The expat's angst

I spent time with a group of American newcomers to Montréal recently; all were women, most in their early thirties. The coffee klatch turned out to be a session of unmitigated complaint.

That's a common expat sentiment anywhere: things are worse than at home. The bureaucracy is designed to obstruct! The brownies at the café are too expensive! No one wants to hire us here, the roads are a mess, and does it ever warm up?

As I write, I'm anticipating the agreement of those who dislike Québec. You're entitled to your opinion, but that is not my point.

My point is that expats bitch; missing home, they compare everything, usually unfavourably. A French friend here got so sick of his copains carping that he avoids them. "And how long have you been here?" he likes to ask. "Oh, eighteen years" is a typical reply. 

When I lived in Toronto, I hung with a raucous batch of Brits who whinged incessantly. A Mancunian friend always suggested they "take 'The $800 Cure'", which was a plane ticket home for two weeks' stay.

Even sophisticated world citizen (and native Montréaler) Adam Gopnik has written of his nightmarish attempts to get a home phone line and chequing account in Paris.

These women had accompanied partners here for work or education. They were legitimately frustrated because most of them could not work yet, partially due to the lengthy immigration process (federal government) but primarily because Québec's language law (provincial government) necessitates proficiency in French for many jobs. Joblessness and attendant money woes exacerbated their dissatisfaction. They had valid issues with various institutions' service levels.

And, they also complained that here, you have to pay the post office to hold your mail when you are on vacation. I have to cross the border to get to a Target; yes, one is opening here next fall–of course it's taken forever because they have to redo all the packaging to include French. 

Everything is so expensive!, one woman moaned. (I later used a terrific  tool, Expatistan's Cost of Living Index, to compare cost of living between Montréal and her former city; according to that site, her former city is 29% more expensive.)

The chorus of complaint was delivered 60 decibels louder than a sober Canadian would use in either official language; anyone within a twelve-foot radius of our communal table could hear every word.  

When you're not a citizen, you're a guest of the host country, and these guests were fractious. I squirmed with discomfort; was I imagining several patron's stares? And wondered, Just how American am I, still?

I wanted to ask if there was anything they liked; but every time I thought of it, a fresh gripe generated more loud assent. Bitterness has a way of multiplying, like monster dough in the back of a fridge. It's easy to edge toward xenophobia.

I fled after an hour, sympathetic to the frustrations but at the same time, distressed by their public airing. It's not that I agree with Québec's majority party's politics or am blind to the city's flaws but, just like with a partner, if you look exclusively at those, sooner or later you'll fall out of love, and I do love living here.

They too had come for love, but not of place. They missed their home towns, friends, family and that great drycleaner. How many, I wondered, will stay?

Walking home, I thought of my own expat days. I came to Canada in 1971, before they were born. I recalled my initial dislocation and gradual acculturation: switching to the metric system, understanding how a parliamentary government works, learning how to invite people over (state a specific date and time.) I didn't have to master a new language in order to work in my field.

If these younger compatriots can resolve some discontents, they will benefit from the richness of living here, whether for a year or life. (Canada and the US permit dual citizenship, a unique privilege and one for which I continue to be grateful– though perhaps it makes assimilating to the new country harder.)

If it is only a partner that brought them here, and the craziness, contradictions and constraints prove too much to bear, the outlook for their futures will be like our spring weather: cloudy, with a high probability of rain.

 






30 comments

fmcgmccllc said...

I remember complaining when we went to Shanghai, but it was mostly from broken agreements from hubs company. I do recall how much I enjoyed certain parts of the experience. Living on the 28th floor, taxis everywhere except Friday nights on Nan Jing Lu, walking and discovering the most fascinating places. But I had no other expat women to have coffee with.

Déjà Pseu said...

I have very little tolerance anymore just in general for people who complain incessantly. It's one thing to admit to homesickness, and it would be frustrating to not be able to work, but darn it, attitude is everything. Suck it up, and open your mind to new experiences and possibilities. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Why don't these women avail themselves of the free or low-cost French courses available to them while they are not able to find work (I assume that we are describing people whose partners make enough to support them both; not a good long-term situation but it happens, to men as well as to women).

If they are from New York or another very large US city, they are failing to factor in rent or mortgage costs. From anywhere in the US, they are failing to factor in the cost of private health coverage. A freelancer friend in NYC bears a huge tab.

lagatta à montréal said...

How sloppy of me! (Shouldn't post while my mind is on finding "le mot juste") I'm Anonymous May 30, 2013 at 9:04 AM

Murphy said...

Honestly, I was just complaining to my husband that we should have emigrated to Canada when we were still young enough to be eligible. Since I live in the US, I see all the good and bad points, but I tend to idealize Canada - and France, too, for that matter. Still, I'm happy where I am, and I guess I just need to save up for more frequent trips. I'm hoping for Montreal this year!

