Expat Living: 5 Tips ForDealing with Ignorance (At Least “We” Never Do That)

As Expats, by definition, we have all lived in at least two places at a minimum, and many of us a good deal more places than that. Travelers of the world also share this experience.

Ichari Shahar, a watercolor of the Old City alley ways circa 11th century AD

Culturally Different… Not Better, Not Worse. Just Different.

Global experience gives expats and world travelers a good idea of how things work around the world and (usually) saves us from the dreaded “superiority complex”- also known as the “at least we never do that…” point of view.

But… (insert sigh of exasperation here), what do you do when you’re at a party, in a meeting, or just at work (especially right after repatriation, in your first post-international “job”), when you hear others comparing home to “those” places.

Places with odd toilets. Places with no running water. Places with good-hearted people who don’t deserve to be denigrated because of corrupt governments squandering any hope of progress that may come along. Places with people you have come to know, respect, and yes, even care about.

I found myself in that situation the other night when a new acquaintance found out I had lived for 10 years in the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan.  She asked if it was anything like Sochi- “you know corrupt like that, with poor people and all.”

I wish I could have told her that her stereotype was completely wrong, but the best I could do was to tell her the good things I had discovered during my ten years.Çırağan Palace Istanbul: no lack of culture in this region

And then… she said it. “Well, thank goodness we’re not like that! I don’t think I could stand for someone just coming in and taking my house. Or watching people who don’t have enough to eat. At least we never do that!

It was a classic case of what I silently think of as “non-pat ignorance” – the grass is always greener on my side of the fence (never mind that grass is grass on both sides).

(Lest you think this conversation only happens in the United States, read my conversation with one of the former Ministers in “Would You Recognize Corruption If You Perceived It?“)

I asked this acquaintance had she never heard of our “Eminent Domain” laws in the United States?

People here in our Nation’s capital have been moved out of house and home to build the inter-county connector- another freeway to move ever more numbers of people from the suburbs to other suburbs because Congress mandated military base realignments- sort of a shell game, moving pieces from here to there in the name of economics, without regard for the lives and families affected in the process. It happens every week, somewhere across this country, in the name of progress.

Her response? “Well, that’s different.”

What about children who go to school hungry in places where they don’t have a hot lunch subsidy program, much less a breakfast Head Start program?

She deflected my question with a classic comeback: “Well, it’s not like our whole country is poor.”

This lady just didn’t see anything beyond her own pre-conceived blinders.

There is no denying that developing or re-emerging countries have a much tougher time right now than the so-called “super-power” countries. But that doesn’t make us immune- mostly it seems to just make us insular and ignorant of others.

Blogger Michael F. of Sydney writes on Failed Blue Dot about how we view what “other people” should or should not do.

“One of the pitfalls that comes with looking at the cultural context is the conversation can easily become racially charged. It’s been claimed for centuries that the people suffering from the worst of global poverty, hunger and disease ‘deserve’ it because they’re “inferior/stupid/subhuman” and so on.

“Even if most people wouldn’t think such thoughts explicitly (would they?) it still colours our thinking.

“A slightly subtler version of the same attitude that’s probably unremarkable today is the idea that “it’s time for third world countries to put the past behind them and stop focussing on their victimhood”.

That’s mostly what dismays me when I get drawn into these conversations, like the other night, where the air of superiority is cloaked with a blindness about reality the world over.

It’s not that I want to deny the elements of truth of what she was saying. I’ve been enough places across the US and Mexico, to Europe and Asia, to know that you can find both hope and despair everywhere, if you look.
Cartoon depicting denial of having a problem
No, what I would like most is for people to be able to have a conversation that acknowledges that hardships exist both abroad and at home (wherever that may be)- and to begin to breakdown the superficial attitudes of undeserved superiority.

It’s like the 12-Step programs in a way- the first step to progress is recognizing and admitting our own problem.

So instead of getting annoyed (which in itself was a kind of superiority attitude), I needed to think of these tips for dealing with cultural blindness:

1.   Be Patient I have to remember that I was once uninitiated too. I made mistakes and had to be taught. Give others a chance. (Then if they keep acting snobby, choose new acquaintances to socialize with!)

2.   Use Humor (or, humour- whichever works for you). Relay a story that you thought funny when someone else had a weird perception that was totally erroneous, too.

For example, I could have told her about the time I was in Houston facilitating the visit of a quartet of musicians from Baku who had been sponsored to participate in a music program at a prestigious university.

A lady wanted to fill one of my friends’ violin case with candy “for the children who might not have ever had candy before.”

Little did she know that candy is a well-known and well-loved treat for little children in Azerbaijan, especially as they celebrate Nowruz (Spring New Year)! But perceptions get started somewhere, rumors get passed along and soon people wonder if you have paved roads and running water… no joke!

3.   Look for teachable moments. Instead of my debating this blinded lady over who was better or whether everyone had such despairing moments.

I should have used questions. I could have asked,”Why do you think this? What else do you know about these places? Where have you traveled most recently?”  I could have made the evening a teachable, convivial time rather than creating defensive mood. (My bad!)

4.   Be Prepared. Write down, or be able to recall, a cultural website that you can share, one that shows many other cultural and social perspectives. Allow others to show the way- avoid being a know it all to combat a know it all (or know nothing?). And if no such website exists, perhaps you will have found a new mission!

5.   Be gracious. That’s the one Life Lesson I learned the other night.  I was annoyed with the things this lady was saying and I allowed it to bother me.

Had I been gracious and remembered the above tips, I might have come away with a new friend and a reputation for being gracious.

I’m keeping these tips handy now, working on making what’s inside as presentable as I appear on the outside, hoping I can encourage others to travel outside their own spaces, even if they never leave town.

Have you had moments like this? How do you recommend handling such comments?

Let me know what tips work for you when you encounter unfamiliar situations. What else is waiting for me (us) to learn?

Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts!


Can we become more enlightened about culture?  Turkish Rumi Dervish in meditation ( whirling "dance")

Can we become more enlightened about culture?



http://gobackpacking.com/woman-guide-using-squat-toilets (Cross-cultural Differences)

http://failbluedot.com/why-dont-others-take-basic-precautions  (Cultural Perspectives)

http://failbluedot.com/one-day-at-istanbul-airport  (Perceptions)

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/eminent-domain-being-abused/ (Global Problem)

3 thoughts on “Expat Living: 5 Tips ForDealing with Ignorance (At Least “We” Never Do That)

  1. Pingback: Expat Living: 5 Tips ForDealing with Ignorance (At Least "We" Never Do That)

  2. This post, along with an insert of a travel writing book I am reading, could not have been at a more perfect time (Ironic, almost). As I am teaching in Vietnam, and my first post-SAS abroad experience, I have been living with a person that is un culturally sensitive and has been testing my patience every day. I did start to get flustered about it, and then these posts came up reminding me to be patient and to definitely be gracious. So, thank you.

    I also love your comment “the grass is grass on both sides”. That’s just it. What a beautiful realization.


  3. Good job on this one. “the grass is grass on both sides” is true.

    With France, people assume the grass was greener there and can’t imagine any possible shortcomings. “Sigh”. “It must have been wonderful.” “It was interesting. But it was rainy, cold and difficult to manage. And that was before the flash flood caught us.”


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