March 15, 2016

Reflections on Expat Happiness. Or: Do Germans or Americans Have Better Washers?

This country is so underdeveloped, says the American expat in Germany. Just look at the washing machines: Too small, the cycle takes two hours, and they have way too many confusing buttons!

How can people live in this country, says the German expat in America. Just look at these washing machines: The water can't be heated beyond what comes out of the tap, there are only three program buttons, and my whites never return to white unless I use toxic bleach!


These are just two examples from a recent WSJ article I read that makes a valid point, a point that most expats know intrinsically: How you rate certain aspects of the new country you've just moved to greatly depends on where you're coming from. Your own cultural background determines your priorities, and how you rate a country can be quite different from someone else living in the same country but arriving from elsewhere.

Let's stick with these two countries for a minute: Having lived in both Germany and the U.S., I can certainly appreciate the debate from both sides. I cringe at the poor building quality of my American home. I sit here gazing out the window and can see a gap - a gap a small mouse could easily squeeze through - between frame and window. There is an invasion of ladybugs in my bedroom, and this after our pest control guy sprayed all kinds of poison along the baseboards just last week. Every time it rains there is a patch of wet carpet under my daughter's window, even though we've had a succession of handymen - all of them cheerful and affordable - try to fix the problem. And I don't think you can find a single power outlet in the entire house, should you feel inclined to put a level to each one of them - that can live up to my Germanic sense for straight angles and clean lines.

On the other hand, if I lived in Germany, our family most likely wouldn't even be in a house, especially not a house of this size and convenience, because to build something similar the German way would cost a lot more. Instead, we might live in a cramped apartment sharing one bathroom among 2 adults and 4 teenagers (an apartment which, granted, would have a leak-free roof and walls that could withstand the second invasion of the Mongols) and any extra money left over would have been spent on a designer kitchen and six wardrobes, because in Germany neither of these basic conveniences comes with the house you rent or buy. If I ever did need a handyman, I might have to wait 4 months to score one and have to pay him cash under the table to help him cheat on taxes. My laundry would be sparkling white without the help of any toxic bleach, but I'd have to use the bleach all the same - sprayed into corners where pesky mold grows because the house is insulated so well that there is zilch exchange of air between inside and outside.

Of course, expats hailing from Germany and the USA are not alone in this. As a Singaporean, you might be appalled at the inefficiencies and crazy street life when first driving on South African roads, whereas as a South African you might be totally baffled why a Singaporean cab driver will not stop for you and squeeze you in, or why, if  you do find a space, he won't bloody pass the cars in front of you already, illegally on the side of the road if must be, to get you there faster.

What will you choose to see as expat in South Africa? This...

...or rather this?


One man's Expat Joy is the other's Culture Shock.

The trick, of course, is to do as the Romans do. Embrace what's good in the country you're in and don't fuss over what's not. Play cricket in South Africa and lacrosse in America. Drive big cars in the U.S. and take public transport in Germany. Go shopping in Singapore and go visit a coffeeshop in Amsterdam.

Everything is relative, and the beauty of expat life is that it rubs your nose in this truth, whether you're asking for it or not. If you have kids, be happy they have a better than average chance of growing into worldly and understanding human beings instead of insisting that the only lifestyle they've ever seen is superior to everything else.

If you're an expat, I'm sure you've had to deal with (and griped about) your share of expat hassles. But you may have also learned this: The only thing that stands between despair and elation, the one thing that can turn a hassle into a joy, is that small thing called perspective.

And where it takes you is entirely in your hands.