Expat 101: How To Give Everyone Culture Shock

If the blogs are anything to go by, we expats are in a perpetual state of culture shock. It’s one harrowing experience after another – waiters don’t smile back at us, there’s hamster paws sticking out of our stir fry, one’s gophers keep ringing the doorbell at all hours for irritating reasons like returning a pile of freshly starched shirts.

And it doesn’t all end when the expat eventually returns to the homeland, oh no. There’s the much talked about phenomenon of reverse-culture shock, when people, after a prolonged period of absence, discover that they don’t neatly slot into their native culture anymore. It’s all very distressing.

How the hell, you might wonder, do expats stay sane?

I’m about to tell you. It’s a well-guarded secret that nobody ever talks about, not even on the blogs. ESPECIALLY not on the blogs.

Culture shock is like an electric current that constantly whooshes through our insides, torching our mental and physical wellbeing. To stop this beast from killing us off, we have to try and discharge some of it by zapping an unsuspecting victim.

Just about anyone will do, but by far the best targets are found among a particularly hapless group commonly referred to as ‘The Locals’. (By Locals I mean people who have not left their country of origin for any significant amounts of time, besides annual holidays or the occasional business trip.)

Individual talent for dispersing culture shock waves varies considerably, of course, but by rule of thumb, the expats harbouring the most virulent strains are those who have spent more time outside of the country that issued their passport than within it. Their power is further amplified by the number of countries they have lived in, and also by how old (read: young) they were when they left.

So, how do you go about offloading a hefty dose of culture shock? One highly effective way is to scramble your conversation partner’s conversational “script” from the get-go.

All Locals have firmly embedded, pre-existing scripts to help them deal with The Great Unknown, which, needless to say, includes foreigners. When confronted with such a specimen, the first question will inevitably be, “Where are you from?”

You answer will trigger a set of script responses. For instance, when I first moved to the UK, the initial reply to “I’m German”  would invariably be countered with, “I have a brother/cousin/ex-window cleaner who’s stationed at [insert name of British Army base somewhere in Germany]”.

Now, I have never seen or been to an army base in my life. These places, as far as I’m aware, are inhabited by a barely literate species typically referred to as  ‘Squaddies’ who only leave the grand hive in search of…erm… certain services that can’t be provided by their fellow drones.

Subsequent script lines would pertain to the Oktoberfest, German cars and, of course, beer. At one point, I seriously considered writing out a set of flash cards with the answers and handing them out on social occasions, with the words, “please read these. Once you’re done, can we talk about something interesting, pleeeeease”.

Well, I was a mere novice back then, but I’ve learnt a thing or two since. For example, that it’s far more fun to throw something at The Local that completely corrupts their script. So, one could say, for instance, “I have a French passport, but I’ve never actually lived in France. I grew up in Norway, went to University in the States, and then I worked on Asian oyster farms for fifteen years.” (Though my own script busters are much less adventurous than that).

For a few long seconds, The Local will assume the semblance of a fish pulled onto dry land, momentarily robbed of the ability to blink, their mouths gaping as if trying to suck in air through their paralysed gills. You can almost make out the cogs spinning behind their glassy little eyes, bashing against their square little brain cells in the desperate hope of extracting a viable comeback. But it’s too late. The contagion has taken hold and a short circuiting event is imminent.

It’s not only The Locals who make suitable targets, but also fellow expats, especially those fresh off the boat. Long-term expats’ accents, for example, can be a great source of confusion. In my case, I get mistaken for a Brit. NOT by actual Brits, I hasten to add, they can tell, but everybody else, including Americans, Australians, etc, are routinely taken in. I do get a modicum of amusement out of that, I must admit.

Once, on a flight to Miami, a Central American lady mistook me for being Spanish. I have no idea how that could possibly have happened (a lot of engine noise??), but it sure cheered me up. On the flip side, I’m sometimes told that my German is really quite good…

But anyway, these “linguistic perks” that are part of the long-term expat package provide a fun opportunity of changing nationality for an evening, enjoy a novel set of script questions (yipeeeeh!), and then, if so desired, go full throttle for the killer reveal.

