Expatriates: Dilemmas and Misconceptions

Those who have chosen to become permanent expatriates at some time or another experience a very disturbing and confusing dilemma. What makes this dilemma so disturbing is it works at the psychological and emotional level and has the tendency to creep up unperceived and undetected. Some researchers define this phenomenon simply as culture shock. But, in reality it is something far more reaching than just a shock to one’s cultural sensibilities and way of thinking.

Research conducted on the number of American expatriates living in various countries throughout the world (somewhere about 4 million) is incomplete at best. The reason for this is figures are based on the number of expatriates that are officially registered without taking into account the vast numbers that have eluded official statistics gathering. For example, research has been conducted on “self-initiated” and “company-based” categories of expatriates. And although company-based is probably the most popular form, much research still needs to be done into the category of the self-initiated. In this particular category you have refugees, immigrants (legal and illegal), military personnel left over from wars or conflicts, foreign laborers, students, retirees, cross-cultural marriages, and even fugitive criminals to name just some of them. Further, it is naïve to think that all these different types of expatriates are registered.

In today’s globalized world, the company-based dilemma usually begins with an executive or manager of a multi-national company traveling abroad on a work assignment. At other times, it starts with a vacation to an exotic tropical paradise or just casual travel to a foreign country. The romance begins with the thought that “differences are exciting” and many travelers are completely unaware of the change that slowly takes place in their attitudes toward different people and cultures. Some begin to develop an appreciation of different cultures and even find them intriguing or fulfilling in some way that their native country lacks. Then, there are those who travel to foreign countries just for pleasure and at some point find themselves making several trips, year after year, to the same place or nearby and feel a void in their lives when they are not able to return to their chosen place to “get away from it all.”

For those that move to a foreign country for a prolonged period of time, somewhere along the line and after an indeterminate period of time (i.e., it’s different for different people), an increasing sense of disorientation begins to set in. This is usually accompanied by a less frequent practice of staying in touch with family members and friends in their native countries and a sense of confusion in and about their new surroundings. At this point, things begin to change – the romance is over. The demands of working in a foreign country along with the mental, emotional and psychological challenges of adjusting are greater than they expect. Some begin to experience stress in the form of irritability, mood swings, loss of sleep brought on by an ever present strain to adjust to a totally new environment. Others fall victim to the practice of “cultural comparisons” and tend to experience feelings of bitterness or resentment. Also, some begin to complaint or vent about the host culture and in extreme cases experience physical problems such as headaches or sickness, a loss of self-esteem and depression. It is at this stage that many expatriates either development mechanism for coping with these issues or ultimately return to their native countries.

Outcomes usually fall into one of three different categories – usually. First, there are those that find it impossible to accept the foreign culture and to integrate. At some point, they begin to “isolate” themselves from the culture and eventually see returning to their own culture as the only solution. Then, there are those that integrate and take on all parts of the host culture and end up losing their own original cultural identity (some call this “going native”). And then, some – a very small percentage – are able to adapt to aspects of the host culture that they view as positive while at the same time maintaining some of their own cultural characteristics thereby creating a unique cultural blend of the two cultures.

In order to survive in foreign countries, expatriates must develop coping mechanism that will help them to adjust. For example, maintaining regular contact with relatives in their home country; refrain from making cultural comparisons; developing a network of friends in the host country that will assist in understanding their new environment; maintaining a good sense of humor especially when they find that are misinterpreting cultural signals; and lots of patience – patience with themselves and their new environment. These mechanisms are vital to making a functional adjustment.

Indeed, there are many challenges to adjusting in a new host country but developing coping mechanisms will assist in becoming more aware and open to new cultural experiences. Also, these mechanisms will assist in relieving anxiety and defensiveness. Ultimately, they will enable the expatriate to become more relaxed, bring a new sense of self confidence and the ability to live comfortably and enjoy their new home.

(Neil Turner is an American anthropologist who has been living in Brazil for nine years. He holds a M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology. Currently, he is conducting ethnographic fieldwork for a book on Brazil.)

2 thoughts on “Expatriates: Dilemmas and Misconceptions

  1. Neil,

    My wife and I, who have lived and worked in Japan since 1980 are in your third category. To me, your description of coping mechanisms sounds almost but not quite right. There is, I sense, a newcomer’s bias. After thirty-five years in Japan, we no longer cope. We fit in. We are sometimes irritated or annoyed; but since we feel at home here, we do not attribute our irritation or annoyance to “the Japanese.” Mrs. X may be a busybody. Mr. Y may be an a**hole. Neither description applies to most of our neighbors. That we live in Yokohama, a proudly cosmopolitan city, and are self-employed may also contribute to our comfort.

    Our experience suggests that most of those in your first category leave Japan after at most three or four years, and some of the most unhappy people we know are those who want to “go native.” Won’t happen. Forget about it. Japanese friends may, after many years, joke with you that you are becoming Japanese; but they don’t believe it can actually happen, and neither should you. At the end of the day, however, that is no barrier to making friends and living well. May even be a help since you always have the “gaijin edge,” the automatic forgiveness for small faux pas because, after all, you aren’t Japanese.


    1. Hi John, it’s been a while. Thank you for your comments. I see two things in your favor. One, thirty-five years, that’s a long time. Congratulations to you and your wife. I hope I can make it thirty-five years. Two, Yokohama is a “cosmopolitan” city. It has been my experience that cosmopolitan cities usually have a much wider cross-section of international people and thus cultures. While metropolitan and smaller cities, towns, etc. are not as open or as advanced…tchau.


Comments are closed.