Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Expat fatigue

Living abroad is exhilarating but often exhausting. There are points when I am plum tired of factoring cultural differences into every conversation while simultaneously decoding accents, colloquial expressions and different usages of English. To be a healthy expat I must exercise patience and introspection on a daily basis, not allowing myself to conclude that the frustrating aspects of my day are the result of the incompetence of those who are not like me. It takes energy to avoid this trap, especially when you come from a country with a superiority complex. I don’t want to become “the Ugly American,” but I see how easily it happens. Yet expats who fall into this mindset only make life harder on themselves. They never adjust, and they develop an arrogance that makes them hard to be around.

The workplace is a particularly challenging environment for me, because for the first time in my professional life I am in an absolute minority. I am the only American woman in my entire building. There are a few other women, and a few other Americans, but I am the lone combination of the two. And as such I am used to reaping the rewards of the feminist movement, which makes my current reality all the more draining. At times I feel I’ve stepped several decades back in time, (think Peggy Olson on Mad Men) and find myself trying to prove that I’m not a glorified secretary or a piece of eye candy but have real knowledge and expertise in my field. There has been some progress in this regard since I started my job last year, but it's often two steps forward, one step back.

The other part of expat life that wears on me is the challenge of conducting my most important relationships by email and Facebook. There is so much that I miss, and so much room for misunderstanding. Tone is hard to convey in print, and if I’m worried that something I’ve written might be misconstrued (as happened just yesterday) I often have to wait for the time difference to resolve itself before I find out if it was (as is happening today).

Usually, I start to feel this fatigue in the days leading up to a trip, and this time is no exception. Our next excursion is scheduled for mid-November and not a moment too soon. Travel and adventure seem to be excellent antidotes for this weary expatriate.


  1. I very much appreciated this post. My wife and I are currently considering relocating to Abu Dhabi for work. Kind of a unique move that will have us working for the same company. The money is good and the adventure, well it could be wonderful. We have lived/worked in Asia so some of the challenges we have already faced. If I could ask a question… Outside of work, what is it really like for a woman there? Do you feel eyes on you often, your moves/habits being scrutinized? We are excited for the travel opportunities throughout the region and the professional development but we have a lot to leave behind, as I am sure you did. Certainly there will be hardships but I guess I was just wondering if you feel it has been worth it?

  2. As a woman dressed in Western-style clothing, even modestly dressed, you can pretty much count on being gawked at by men when you pass them on the street. This happens when I am alone or with Sam, which makes me conclude there is no ill intent behind the staring and suspect that maybe it is not even considered rude in some cultures (whether or not the latter half is true, the idea helps me feel less outraged). That said, in daily interactions with men, whether it be the gas station attendant or a manager helping me in a store, they have all treated me with respect. Aside from the discomfort of being eyed by strangers in the street, I have never felt afraid or threatened in any way. And though I have struggled professionally to prove myself a worthy equal to my male colleagues, I would respond wholeheartedly that the experience of living and working here has been worth it.