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Expatriates Debunking Misconceptions | Myths About Living Abroad | Expat Dream Team #10

Living overseas can change any preconceived notions you may have about a country. Simultaneously, it can shift how you see your home country as well.

When I announced our move to Singapore. Some of the responses I received were, ‘’Singapore, where it’s illegal to chew gum.’’ Or, ‘’Oh, Singapore, so.… China.’’ Then there was, ‘’How are you going to learn the language?”

Clearly, I had a lot of debunking to do.  But to be fair, there’s the flip side of it too.

As a foreigner living in Singapore, I’ve been asked to confirm American culture.  Such as, “Do people really chant USA, USA, USA?” When I was watching a film with a friend, she asked, “Is that what Chinese take out boxes look like in America?” And I love the most recent question, “Why do Americans wear state name’s across their jumpers?” Go figure at that time, I was rockin’ my Oakland, California logo tee.  Then there’s the odd statement, “every American owns a gun.” Errr, not this American. 

Being one of the millions of expatriates around the world. Surely others have encountered this. So, I reached out to other expats in the IG world and asked: What misconceptions do people have in your home country about your host country? And because it’s only fair to flip the switch.  The counter question:

What misguided ideas, statements or questions have you been asked by people in your host country, about your home country?

Here is what I learned and who I’ve met a long the way.

Meet the panel of Expat Dream Team 10#

Bri chats about Hungary

Known in the IG world as Home Base Belgium. Bri and her family are living it up overseas. Bri writes in, ”I’m a licensed clinical counselor turned travel-writer living in Belgium with my husband (an Air Force pilot), 3 spirited children, 1 tiny dog and 9 hilarious chickens. Originally from Maine, we recently moved to Belgium from Hungary, where we traveled extensively – 21 countries in 3 years! There are challenges as an expat, but as a military spouse mentor, I strive to support people in making their time overseas memorable, inspiring families to view this experience as one big adventure. It’s all about perspective!” Explore endless overseas adventures with Bri by following her military expat family.

Bri talks about Hungary since their move to Belgium was recent.

Q1) What misperceptions do people have in your home country about your host country?

I was asked if Hungary is a militant country. They had heard it was a “closed borders” nation, and although there is truth to that politically, it never felt like we were living in a police state. (Hungary’s sordid history under communist Soviet occupation might make people think that though!) On the contrary, America has a far more visible police presence. In Hungary, it is rare to see police – and they are hardly ever armed – as they don’t patrol highways and streets. It’s a very peaceful country and I always felt safe!”

Q2) What misguided ideas or questions have you been asked by people in your host country, about your home country? 

Besides frequent questions about politics, Hungarians made fun of me wearing flip flops all the time (“Aren’t those for the beach? Americans are so funny!) and they were definitely a suspicious of my smiley friendliness until they got to know me. They also thought all Americans drove huge vehicles (which, let’s be honest, many do compared to Europeans!) and they said all of our food is too sweet (again, they may be right…). Also, I met a Hungarian who thought all Americans are overweight – which clearly isn’t true!”

Meet Amanda in The Netherlands

Amanda’s Gram, By the Windmills is a blissful escape to the Netherlands. Here’s her story. ”I moved to the Netherlands two years ago with my Bulgarian spouse and two children from California. I grew up in a tiny mountain town in Northern California, but my family are born and bred New Englanders. The first time I traveled outside of my home country was when we moved here, yet I had dreamed about living in other countries since I was a child. I grew up watching PBS travel shows and reading every book I could get my hands on about travel and history and wanted nothing more than to see the world. I am a writer, and prolific reader- I always have a book with me. I’m also a very passionate knitter, baker, and gardener.

Q1) What misperceptions do people have in your home country about your host country?
That I live in Amsterdam- as if it’s the only place to live here. When you say “The Netherlands”, most people don’t even know where you’re talking about, they think of it as Holland, and more narrowly, that it’s just Amsterdam. Holland is a province, Amsterdam is a city. The Netherlands, while small, is still a very diverse and unique country, with Amsterdam being only one tiny part of it. Countries are more than just their most well-known cities. They also think that every place is just full of tulips and cute gabled houses- most of the housing is large apartment buildings, the cities outside of their charming centers are very industrial, and not a lot of people have flowers planted in their yards.

People also think that there are cannabis stores everywhere and that everyone smokes it wherever and whenever they want because it’s legal. However, it’s actually illegal, it’s just “tolerated” if you possess under 5 grams and production is absolutely not allowed. Consumption is not allowed outside of the “coffee shops” (which do not sell coffee) or your home and tourists visiting just to get high are actually a massive problem, so this type of “drug tourism” may soon be banned.

I have been told by Americans that the Dutch are rude and not friendly. Sure, they have their share of unfriendly people, but so does every place in the world. The Dutch are simply direct and to the point, which I love. Honesty is highly valued, and they can smell bullshit a mile off. I was often told in my home country that I was rude, when I was just being direct, and my first time having dinner with a Dutch local, I was asked “Are you sure you aren’t Dutch?” because of my directness. So apparently, I fit right in!”

Q2) What misguided ideas or questions have you been asked by people in your host country, about your home country? 

