Brexit, Trump, and Explaining the Unexplainable: When It’s Exhausting to be an Expat

Fanny pack? What fanny pack?
Fanny pack? What fanny pack?

I saw an article about Americans on holiday bemoaning the fact they’re on one long Donald Trump apology tour. A fellow blogger felt similarly after a recent trip abroad. 

I had to laugh, just a little. Of course I’m sorry if anyone’s vacation is interrupted by Europeans trying to figure out what the heck is happening. But remember…you get to go home.

Try living overseas and trying to explain it.

I’ve been ‘Murica Splaining for the last 8 years. I’m exhausted. An American expat reader based in the UK said her most oft asked question has gone from the quaint inquisitiveness of “What exactly IS Thanksgiving?” to the gob-smacked “What the hell is going ON over there?”

And while it’s a big year in U.S. politics, Americans are far from the only people who have to explain the sometimes batshit crazy things that go on in their home countries. The morning after Brexit, countless Brits blew out the fuses on their electric kettles boiling water for the endless cups of tea it would take to explain what the hell had just happened.

An Italian friend once collapsed in relief next to me, confiding that at long last he could relax–with the rise of Donald Trump, Italians were off the hook as global dumbasses for electing…and re-electing Berlusconi.

An Australian reader talks about the right-wing senator just elected, a Basque friend explains why her country has had no leadership for six–scratch that–seven months. Canadians demurely apologize for the general awesomeness of Justin Trudeau…because Canadians are just pretty darn nice and I think deep down inside they wish everyone had a hunky, progressive Prime Minister.

Expats are unofficial goodwill ambassadors without the diplomatic immunity, the free parking, or Angelina Jolie’s pout. As an American overseas I am a walking, talking representative of the United States. If I act like an asshat, it doesn’t reflect well on anyone. And trust me, Europeans are just now getting over the stereotype of the clueless American tourist with a fanny pack and socks with sandals. I’m trying hard to move us forward.

Mon Dieu, how can I explain?
Mon Dieu, how can I explain?

Most people are armed only with a hodgepodge of snapshots and stereotypes from books and movies, news programs and anecdotes. We piece them all together and end up with a lop-sided cartoon version of one another. I get asked all the time to explain the gun thing. Brits get asked about dentistry. The French get asked why the French love to go on strike. The Danes why they need to be right up your backside in the check out line at Netto. The Germans are teased for their Deutschland Deutschland Uber-Efficiency, the Spaniards for their elastic sense of time. It’s a little bit stereotype and a little bit truth, part myth and part misunderstanding. For instance, British dentistry isn’t really that bad.

Living outside your country and culture, meeting others away from theirs, is a fantastic way to demystify the stereotypes of others as well as debunk the ones of your own.

But….sometimes it’s tough. While I can answer with reasonable clarity, “What IS the electoral college and why does it exist??”, it’s harder to explain away the questions a lot non-Americans have about the United States.

What’s the deal with the guns? Why don’t you guys have health care for everyone? Don’t you think it’s wrong that you don’t have maternity leave? Why don’t Americans travel? What’s the deal with the guns?

It’s hard enough explaining the quirks and quibbles of your motherland under normal circumstances. Add in the spiciness of an election year and things get kind of crazy. In 2016, which is quickly turning into the year of anything goes, it’s pretty much been non-stop Lucy! We’ve got some ‘splaining to do!

You don’t realize how strong the marinade of culture is until you’re forced to explain or rationalize it, until you are forced to be an ambassador for the good, the bad, and the batshit crazy. Sometimes it’s difficult to shrug off the mantle of stereotype (no, we don’t all have guns slung on our hips, Annie Oakley style…yes, we take teeth seriously). It’s hard to explain the ethereal, elusiveness of the American Dream to someone who hasn’t grown up with it under their pillow. That, in turn, makes it difficult to explain why the ghost of that dream is still relevant. Which makes it even more difficult to explain that as much as I loathe Donald Trump, I understand why he struck a nerve.

Brexit? How about a nice cuppa, luv?
Brexit? How about a nice cuppa, luv?

I’m not sure how eloquently I can explain it, any more so than my British friends can adequately explain why a small majority voted to distance their green and pleasant lands further from Europe or how my Canadian friends can impart the secrets to electing a kick-ass leader.

So sure, I’m ‘Murica splainin’, but that guy with the bowler hat and brolly over there? He’s Blighty splainin’. The beret-topped Frenchie is explaining the importance of labor unions to the French psyche while the Aussie is patiently explaining that they don’t keep kangaroos as pets.

We’re all explaining.

Except maybe the Canadians who are just chilling out, watching hockey.




30 thoughts on “Brexit, Trump, and Explaining the Unexplainable: When It’s Exhausting to be an Expat

Add yours

  1. I spent about 30 minutes yelling at my TV this weekend as the Trump talking heads explained away his most recent comments and kept on repeating the same phrases…how can this deformed Cheeto be a major party candidate? I’m glad I don’t have represent the USA now that I’m back on ‘merican soil I just have to see people with Trump signs in their yards and bumper stickers on the Cadillacs.
    It has got to exhausting to explain all of this for 8 years, but you’re right, the rest of the world has also experienced this insanity too. Only 2 1/2 months to go until election day… Thanks for the pingback.


    1. I think the fact that many of them have experienced it scares them even more. I met a lovely old Danish man today who told me to do my best–the Danes are watching him because of the borders and NATO. I said I’d do my best.


  2. I’m not an ex-pat and I have a hard time explaining some of what goes on in this nutty land were call USA! USA! USA! The good news is that ex-pats are generally rational, thoughtful people (assuming they’re not on the run from the CIA or Interpol) and illustrate to the world that not all of us are batshit crazy.


