They are a special breed. You meet them in hostels and and tourist hot spots and volunteer hubs the world over. They play hard but rarely work hard. This is often their first time abroad. They are rebelling from very structured backgrounds. They party a lot. Too much. And its often on their parents’ dime. They are on a quest to find themselves. Being away from home has them feeling insecure. So they over-compensate by big talk. Often political talk. And its typically deeply nationalistic. It’s harmless patriotism gone harmful. In every conversation they need their country to come out the victor. It is nauseating.
Before you think I am singling out a certain country as the source of these patriotic party people I want to emphasize that I have seen all kinds of them. From pretty much everywhere. After all, it only takes a crude surplus of time, cheap beers and inexperience to have the perfect conditions for an (often young) traveler to start sounding off about how their country is the best and so clearly superior to the host culture for a litany of reasons. What typically sets them off is a bad experience. Someone was rude to them. Their girlfriend / boyfriend back home broke up with them. They embarrassed themselves in some way.
Their rhetoric is often deeply critical of the local situation. I have often met them in volunteer contexts such as English language schools or humanitarian construction projects. They are there as volunteers and visitors but they quickly let everyone know how much they wish they were home and how everything is better at home. They disagree with how things are run locally. If you have visited their home countries and dare to challenge their overly rosy picture of life there they quickly learn to despise you.
How do you help them? I have found that very little works. The answer is certainly not to try to fight them. If you contradict them or try to humiliate them with superior knowledge of politics or (if you have it) a stronger understanding of their country and its place in the world, you will only put them on the defensive and intensify their vitriol. One option is to ignore them. But this may not be an option if you are working on a small team together in a volunteer context or if you both are staying in the same small hostel.
What sometimes works is befriending them and gradually showing them the benefits of toning down the rhetoric, letting up on the combative spirit and actually enjoying the host culture. They are behaving the way they are because they come from a place of insecurity. So if you can provide them with the security of friendship and a local connection, chances are they will appreciate it. Surprise them the next time they start ranting about how bad the food / TV / service / transportation is locally and invite them to a local sporting event. Bring your most mature local friend (briefing him or her on the patriotic partyhead’s tendency to be crudely nationalistic) and show the young irate one the time of his or her life. Treat them extraordinarily well. Hit the best local eatery after the game. Introduce the young nationalist to some of the coolest locals you know. Show him or her the benefits of savvy, global do-gooding: Amazing local friends. Ease of travel. Adventure minus the agitation of stupid fights. The buzz of experiencing the beauty of a culture that is not your own. Get creative. This may be your only chance to make an impression.
You may fail. But chances are that regardless of the outcome they will remember the experience. This, their first trip abroad may be a lost cause but the next time they set food overseas they may have a different perspective.
What is the American Dream? Traditional answers included any of the following:
1) White picket fences
2) Your own huge house
3) At least two cars
4) Being Number One
Excuse me while I yawn.
Growing up in the Philippines I was absolutely sold on the American Dream. I remember being depressed and incredibly down as a 12 year-old when my family moved from the US to Europe for work-related reasons. Somehow I knew that America was the ultimate destination, that the American Dream was real and that I could have it.
Coming to America (Again)
I was incredibly excited to get to study in the US for college. I could not wait to get my shot at the American life. I took to my studies with some serious rigor and networked like a madman trying to track down all the best internship or work opportunities. I found an employer that was willing to hire me and file expensive paperwork for me straight out of college. I was on the verge of the American Dream. I was making it! Or so I thought.
Not so hot
I had come to the US in 2001 right before 9/11. In the decade that followed, terrorism and America’s response to it put at damper on the allure of America. Somehow life in the United States looked less attractive. The balance of power and wealth in the world was shifting. China was rising. It passed Japan as the second largest economy in the world. Other non-traditional players were emerging – South Korea, India, Brazil. A lot of the members of the international intelligentsia that previously contributed to brain drain from other countries were choosing not to come to the US.