So, are any of you bored stiff by having the same cliché questions and trite topics flung at you over and over again? What are your least favourite subjects? I might do a separate post on this, so I’m hunting for ideas…

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66 thoughts on “Expat 101: How To Give Everyone Culture Shock

  1. TheLastWord

    I watched an episode of House Hunters International last night. The lady from Georgia, USA was to Blackburn, England to be with her husband who had been promoted to a position there.

    Amongst her list of features for the house: : “A proper kitchen. I don’t want o have to light a fire to cook”.

    I almost threw something at the TV before I realised I could change channels.

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  2. TheLastWord

    I got what you meant, yeah. Generally, you see these Americans on these shows and they all talk of interacting with the local people, absorbing the local culture and then proceed to look down on the houses they are shown as not being American size and lacking American features.
    One of the main reasons I’ve stopped watching the show. It used be a way of seeing different places, a bit of armchair tourism.

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  3. Language Boat

    The questions I find most irrelevant and uninteresting are some variation of the following.
    1. Which country do you like better, mine or yours? / Do you like my country?
    2. Why did you choose this country?
    3. Why do you want to learn the language?
    It’s funny that the scripted questions don’t change much from country to country, in my experience.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Ah, yes, being goaded into making black and white comparisons with the objective of stating a country preference is but a slippery slope… though I don’t mind comparing specific aspects.

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  4. pollyheath

    I’ve gotten a “your English is really good!” here a few times, which I guess meant that someone had a few too many beers and thought my Russian was passable.

    I definitely get bored of the American script here: “Oh, you’re American?”

    Variant A: “Why would you ever leave America? All Russians want to go there and you just left?!”
    Variant B: “America is terrible because x, y, z. Want to get a beer?”

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      This is also a general theme, the “why are you here when you could be somewhere else?”
      In your case, I guess you get some pretty strong opinions about your home turf at either extreme of the spectrum, and very little in between.

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  5. bevchen

    Oi, be careful what you say about squaddies! Although to be fair, whatever you’re insinuating is probably true 😀

    Oh yes… the “do you like it here?”. Actually, no. I hate it… I stay because I like torturing myself!!

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Ah, yes, I forgot…! 😉

      I’m struggling a bit with the “do you like it here” question at the moment… I’d have to answer truthfully that I did in the beginning but the sheen has worn off and I’m treading water before moving on to my next (and hopefully a bit longer-term) location.

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  6. Expat Eye

    1. Your English is really good.
    2. How are ‘things’ there now? Y’know (hushed tones) with the IRA?
    3. Do you drink Guinness?
    4. Do you drink whiskey?
    5. Have you ever seen a leprechaun?
    And from English people, who are actually the worst – (usually while dancing a little jig around you) Oh be gosh and begorrah, potato, potato, turty tree and a turd, top o’ the mornin’ to ya… etc, etc. Until I kneecap them. 😉

    Love this post!

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      1. Expat Eye

        I had to explain to her that Dublin is actually the capital city of Ireland. And yes, it is bigger than this one-street backwater you call home. And yes, we do have electricity. And the BBC. And no, I don’t find this ‘very urban’ in comparison to where I’m from… (where the eye rolling smiley?!)

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  7. El Inmigrante

    Love this post!! I need to work on my own script to shake some emotions around here. One more: “Have you been to Macchu Picchu?” or “What are you doing here?? It’s so cold..oh, I love the beach!” and I’ll snap ;).

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  8. linnetmoss

    Depressing to hear about what Philistines we Americans are abroad. The Ugly American seems alive and well and closely followed by the Ugly Brit. I think we are widely viewed as morons, too. One summer in Rome I was standing at an intersection, quietly minding my own business. A helpful man next to me explained in heavily accented English that I should watch the light carefully, and when it changed color, that would mean it was time to cross the street. He knew I was American by my athletic shoes, of course.

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      1. linnetmoss

        I merely thanked the gentleman for his solicitude and crossed the street at the appropriate time, to show that I understood his instructions and to prevent him from reviewing the lesson.

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  9. Andean

    After being asked where I am from, some will stare and say in question form, BUT you don’t LOOK Spanish? I usually have several answers, one being… What are Spanish people suppose to look like??

