For Americans living overseas, the rest of the world’s reality is difficult to escape, since they’re swimming in it daily. I wondered about those differences and what it’s like to be an American expatriate, so last week I interviewed four friends and family members living overseas: An Episcopalian priest in England, an English teacher in Vietnam, a journalist in Turkey and a teacher in Nigeria. Each one has lived in their current country for a least a year, most have lived overseas for ten years or more.
Most of them spend a good deal of time explaining the allure of President Donald Trump to their foreign friends. My friend Mike Gibson, who works for an English-language news service based in Istanbul, Turkey says, “When people look at what’s going on [in America]. It’s really bad. We’ve basically lost any credibility we might have had, that was tenuous at best. The whole Trump election, it looks awful. It encourages the worst elements,” he says. “It encourages the worst elements in different societies to follow their worst instincts.”
“I get asked the most about Trump. It’s the thing Britons find so confusing,” says Devin McLachlin, an Episcopalian priest living in Cambridge, England. “There’s a large [American] cultural influence [in Britain], so they do find Trump disorienting. It’s creates a cognitive dissonance with what they understand of the optimistic view of American culture.”
They all had fewer reports on foreign views of Trump than they did about than they did about the difference between living in the United States versus in their new home. All of them remarked on how little crime they experience – no matter where they live.
In Lagos, Nigeria, a constantly growing city of 20 million people where my sister Susanna Pav is a teacher at an American School, there’s tremendous income inequality, sometimes within the same block, but that doesn’t translate into crime, like it does in the United States. “There isn’t the same sense of threat of crime. There’s guns and drugs, but it doesn’t feel as unsafe,” as in the United States. “My perception of crime is that it’s much lower because it doesn’t get the same media hype as it does in the U.S. and gun violence against expats is low relative to general population,” she says.
Even though there is is much poverty in Lagos, people are unfailingly polite in surprising ways, Susanna says. For instance, ever-present traffic ”go-slows” caused by people hawking everything from bananas to toilet seats result in people getting out of cars to argue. But Susanna recounted one man stepping out to shout at another driver, “Excuse me sir, did you not see the sign there that tells you to go left? I beg you, why did you not respect the sign?” The politeness can be shocking to how harsh Americans typically act, she says.
Father Devin, a Chicago native who lived in Hyde Park, is floored by the lack of crime in England. “I never see police officers here. Not only are they not armed, they just aren’t there. Even to me it feels underpoliced,” he says. “I went for a hike recently and grabbed a kitchen knife to bring on the trip, and my colleagues were very concerned, because they think about knives a lot here, because they don’t have guns.
“Our gun murder rate is unimaginable to people in Europe. They had a wave of youth violence which amounts to a bad weekend in Chicago. It amounts to how normalized violence has become to me in the city of Chicago. We’ve gotten used to a lot of violence [in the U.S.]”
Mike, who has lived in Istanbul for five years says that even in a country with political violence, he’s barely seen crime. “Turks are easy to get along with. I’ve never been robbed or physically assaulted. Like, we had a military coup!”
For these people living in a different country, It also becomes clear how culture permeates every decision and interaction.
Bill McGowan, an English teacher in Saigon after doing the same in China for eight years, grew up in sunny, suburban Los Angeles with a very non-political family. Now, he feels like he’s had a kind of awakening.
“I think with China and Vietnam and a lot of the Asian cultures, they are collectivist. They’re much more into it together, where the family is most important thing. Whereas looking at America, you can really see how individualistic we are. That has really affected me. American is a more selfish country. In terms of the health care thing: We’re such a rich and powerful country, but we could give a shit about our fellow Americans. ‘I’m going to get my own, screw the rest of you.’ Not to say that doesn’t happen in China or Vietnam. But there, there’s a sense of a group thinking moving forward,” Bill says.
Living in Nigeria, Susanna says she has become acutely aware of wealth. “One of the most striking things [about coming back to the U.S.] is the size of the cars, the supermarket with twenty different brands of mustard. The consumerism. The space everyone takes up. The houses, the yards, everything is so well taken care of. It’s just dripping with wealth. Even in middle-income neighborhoods. The sense of privilege that you’ll always have these things. It will all be OK.,” she says.
Mike in Istanbul says the Turkish culture of politeness can be very difficult for Westerners to navigate.
“You will hear a lot of foreigners say, ‘The Turks are polite. But you can’t trust them. They don’t do what they say.’ I’ve been here five years, on a thousand occasions, people will say let’s make sure we have dinner that weekend. They are saying that, and it never happens. As a Westerner, my response is, that person is untrustworthy. But the reality is they are just being friendly. The distinction is in how Americans understand the relationship between truth and a lie.
“I think [Turks] think it’s important to be polite and tell people what they want to hear.
“For instance, asking for directions. ‘Do you know where this street is?’ And you can ask three or four Turkish people. They will all get it wrong, but will spend real time trying to explain how to get there, rather than say, ‘No I don’t know where it is.’ They all want to help you try to help you find it, even through they don’t know where it is. They can’t say, ‘No I don’t know where it is.’ They’re all trying to be courteous and helpful. That’s something every Westerner will have encountered here at some point.”
As alien as Lagos might seem to an American, once you get used to way life works, it can be managable, says Susanna, who has lived in Nigeria with her family for almost six years now. “Nigeria is different from other places in Africa, where there is more development. Nigeria is notoriously corrupt, [other countries are] corrupt, but Nigeria really takes the cake…Going out shopping, to the movies, locals are warm, helpful. We never experience hassles for the most part where there shouldn’t be. Every once in a while, we get stopped by a police officer with a machine gun, and they’ll ask us for money. They say like, ‘Hello! Hello! Do you have something for us today?’ And then you pay them and that’s it.”
There’s a flip side to the corruption too Susanna says, by applying a bit of “dash”, what Nigerians call bribes, you can smooth out bureaucratic paperwork, like when clearing customs or brushing aside getting fingerprinted for a new job. “The positive experiences far outweigh those negative ones.”
For all of my ex-pat friends, American identity never fades away, but the reality of where they live has maybe changed what it means to be a patriot.
“[America] is farther away,” says Father Devin in Cambridge. “Which is to say, more uniform than when I was living there. All that diversity does merge together…I’m aware of how particular and peculiar the U.S. is, that vast geography. That sense of being a nation of immigrants and that sort of diversity that you don’t have in the same way here in England, outside of London.”
“It’s home,” Bill, who is living in Saigon, says of America, “But maybe I’m seeing it without the American flag waving behind me, and a hand on my heart.”