  3. I remember feeling that way when I studied in Vienna and was the only American in a intercultural management course taught in German. It was painful explaining that there were exceptions to the typical stereotypes of Americans. I can’t imagine trying to explain what’s going on now!


    1. To be fair, most of us do have good teeth ;-). It’s been eye-opening, and for the most part, a remarkable experience for me, and an opportunity to open not only my own eyes to Americans, but other peoples eyes to us too. But I must say, this year….let’s just say November can’t come soon enough.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, to the extent that one train is filled with a lot of poison and hate and could, upon impact, send shockwaves thought the country and the other is pretty capable of chugging along taking on some admittedly suspect characters ;-). (But I am an out and proud Hillary supporter, so my trains my well be very different than yours!)


  4. I love this! I’ve definitely thought about the ambassador thing before. On many occasions in China I interacted with people who had never met/spoken to an Australian before – so everything I said and did became their impression of my country. No pressure! It can be really difficult to explain your cultural values and your country’s actions to someone from a totally different perspective. When Julia Gillard became Australia’s Prime Minister I had the same conversation over and over with Chinese people who struggled to comprehend a middle-aged woman being childless and unmarried but living with her partner. And the leader of the country. There was a lot of respect for her by the end of her stint but there was mostly confusion at the start! And let’s not talk about Other Things… but it’s good to remember that ALL of us have explaining to do, no matter where we’re from.


    1. Yes, and, in a way, I think it’s the only true and lasting way to realize that people who seem very different than us on the surface, deep down, aren’t very different to us than all. I’m watching this in the Unites States right now with the arguments (I was going to use discourse, but let’s not mince words) surrounding immigration. People on the coasts, who live in cities, who are used to living with and among many different nationalities and religions and immigrants realize tend to hold more liberal views about immigration–because living next to, working with, rooming with, meeting people from different places helps ease the fear of ‘not like us’. So I do my best. But man. It’s hard this year!


      1. I must admit, I don’t envy my American friends trying to explain the current election and surrounding news items to people from other countries. I thought it was bad trying to explain Tony Abbott and Australia’s offshore detention policies…


  5. What’s the problem with socks and sandals, I don’t get it? Oh, right…I’m a pacific northwesterner. I still do that, and don’t even think about it. You don’t need to apologize for anyone you know. I was also living in France when the Clinton scandal came out but you know what? The French didn’t have anything to say about that, wasn’t odd. The English, however…


    1. Oh, don’t be fooled. The English adore a good sex scandal ;-). The French. Well, didn’t the PM have a mistress known to the public? I think the French are smart enough to separate one’s politics with one’s sex life. Seems a rather mature way to think about it. I think the Europeans aren’t looking for an apology as much as an explanation. And for good reason. As a nice, elderly Dane said to me the other day, we are watching closely. The borders and NATO, these things affect not just Americans you know…and of course he is right. For better or worse, our decisions as a nation have an impact on others, so there is concern and curiosity. We’ll save the possible apologies for November 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Love this article. So true. At the moment I’m a proud Canadian but just a year ago we didn’t know where we were headed. Fortunately, reason prevailed and now we have a PM we can all be proud of. Things can change on a dime these days. My advice to Americans – don’t ever give up hope.


    1. Thanks! Mine might be….move to Canada ;-). Full disclosure: I’ve had a country crush on Canada for a long time. And I’m jealous of your PM, but talking to Canadian friends, I realize you had to put up with many years of conservatism in order to reach this point. Hoping my fellow Americans take Yoda’s advice and choose wisely in a few weeks….


      1. Just picked up your reply. True, we had our problems with Harper and made a good choice with our present PM. I wish that it could have been different for the US. I am now writing my next blog post on my thoughts on that outcome.


  7. Love this. Although I disagree with the Canadian ‘splainin sentiment. The most I get asked about is why we Canadians say “Sorry” a lot. Followed by why we say “eh” and if I say “aboot” as opposed to “about”. And what we do with maple syrup apart from putting them on pancakes. For the record, a boot is what we wear on our feet. 😀


    1. I’ll take ‘about’ over guns any day of the week! (Full disclosure: I have a bit of a country crush on Canada–I think they’ve got it mostly figured out!) But wait…what else DO you do with maple syrup??


  8. As a Canadian, of liberal (as opposed to Liberal) persuasion, I’m rather perplexed at the choice that Americans have made. So let’s get this straight – to drain the swamp, you invite the very creatures who made the swamp to make it their even cozier home. To help relate to the poor blue-collar workers who have lost their production jobs, you nominate pretty much only those people who only count their wealth with eight or more zeros, behind the numbers. To fire up your supporters, you accuse your political opponent of lies, corruption, and behaviour bordering on treason and betrayal, and once elected, say “ah shucks, she’s a good person, she’s suffered enough”. You accuse Hillary of being a Wall-Street shill, and then you hire one of the key figures from Goldman Sachs to loot, er, run the Treasury. and so on. Who would have thought that there’s such a thing as reality inversion, and that we have the privilege of actually living in Wonderland (without Alice’s commentary to help us, alas).

    As for maple syrup – it’s good with pancakes, and yogurt, and over fruits, and ice cream, and just about anything that needs a little sweetness. Great over beavertails (I’ll let you look that one up). And a few other places if one is feeling frisky.

    And in other news, our PM is still enjoying somewhat of a honeymoon with the electors, but the realities of governing a diverse country is that you just can’t please everyone, and sooner or later, he will rile up enough people to have to fight hard to stay in office.


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