    Funny you should mention flash cards — it has crossed my mind, as well as flyers with data…

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      1. Andean

        I was born in Ecuador, and live in the States. But, I say Spanish because once too many times I have come across people who don’t know where Ecuador is, and then I have to give a geography lesson. Besides the… but you don’t have an accent conversation…
        Though, if someone mistook me for Penelope Cruz I might bring up my Spanish ancestors, and the truth be known .… 🙂

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  10. Lynda

    I was born here in the states, Texas to be exact, and have lived in California since I was two weeks old. I was stationed in Pensacola, Florida in 73-74 and picked up a drawl. Everyone in California made fun of me, and yet, the locals could tell I was from California. We moved to Alabama 5 years ago, and the accent is back in spades! Again, my friends in Cali hear the drawl and begin to howl! And yes, those who are here can still tell I’m from California.

    Most hated question? Where in CA? I’ve gotten like your friend from Equador. Southern California is wall to wall city. I can say I’m from Claremont and get a vapid stare, or I can just say LA, but I don’t like the association, so I tell them SoCal. You would think that the state was split in half north of LA… Although I was once accused of coming from “up north”. Perhaps it was that mix of AlaCali?

    Most hated and anticipated statement: “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go there!” Usually from some pie eyed teen or young adult who still believes all those 70’s songs about California. GAAACK! 😛

    Most hated coloquialisms here in the deep south? “All’ya’all” as in, “Are all’ya’all cummin’ to thuh party? (File that in the department of redundancy department!) And then there is, get ready for it, “What kinda coke you want?” Wherein coke is now a noun replacing ‘soda’ or ‘soft drink’. 😉

    I refuse to use either y’all, all’ya’all, or coke as a noun. 😀

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      1. Lynda

        They do.
        I’ve been reading some of the other responses to your post and had to laugh at the question: “Why did you move/come here?” The local variation here is: “Whut made’ya move here?” and/or “Why’d ya leave California?” Strange but true, I run into a lot of California expats here.

        Hm, maybe it’s time to move again? 😯

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      2. Lynda

        Just kidding!
        We left Cali because it was so crowded and over regulated. We moved here for a lot of reasons, but the best of them are the cost of living here, and the lovely countryside. I have no intention of leaving the Mountain once we get settled in up there. It is just too lovely!

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  11. con jamón spain

    That lady on the plane…was it because you had a Rolser with you in the cabin? @Expat Eye: S is Irish and I still ask her all those questions, even though I know she drinks Guinness and Whiskey…well, anything really.

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  12. Anna

    How do expats stay sane? My coping mechanisms are beer, vodka, wine, and midnight runs to McDonald’s…. should I stop talking to you about beer? 🙂 And Barbarian Bavarians?

    I dont mind being pestered about Russia in the US, or the US in Russia – most people are genuinely curious. But, also, while in college in DC and then 7 yrs in NYC my Russianness wasnt a ‘thing’ for anyone.’ However, when they (Americans) found out that I spent 2.5 years living/going to school in Rhode Island Not Newport, there were a lot of dropped jaws, big eyes and ‘what…was THAT like?’s

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  13. TheLastWord

    One of the first social questions I was asked at an after work bar gathering was at the end of my first week of my first ever job in the US. One of my colleagues asked “Do you mind if I ask you this question? As an Indian do you get offended when we call native Americans Indians?”

    I was like “Uh…never really considered the question”.

    Should I have been offended? I’ve wrestled with that for years now….

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      My reply would have been, “No, but I do find it extremely tedious that 25% of the US population calls itself “Irish” (or whatever), just because one of their ancestors immigrated from there 200 years ago.”.

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      1. ladyofthecakes Post author

        No it doesn’t. It’s an American thing. Unless you hold a passport from said country, or at least one of your parents does, you are NOT that nationality.

        Rock music…?

