this case there is one thing to do: research and learn!

Preparing for the big move is about far more than getting the papers and administrative things sorted. It’s about getting to know where you are going, and what to expect there! This is the most secure way to make the following culture shock easier, which is of great help in a situation where everything is new and unpredictable anyway. I mentioned frustration as a main cause for becoming a bitter expat, and this frustration is caused by seemingly minor, everyday things. This makes it only logical that the more you learn about the culture you are planning on diving into, the less surprises you will have. Frustration is also usually built up by the constant not meeting of expectations. And this can happen easily and often when you find yourself in a new place: you constantly have expectations, and perhaps you are not even aware of them, you only realize you had them in the first place when something new happens, something that takes you by surprise. You got used to how everyday things work in your home country, and each time something happens differently in your host country, you are surprised, and in the worst-case-scenario, disappointed or frustrated. This is why it can really help to learn as much as you can about the country you are moving to. This way you can reduce the number of unpleasant surprises. It can also help in coping with the feeling of being an outsider, which will always be there at first, but it can be somewhat moderated by knowledge about the culture you are “dropped into”.

If you are part of the other group, and you only know that you want to try out something different, but you haven’t still decided on a country, then research is once again your greatest help! If you know what you are looking for, then see which countries are the best to choose from. Once again: the more you know about yourself and your needs, the more precisely you can choose your destination. Cultural differences can make things harder, so keep in mind that the closer your host country’s culture is to your home’s the easier for you to navigate through it! If you know about yourself that you tend to seek familiarity, then choose your new home with this in mind.

So, How Not To Become A Bitter Expat?

In conclusion, I think it’s safe to say that you can do quite a lot in order not to become one. It all comes down to these two things: knowing yourself, being humble, and learn a lot about your host country. The magic of not becoming a bitter expat works on these two levels, personal and cultural, and you should focus on both to the same amount.

Eszter Szűcs-Imre

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