Duchesse said...

fmcgmccllc: Not having compatriots in your host country changes things, both for better and worse. I suspect it encouraged your self-reliance. Walking and discovering, sounds magical.

Pseu: A little complaining I can bear, but nonstop carping wears on me pretty fast. I left that meeting thinking almost your exact words.

lagatta: When I mentioned your point about healthcare to one woman, she said, "Well the company pays for that" (in the US). She did not need subsidized daycare, another of our benefits.

Several of them were enrolled in subsidized French classes but seemed to view it as meeting a requirement, not personal choice.

Murphy: Older folks do emigrate, it's not impossible :) If in Montreal, let's have coffee!

Trish said...

I moved to Toronto with my husband for three years while he was on a military assignment. My visa did not allow me to work-and I was thrilled. I was able to travel around the city, go to museums, meet the other 'foreign' wives. It was much more expensive and the military did give us some exta funds to compensate, but it was still a budgeting stretch. We also rented a much smaller house, lived within walking distance of his work, and I walked everywhere or took the TTC. I am a country girl at heart, but did enjoy my three years in the city (Lawrence Park area, which was lovely).

hostess of the humble bungalow said...

I have very little time for moaners. Life is too short to spend it bitching!
New places are full of things to do and explore. I say carpe diem...
I would welcome the opportunity to get to know a new city.
Hope that you were able to share some of your knowledge and wisdom with the newcomers.

Anonymous said...

When you think about some of the places their partners might have been posted to, your companions' complaints about having to live in MONTREAL seem laughable. But I know from my own experience that any major move engenders a temporary internal struggle while I mourn my lost familiar environment. Living in a new place, perhaps speaking a new language, stretches all sorts of muscles, and can be a strain. Constant public complaining, however, only obscures the real source of discontent: not the new city, but one's own resistance to change.

C.

frugalscholar said...

My mother-in-law swapped jobs with someone in Montreal. She and my f-in-law had a great time (f-in-law had just retired). Of course, both had French. Living in a walkable city after years in Los Angeles--they loved it!

I am a big complainer--a legacy from my family. I have been working on it for years. I married a non-complainer from a non-complaining family.

Sometimes complainers just want some empathy. My husband learned that from one of Deborah Tannen's books. So empathize and maybe they'll stop.

Duchesse said...

Trish: You made the best of it! One of the women was driving to Plattsburg NY to buy cheese at a PriceChopper. When you factor in the price of gas, I question the savings, and that cheese tastes like candle wax. I thought "Buy less cheese and get to know our terrific Québec ones (which often go on sale)" but bit my tongue as I can be too blunt and sound like a scold.

hostess: I tried, but was met with blank stares. When I told a woman who was considering a move to Toronto that it is in fact more expensive there, she said "Oh NO!"

C. I was sad that their mourning for their old locales had obscured enjoying where they are. Maybe the women happy with Mtl were not there that day- which seemed to prove the adage that misery loves company.

frugal: One of my all-time favourite little books of wisdom is "A Complaint-Free World" by Will Bowen. He (compassionately) lists all the things we 'get' from complaining and suggests how to shift. Individuals, families and even workplaces can get locked into a pattern of complaint; it's so draining.

Empathy is a valuable first step- "empathy before education", as one of my teachers always said.




Jean S said...

I've moved a fair amount (though never out of the US), and my husband and I have appreciated every place we've lived.

That said, I know that major transitions can be challenging, and one can feel unmoored for a long time. And some people, quite honestly, have limited bandwidth for being an explorer or pioneer.

I've joked that, when our people emigrated from Scotland et al, my husband would have been first in line, and I would have been second or third. My brothers, however, probably would have missed the boat....

Duchesse said...

Jean s: That's a great point! I suspect the first-in-liners, with high tolerance for change, might not be interested in attending such a gathering. Some kind of selection process was at work.

Moving to a new city 2 yrs ago (though same country, definitely different from where I'd lived for 30 years) caused me to examine my own flexibility in this respect.

rubiatonta said...

I moved to Madrid because I wanted to and only have myself to answer to; my sister K. moved to Shanghai because her husband's job took them there (though there was a LOT of consultation before they made the decision to go). It's wonderful for me to hear about the adventures that she and her family are having all over the Asian region, and I'm proud that my nieces and nephew are growing up to be world citizens who are also keenly aware of how fortunate they are.

Though I know I'm over-simplifying, I think we're both happy where we are because we're from a "mustn't grumble" family -- we tend to focus on what we've got, not on what's missing.

lagatta à montréal said...

I googled Complaint-Free World and confess I practically ran screaming from the relentless positive thinking, tacky graphics and whiff of fundamentalist religion emerging from the websites I glanced at. Liked this very short NYT comment: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/04/your-money/the-satisfaction-and-annoyance-of-complaining.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Though I know a couple of kvetch-addicts and how wearing they can be.

Today is utterly beautiful here - I wonder if Duchesse's anguished expats are complaining that it is too hot?