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  14. TheLastWord

    Yes – rock music. They saw the music in my car and were stunned that I had Grateful Dead, Dylan and Cream tapes…

    And we’re not talking about nationality but ancestry, I think. I agree with the passport thing. I’m Canadian now because I hold a Canadian passport.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Ancestry, fine. But US citizens will staunchly insist that they are ‘Irish’, ‘Swedish’, whatever, even though they’ve never even been to these countries, nor know much about the culture there.

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  15. TheLastWord

    I’ll make a note to notice that on my next trip down. I think the Irish and Italian thing runs fairly strong, not sure about the others. This is possibly due to the treatment they got when they got here and the scars haven’t really gone away, may

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  16. Karolyn Cooper

    I am enjoying reading all the comments here. I sometimes say I am from Northern Ireland, sometimes from London.

    The former brings all the responses that Expat Eye on Latvia mentioned (except the leprechauns- that must be a southern thing), plus the irritating Irish-American script that you’ve just commented on.

    London had its own unexpected response when I was living in China – people kept asking me about the fog.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      The comments are always so much better than the actual post 🙂
      Unexpected? Germans ALWAYS ask me about the fog! That’s because they are obsessed with crime series/films, and old English films featuring London & Jack the Ripper are always doused in fog. It’s a standard script item in my experience.

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  17. Rachel

    My least-favourite questions are:
    – Where are you from?
    – What school do you go to?
    – Why the *** would you want to learn (insert language here)?
    – What do you think of (insert country/town here)?
    – How come you speak German so well?

    The first one I don’t like because the obvious answer (Australian – born here, schooled here, lived 80% of my life here) is always met with, “But you don’t sound Australian!” (“English” parents, lived there when I was small [and learning to talk], frequent visits back there, at least 50% of our TV here being BBC and watching even more on DVD).

    The second one I don’t like because I’m a former/semi-SOTA kid who, this year, was doing five subjects and five schools. (Although technically Open Access was still my enrolling school for four of them, I was just being outsourced).

    The fourth I don’t like because I have a habit of being completely honest, and it sometimes offends whomever I’m talking to.

    The fifth only happened when I was in Pennsylvania, and I’m afraid I might have left a couple of unfortunate Mennonites with the impression that German is the official language in Australia… because I tried to explain that English is my first language and I speak it at home, but we use only German at my school…

    Sometimes I like giving random answers to the first one just to see if anyone picks up on it. The most common are New Zealand (a good excuse for not sounding quite Australian), Scotland (I have at least three German teachers convinced I’m Scottish), the Hutt River Province (a micro-nation in Western Australia), and Pakistan (my grandmother was born there – her father was in the Indian Army).

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  18. Rachel

    At least I don’t get the typical “Australia” questions too much (not when I’m speaking English, anyway. Other languages are fair game.) because people are too distracted by my not sounding Aussie. Although my least favourite comments/questions with those are:
    – “Oh, I *love* Australian wildlife/plants/dreamtime myths!”
    – “Have you ever seen a kangaroo/koala/platypus?”
    – “How do you manage to drive, with all those kangaroos everywhere?”
    – “But you’re not tall, slim, blond-haired, and blue-eyed!”
    – “Do you think I could pass as an Australian?”
    – “Oh, I’m so sorry. It must be horrible to live in a country of criminals.”
    – “I suppose your ancestors were convicts, then?”
    – “We invented pavlova! Not you!”

    I really want to tell people that we don’t have kangaroos and koalas wandering around everywhere, just to dispel the myth… And then I remember that since I moved to the middle of nowhere, I do almost run over a kangaroo standing in the middle of my road about once a week, and I can usually spot a koala when I look out my window…

    Danish people particularly seem to think they could pass as an Australian – I hate those soap operas! Bondi rescue, thanks ever so. The truth is, so many people from everywhere have come to Australia in the last 70 years that we’re not all blond-haired and blue-eyed. I grew up in an area where everyone else in my class was of Italian extract. I was positively tall and fair. Of course, now I live in the (north-)German area, so now I’m short and dark.

    As for the convicts – South Australia was the only free-settled state. Oh, and… my family’s only been in Australia 25 years. There’s no way I could possibly be descended from convicts who came out 200 years ago.

    And the pavlova… The Kiwis didn’t invent it. It was the Aussies, and don’t let them tell you otherwise.

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