The Screaming Ex-Pat

Several weeks ago I had a few bad days in a row.  What seemed like a small miscommunication, blindsided me by becoming a huge issue and ended in me receiving harsh emails and phone calls from an HR person at work. As I sat at my desk fighting back tears I also fought back the urge to scream, “I JUST WANNA GO HOME!!” I was tired – tired of cultural misunderstandings and trying to be Ugandan. Tired of not quite knowing what was going on and making mistakes.

After a few days and some damage control, I had some time to think about my reaction. I’ve realized that away from my home country and my comfort zone, bad days are exaggerated in my mind. Not getting along with one individual turns into me thinking that
Ugandans don’t like me. A miscommunication turns into me thinking that, despite my best efforts, I’m doing a bad job of cross-cultural communication. Frustrations compounded by heat and dust leave me thinking that everything would just magically be better if I was in the U.S.

My reaction reminded me of a story I heard about a certain Muzungu (white person) who was trying to conduct business at a bank that had lost electricity. After a long series of frustrations the man lost his cool and yelled in the middle of the bank, “I HATE UGANDA!” before storming out. The Ugandans who witnessed his outburst shrugged their shoulders said to each other, “Well then, why doesn’t he leave?”

What that man and I forgot is that bad days happen everywhere – even back in the comfort of our home countries. And no matter where I land in the world, I can’t always get along with everyone. This does not mean that I am failing at cross-cultural communication and friendship, it just means that we’re all human. I’ll click with some people and not with others and I’ll always make mistakes.

A message to myself and other ex-pats: Let’s try to dial down the drama when we make mistakes or things get frustrating. Personally, I’m going to try to generalize less and relax more.

And a message to those living in their home countries: Remember to be patient with all of us outsiders.  Some of us are really trying our best, and we do really want to be here even if we seem to act irrationally sometimes!

Appropriate on a boat, not in a bank.


5 responses to “The Screaming Ex-Pat

  1. My cultural frustrations outbursts were far worse than “I HATE UGANDA!” But I think, after over two years of living here, I’m finally getting to a point in this ‘game’ where I manage not to get externally upset. But, I’ll never be Ugandan. And that’s something I stopped trying to be. Not that I don’t try to be culturally respectful or try to assimilate. But, I found, no matter how hard I ‘tried’ I was still not even close to being Ugandan. Lazy and a poor attitude, I suppose, on my part. But it’s good to know I’m not the only crazy mzungu in town. That’s referring to the bank guy, not you, by the way. 🙂

  2. Interesting post, Faith. I have moments like this more often than I’d like to admit when I think of my responses to: the gateman at my apartment refusing to open the gate for me, the problems in my apartment that haven’t been fixed in 2 months, the assertiveness/problem-solving tactics that I was taught causing ripples in relationships here in Malawi. In my case, I’m not trying to be Malawin – in fact, I find myself explaining more often than not that I’m not from this culture despite the color of my skin – but I appreciate your story nonetheless. Would love to catch up with you soon!

  3. Thanks friends! It’s really nice to hear I’m not alone in my frustrations. I definitely agree that trying to “be Ugandan” is a losing battle, and one that I should just stop trying to fight. Sometimes I get so caught up in trying to be a Super Ex-Pat, that I forget that being a plain-old-American who does things the American way is also pretty cool.

    During all of this, I came across a phrase that really helped me, “What other people think of me is none of my business.” Lots of grace is needed on both sides of any cross-cultural exchange, and I can only do so much to make that exchange go well.

  4. I felt like this a lot towards the end of my stay in Poland. It can be so frustrating to always be the one who needs help, who doesn’t get it, who is doing things wrong. The ol’ CWC assessment of Christians in culture helped me think about this. Some people try to adopt the culture (becoming Uganda), some reject the culture, but in the end, I thought it would have been best if I could have continued being my American self while learning from the culture. But when conflict arises and you’re trying to understand someone based upon your own cultural expectations, it all becomes a circus.

    Thanks for sharing.

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