The embarrassed expatriate

The Copenhagen Post is the English language source for Danish news. It’s a good resource, and I visit it regularly. Not, however, as often as I would if it weren’t for the comments that readers leave. Virtually all of them, it seems, are from disgruntled foreigners living in Denmark. They are uniformly hostile to Danish people, Danish culture, Danish politics… and so on.

The effect is that, under each article, an impromptu meeting of the maladjusted forms and trades the same simplistic negative views over and over and over again. It’s a lot like reading the comments on “Fox Nation”, except that instead of bitching about Obama, they’re bitching about everything Danish.

Denmark isn’t perfect. There is certainly room for criticism. And I for one would enjoy participating in debates about these issues, but, like so many web-sites, The Copenhagen Post is overrun by the venomous whiners.

I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, if you’re happy and well-adjusted, then you’re out having fun and enjoying yourself, rather than pouring energy into commenting on each article. (The regulars at The Copenhagen Post have particularly nasty hissy-fits when an article appears about how Denmark comes out on top of lists designed to measure personal happiness or quality of life.)

I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. It bothers me. It bothers me because I’m embarrassed to be part of this group — foreigners living in Denmark. I don’t like to think that people living outside the country might read these comments and assume that everyone that has chosen to live in Denmark is having a miserable time. I also don’t like to think about Danes reading these comments, and assuming that their country is universally despised by those who try it out.

I’m embarrased because, over the course of my life I’ve known a fair number of foreigners that lived in the US for a time, and they each impressed me. They were bright, well informed, hard-working, charming, and fun. I was impressed with their outlook. They were determined to make the best of their experience, and that’s exactly what they did.

That’s not to say that they weren’t regularly confused or surprised about life in the US. But each of them seemed determined to try to understand why things were the way there were, and not to immediately conclude that if it isn’t what they’re used to, it’s stupid.

Now of course it is possible that all these people I met — people from Scandinavia, Turkey, Russia, Pakistan, New Zealand, the Britsh Isles, Canada — all come from crappy places, and therefore every difference they saw in the US didn’t make them mad because they could see that the American way is superior. That is very unlikely though.

It is probably true that people are less likely to question how things are done in the richest and most powerful country in the world… but I don’t think that is the whole story either.

The US is far from perfect, and I talked with my foreign friends enough to know that this wasn’t lost on them. But they didn’t make it their life’s mission to complain about these things. They didn’t rant endlessly about the things they didn’t like. They were positive in their outlook, and had their sights set on what could be accomplished given the reality of their new home. They found the differences between their home countries and their adopted country interesting — not threatening.

Over the years, through my friendships with these people from other countries, I came to think of “expatriots” — foreigners living abroad by choice — as the cream of the crop. The best and the brightest. People so smart and capable that they could not only adapt, but thrive in a new culture. And so, it was with this naive impression that I came to Denmark with a group of smart and accomplished friends.

And that’s when I got a shock. That’s when I saw some of my fellow American transplants turn into exactly the droning, perceptually complaining “it’s better in my country” types that I did not associate with expatriates. At first their complaints took the form of keen and clever observation that I enjoyed. But before long it turned into thinly veiled hostility which varies from tedious to embarrassing.

And that’s where I get confused. Would these same friends, had we come from a little underdog country, and Denmark was the size of the US, have laughed off their frustrations and adapted? Would they have adapted in the same way my foreign friends adapted to life the US — with humor and grace? Or did I misjudge them from the start, confusing them with the cream-of-the-crop expatriates that I’d met in the US?

To be fair, this didn’s happen with all of my friends, I have met a few expats living in Denmark that can rationally identify things that they both like and dislike about living here. They have valid complaints about Denmark, but they don’t let those gripes poison their perspective. They make the most of their time here.  They don’t start every sentence with “Well, where I come from…” These are the expatriates I admire. They do well wherever they are living, both personally and professionally.

But I’ve met so many more of the perceptually hostile types. It really makes me wonder what the ratio is. I like to think that the real expatriates – the adapters who can thrive even in a foreign country — out-number the whiners, and that the reason I don’t see more of them commenting on The Copenhagen Post is because they have better things to do.

I like to think that, but I don’t know that for sure. And every time I read a few comments on the The Copenhagen Post site, I grow less certain.

2 Thoughts on “The embarrassed expatriate

  1. Unmoderated comment sections really are the scourge of the Internet. It provides an echo chamber experience where it’s almost designrd for people to escalate the “conversation” to a fevered series of complaints and attacks in no time at all. It usually only takes a few comments to remind me why I almost never wade into comment sections. :)

    You’ve captured some of what I felt during my expat experience. I think that, for me, working for a (very) American company caused a huge level of dissonance with my expat experience. American companies embody both the best and worst aspects of the U.S., and these traits become more exaggerated when you try to operate in very American ways in a foreign country. As a result, I don’t feel I had a true expat experience. If/when I do it again, it would ideally not be in the employ of a huge American corporation.

  2. Adam on May 7, 2013 at 2:54 pm said:

    Hi Sean!

    Boy you’re certainly right about un-moderated comment sections. The really sad part is that, based on how often the posters at CPHPOST complain about having their comments rejected, it is in fact a moderated forum. I can only imagine what doesn’t get through.

    I think working for a Danish company could go either way. It might have reduced the dissonance, but it might also have made the dissonance seem overwhelming, depending of course on the company.

    But a big factor here is romantic status. There’s no question in my mind that it was easier for me to make friends and “integrate” because I moved here alone. My experience would likely have been quite different if I’d move here with a girlfriend.

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