Rachel said...

As a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canadian who has spent half my life in each country, I've heard expatriate bitching par excellence on both sides of the fence, and I agree with you -- your new home is what you make of it.

Also, as a native Torontonian, I've always been jealous of you Montrealers :)

lagatta à montréal said...

Rachel, these days, we can argue about which city government has the juiciest scandals!

As for contentment, I've been reading over work and Renzo, my 17-year-old black cat, is lolling in a ray of sunshine on the hardwood floor and purring. (He does complain, though; he is half-Siamese)...

I hope Duchesse et Duc are out at a nearby café-terrasse...

Grace @ Sense and Simplicity said...

I really can't take that kind of grumbling/complaining/moaning. I always think if it is so bad, then go back home. I do think frustrations arise when you live in a foreign country and sometimes you need to air your feelings, but it is always good to balance that with what you are enjoying about the place.

Duchesse said...

lagatta: You have registered your lack of enthusiasm for the site and the content before. I hope that does not dissuade anyone from reading the book, which I found insightful and habit-changing, not just for me. (Though Bowen is a minister in a Protestant denomination, there is no religion in the book.) He was moved to reflect on the nature of complaint after hearing so much of it in his profession.

Rachel: I lived in Toronto for 30 years (though was not born there); I enjoyed it greatly.

Grace: I too have had the "go home" thought but sometimes it is not possible in the immediate term. And some of the expats I've known, in various cities, do go home. The "new place" was idealized or the downsides ignored.

Anonymous said...

It's the same everywhere. I'm an Australian living in Amsterdam. You regularly come across English or American expats here who can't speak a word of Dutch. This isn't such a surprise after a year of two, but then it turns into 7, 8, 9 etc. They also love to complain. The weather, Dutch bureaucracy, how difficult the language is, how unfriendly the people are, and so on...

I think a place is what you make of it. There are always annoying things, but comparing them to back home doesn't make them go away. You just have to make the best of your situation.

Duchesse said...

Anon@ 5:38: I think it's what you make of it too. Some dynamic was operating, a kind of groupthink.

The group was founded by a woman who sincerely wants to welcome expat women to the city and share its many appealing aspects. She was not present that day. I think thst if she had been, she might well have gently nudged the session toward the "glass half full" perspective.

lagatta à montréal said...

Are they all from the US? I'd think a group of women from various countries would be more fertile; there are many who speak English either as a mother tongue or as a professional-level second language.

Indeed, I have a friend from France who is a champion râleuse, and she has been here for quite a while. People here are "trop mou", they don't care about how animals are treated, etc, etc. Sadder still are some political refugees, who, after the honeymoon of freedom and not feeling death or torture, see people here as utterly insignificant. But when they return, their home countries have utterly changed...

Fortunately there are many counter-examples too...

Madame Là-bas said...

I love spending longer periods of time in new places. It seems that there are always people to meet both local and expats. I went to the American Church in Paris a few times when I was staying there and have been to a Fourth of July Party in Oaxaca, Mexico. Complaining is so limiting! If you are happy and open, a new place can be a real adventure.

Duchesse said...

lagatta: Please refer to the first line, to answer your question. Perhaps because of this commonality they felt freer to vent.

Mme: Wonder if your openness (and that of many other commenters) is because we are older? Most were in their late 20s to early 30s. I kept asking myself if they'd have more flexibility if older. Not sure!


Shelley said...

I guess I'm lucky in having moved to Britain on my own, for a job. The British culture doesn't understand 'convenience' and the weather is mostly crap and there are other odd bits that took getting used to. However, being aware that I chose to come here and remembering the reasons for doing so, I can easily list a lot of things that are better here than in the US. I try never to forget that I am a guest here and to act accordingly. It is easy to complain and perhaps comforting to do so with others who understand, but that's not a group of people whose company I would enjoy for long.

Murphy said...

Oh I would love to have coffee! Now i just have to get my act together and see about a trip...

birdybegins said...

I've been an expat New Zealander in England for a year or so and I love it! I admin a lot of my initial conversation was comparison, but generally in a positive or neutral way. Overall, we are having a lovely time living in England and we proudly tell anyone who asks. Brits often wonder why on earth we moved and I tell them that maybe they undervalue their own lovely country.

Duchesse said...

Murphy: Great!

birdybegins: Thank you for representing the other side of the coin: an appreciation of a place or life that locals sometimes take for granted.

Kristien62 said...

Before the conversation ends, I must say that I am embarrassed that my compatriots aired their complaints in public without regard to their hosts. I have been in that situation before and I find it so ungracious (if that is a word.) It is unfortunate to be homesick, but have some regard for the feelings and hometown pride of the people hosting you.

Duchesse said...

Kristien: I think that's what distressed me most, their lack of consideration. Americans are wonderfully enthusiastic (as a generalization), the other side of that quality is they sometimes don't know when to lower their voices.