And then Came the Recession
I moved up to Northern California for my second job in 2008 as world economies were crashing and everyone was foretelling Armageddon. America was on the brink of another depression. Even illegal immigration was down and the worldwide opinion of American was not nearly what it had been. Not much has improved despite the hope so many had during the last election cycle.
Here’s the Thing Though…
But I am not giving up yet. Call it brainwashing or naivete, I still believe that the US will rebound. The recent dip in the unemployment rate, a recovered auto industry and a few other flickers of hope on the American economic horizon are a few near-tangibles but there is something far more powerful that I am banking on: American can-do-it-ness. If there is one thing that has defined the American experience so far it is this: AMERICA ALWAYS COMES BACK. This is not a bet against the rest of the world or a patriotic plug for American imperialism. Power has limits and there is nothing wrong with adapting with the times. But here’s what I can say with confidence: I truly believe that America is a uniquely resilient country. Will it go the way of Rome? Maybe. But I am not convinced we have to resign ourselves to the cynical reading of history that armchair political prophets indulge. Failure does not have to be inevitable. Let’s rise above that kind of thinking. Let’s remember that a colony threw off the chains of tyranny not so long ago and rose to heights unparalleled. Let’s remember that slavery was abolished. Let’s remember Normandy. Let’s remember the bridge at Selma. Let’s remember that preacher from Atlanta. Let’s remember the man on the moon. Let’s remember the Berlin Wall.
The American Dream doesn’t need to be shallow and materialistic. Let it instead be an unflagging belief in the future and our capacity to work for something better.
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.
It happened WAY too much. And it always happened when we were already running late. Our old, disgracefully dilapidated beast of a Buick would shut off at the bottom of the long, steep driveway to the cookie-cutter Marietta, Ga. apartment complex where we lived. My high-strung über-Scandinavian mother would then proceed to frantically wind down the car window, stick her head out as far it would go and yell “It STOPPED!!” with shrill, Nordic determination to the annoyed assortment of early-morning drivers behind us. Humiliated, my sister and I would shrink down in our seats, willing the moment to pass.
This, of course, was only one of the whole smorgasbord of awkward experiences my sister and I had growing up with FOB (Fresh-off-the-boat) parents who had about as much interest in blending into local culture as we did in sticking out like sore thumbs.
I’ve met enough children of FOBs to detect some patterns. The first of these is that immigrants often have an idealist, nonconformist streak. It took guts and ignoring naysayers to move from their homelands. Now that they are here, some of these qualities manifest themselves in a stronger-than-usual sense of motivation. They are also less likely to concern themselves with what others think. While this singular focus has worked well for them, their children (who are more concerned with blending in) will often find this focus too narrow and abrasive. I’ve rarely witnessed kids that have been able to change their FOB parents. It seems that the best thing to do is to appreciate your parents’ work ethic and recognize that they are who they are.
Another thing about FOB parents is that although they (in most cases) chose to leave their home countries, they often are extremely patriotic and nostalgic about the homeland they left behind. They will wax lyrical about the food, the culture and the beauty of home. Ask them if they would like to go back though and they quickly shake their heads or talk loosely about what they might do in retirement. If you were born to FOBS and have to listen to your parents and their nostalgic rambling, take it all with a grain of salt. It is good to be aware of your roots but realize that time and distance have probably embellished the memories of your parents’ home.
One of the more obvious things about FOB parents is their accent and how they carry themselves. Accents rarely change if someone learns a language as an adult so chances are that your FOB parents really sound foreign. My mom’s accent used to embarrass me, but nowadays it is much more of a source of amusement. As with most things about foreign parents and their cultural idiosyncrasies, if you can see the humor in the situation, you can actually enjoy it. On that note, let’s conclude with a video from HappySlip, a YouTube-based comedy series by Christine Gambito, a Filipina American who plays all her characters and who has the funniest take I have ever seen on the FOB experience…