Battling expat stereotypes: How your country of origin is seen by the natives in other countries
By Anastasia Piatakhina Giré
We all come to our new country with some kind of luggage. Sometimes we bring with us some heavily charged suitcases, sometimes just a few books and a backpack. Even if we like to travel light, we still carry some pieces of our reality, the cultural, social and political realities of our country of origin, with us to all the places we go. How is this baggage influencing the way we feel and the way others perceive us in the country in which we have stopped? Does it really matter where we come from?
When I was younger, I preferred to think that people were able to accept me and see me for who I was. I lost my original accent in two languages, I made friends everywhere I went, I married a Frenchman, and settled in a fourth country. I thought about myself not as a “Russian”, but as a citizen of the world.
Then, one day I heard (maybe I was ready to hear it at that point) from a friend: “Oh the Russian came, open another bottle!” I drink socially and occasionally with pleasure, but the drinking does not define me as a person. Obviously, for this guy I was Russian, so I had to drink. When I initially came to France, people kept making jokes, wondering whether I would break my glass against the wall, once it was empty. They found it funny. So did I… for the first ten times. On the eleventh, I almost threw the glass just to make them happy.
So, it was easier to lose my accent, to fade, to dissolve in the background: I learned how to love Camembert and raw meat; I was able to discuss French politics and Burgundy wines. Am I less Russian altogether? No, I am not.
Stereotypes, they are not easy to live with. Nobody likes wearing a label slicked to his chest — no matter whether it is a mental health diagnosis or a yellow star. “Russian” or “American” or “Iraqi” or “Estonian” are labels which describe us in some ways as well. Not entirely, because our personalities are richer than that, but they do describe accurately enough some parts of us. Brits are funny, French love food, Italians are great lovers. We all just know it, don’t we?
Some labels are though easier to live with than others. Being Russian in post-wall Europe, I set off with a complex baggage. In the 90s in Paris, to be Russian was “in”, people were curious about my post-soviet experience, they kept asking me questions, and they wanted me to tell them my story. Sometimes they were not ready to hear the whole thing, they were easily shocked, but they were listening. It was important for me to be able to tell them, to let them know how different my world was from their own.
Some years later I traveled to Italy a lot, and my experience was very different there. The suburban trains in Naples were full with young blonde girls in miniskirts and heavy makeup. They were mostly from Ukraine and working hard in cheap strip clubs and restaurants, hoping for a better future. I was not blonde and didn’t wear a miniskirt, but I was Russian, so we were in the same category. If you buy a bag of frozen green peas, it is clearly written on it, even if inside it contains carrots. You presume that there is some kind of congruence, so “green peas” outside = little green balls inside. Outside I was Russian; inside I felt like a complex person with a deep understanding of Italian culture. But who cared? For them I was a green pea.
How do we feel when people make us wear a label? Eventually we feel hurt, diminished, not understood, ashamed. And these emotions usually meet some hooks in our past emotional experience, so our present experience becomes even more painful.
How do we behave when we feel that way?
We become easily defensive, we blame, we retreat… or we mimic. Sometimes it seems easier: we adapt, we change color. So, the green peas become red, but they usually still taste the same.
And when we behave this way, we lose some spontaneity, or some of our inner emotional truth. Sometimes we also break glasses and fit to the character others are expecting us to fit in. I met a lot of perfectly lovable Italians, explicitly epicurean French and very funny Brits. Maybe there were truly themselves but I suspect that partly they also adapted to this expectations which the environment was offering them as a perfect cover, an invitation to fit in. Sometimes the roles already are given (and taken), and the show must go on… even if the character we are playing happens to be not the most comfortable and appealing to be in.
What is your experience of belonging to your culture in the country of your choice? What is your favorite adaptive strategy? Every time I work in therapy with a fellow expat, all this questions become a valuable material for exploration. Our personal history unfolds within the new field, to which we more or less successfully integrate our previous experience.
How much the environment is able to embrace our past does influence the kind of integration we will achieve.
The more we struggle with the preconceived ideas we bump into when arriving to a new country, the more we face our own emotional reality. Meeting the difference in others helps us to better define the shape of our own world.
Did anything similar happen to you as well? How much do you think the stereotypes about your culture of origin in your new country might have influenced your choices and the way you usually feel and behave?
Anastasia Piatakhina Giré is an integrative psychotherapist who lives and practices in Madrid.