Patriotic Amnesia – 5 Things to Remember When Expats Start Rambling About Home

Dodge the Patriotic Amnesia of expat circles - get out and explore on your own!

It doesn’t happen right away.  It often takes several months or even years.  But sooner or later, what I call Patriotic Amnesia sinks in with most expats and they start spouting this ridiculous drivel about their home country, forgetting that there is a reason they left in the first place.  They want you to believe that they are officially from Paradise.  They have conveniently forgotten about all the problems in their home country.  They paint a picture of this homeland as though it were flowing with milk and honey.  Things are always better where they are from.  You would never have to put up with this local nonsense in their country.  Things are bigger, better and more beautiful.  It is nauseating.  It is predictable.  And it is almost universal – almost any expat can slip into it.

Given the prevalence of this kind of rhetoric in expat communities, it helps to be prepared for when you have to sit through an agonizing session of Patriotic Amnesia.  Here are a few guidelines to bear in mind:

1)  At least 50% of what you hear may be nonsense but the expat is convinced it is true – You are not an idiot.  You realize that no country on earth can possibly live up to the extravagant near-poetic descriptions of grandeur that your nostalgic expat pal is treating you to.  But here’s the thing.  He or she has talked about home SO many times and with each telling the stories have gotten bigger and bolder.  By now, the teller of the tale actually believes in his own hyperbole.  It is touching and incredibly off at the same time.  Don’t call them on it.  Just nod and smile.

2)  Do not egg them on – Notice I said nod and smile.  This is supposed to convey respect but not a carte blanche for the outsized blathering to continue indefinitely.  I have made the mistake of saying too much and then suffering through excruciatingly long monologues in which they describe the heaven-on-earth that is their country.

3)  They need this – let them have their moment – But it really is a fine balance.  You can give them their moment, think of it as doing something nice for someone else.  Often the expat in question has been away from home for a really long time.  The things he or she describes is less a description of the actual country and more a personal creation of a place that somehow transcends present-day frustrations and limitations.  Let them have this and give them the satisfaction of at least a few minutes of your time, they will appreciate you for listening.

4)  Generally something is wrong – redirect them to the source – Let’s delve a little deeper into the above “present day frustrations and limitations”.  Your expat acquaintance may be waxing eloquent about home because they have been treated badly in the new host country.  Or they may be frustrated at their own lack of progress in the process of language acquisition or understanding local customs.  Try to detect what this source of frustration is and focus on helping them with that.  Maybe you can study the language together or hit a few museums or cultural centers that will speed your mutual learning about the country and its history.

5)   What are you doing hanging out with expats? – I don’t say this to encourage elitism or a “localer than thou” attitude but if what you are doing abroad revolves around other expats then you may as well have stayed at home.  Learn to wean yourself off of the complacent comfort zone of the part of the expat community that speaks English, insists on Continental breakfasts and refuses to “stoop” to any actual activity that would allow for a real appreciation for the local scene.  Find local friends and skip the embassy crowds.



Bjorn Karlman