I don’t often get these questions here, because the Dutch are astonishingly well educated about other cultures and countries, and many of them are very well-traveled, some having lived abroad themselves. So usually I get asked these by people who have never been to the U.S. When I mention that I’m from California, I sometimes have to burst the preconception bubble that California is not just beaches, Los Angeles, and celebrities, but that where I come from is more rugged with lots of wild animals. It always shocks them (and it’s very amusing for me) when I talk about my encounters with bears, cougars, and coyotes. 

I have been asked about the American diet and fast food culture, with people curious how the Dutch “fast food” compares to American, and how often people eat at those places. Some people have even directly asked me why Americans are so unhealthy, bringing up portion sizes (United States portion sizes are massive compared to Dutch portion sizes). They are always shocked when I tell them about the sheer number of fast-food restaurants just in the town that I used to live in. American-style fast-food places in the Netherlands are only allowed on the edges of town by the freeway, so they aren’t very prolific at all.

Another is that American doctors hand out pain pills and antibiotics like candy if you complain about any ailment. Here, doctors will tend to take a “wait and see” approach to minor complaints and the joke is that paracetamol is the treatment for everything. Many medications in the US are unavailable here and cannot be prescribed.

Meet Trisha living in Spain

Trisha Espinoza is a U.S. expat living in Madrid, Spain.  Before making the move, she was a television executive based in New York City.  Now, Trisha runs That Spanish Life, a site for travelers and expats in Spain, and is a freelance business consultant and writer.  Her first book is set to be released in 2022. To find out more about Trisha’s expat life, check out Latrish2.0.

Q1) What misperceptions do people have in your home country (USA) about your host country (Spain)?

  • That life is easy just because I’m in Spain, “home of sangria & siestas.”  They imagine I am on a constant vacation, which sadly is not the case!
  • That all of Spain is the same.  They don’t realize how different the regions are and that Spanish is not the only official language spoken here.  For example, Catalan, Galician & Basque are very much still spoken in their regions.  And citizens are very proud and identify greatly with their regional heritages.
  • That Spanish men all look like Antonio Banderas.  I wish!” 

Q2) What misguided ideas or questions have you been asked by people in your host country, about your home country?

  • That all homes and apartments are huge.  When I describe how small my first NYC apartment was, no one believes me. 
  • That everyone owns a gun (same).
  • People are shocked when I tell them in grocery stores, the shopping bags are free.  They cannot believe stores would give away bags and think that that is terrible for the environment.  They also can’t believe that it is someone’s job to put the groceries in the free bags.  They think we’re all so spoiled.
  • Eggs for breakfast….  a horrifying concept here.”

Here is Issac in China

Issac gives it to you straight and his photos on his Gram, Beard and a Camera tell a beautiful story. ”My name is Isaac and I am from the United States. Since January 2016, I have been living in Beijing, China. I spend my days working as an English teacher, and in my free time am am always out exploring with my camera capturing the everyday activities of life in the city and sharing them on Instagram.

”I thought answering these questions would be a simple task, but the more I got to thinking about them the more frustrated I got. A lot of the misconceptions that I have come across from people I know in the USA come from very dark places and are full of outdated, and mostly straight up racist ideals that have been fed to them through the way the media has portrayed the country. Since we do not learn much about China in school, it is very easy to look at this huge country with 1,000s of years of history and fall into these misconceptions.  Some of the more frequent ones I received before moving included:

    1. That I would be eating a lot of dog meat. (Not a bite)
    2. It wouldn’t be safe. (Honestly the safest I have ever felt in a large city.)
    3. I would find it difficult to make friends. (Way easier than I thought it would be.)

This isn’t to say the other side of this equation is any better there are many misconceptions about the USA that I hear or see in China as well. Many, like in the USA, are rooted in a past that has seen many changes and tensions rise between the two countries and in the end the everyday citizens are left with a portrayal of the USA that the government gives them. Some examples of these misconceptions include

    1. That all Americans are rich. (If only that one were true.)
    2. All Americans own guns. (Nope)
    3. Americans hate China. (Not Everyone buys into what they hear at face value)

I think for me it is these things that makes me stay and share the pictures I share. I want people to see beyond what they see on the news and see that from both sides there are a lot more similarities than differences and that these misconceptions are just that and to build a better tomorrow.

Meet Jeff in Germany

This Baltimore Orioles fan flew the coup for a new nest in Germany. Jeff writes in, “I live in Hamburg with my husband Christian who is German. We moved here last year from Baltimore where I lived for 20 years. Go Ravens! I grew up in North Carolina and believe wholeheartedly that “y’all” is the best word in the English language. If anyone is interested in following my musings on life in Germany, they can find me @jeffindeutschland on Instagram.”

Q1: What misperceptions do people have in your home country about your host country?
I think the biggest misperception that Americans have about Germans is that they are all mean and just walk around scowling all day. I live in inner-city Hamburg and, although some folks you cross paths with have a curmudgeonly look on their face, I pass just as many people who smile. Now, I come from the South so I am keenly aware that I have to dial back my southern “Hey there, stranger!” mentality a bit in Germany. But I have become quite accustomed to chatting with the shop clerks at the local bakeries and grocery stores who I greet with an enthusiastic “Moin! Wie geht es Dir?!” (Good Morning. How’s it going?) and they reciprocate with smiles and polite small talk. Of course, it should go without saying that Dog Parents are the friendliest people of all. 

The other misperception that I believe many Americans have about Germany is that the language is extremely hard to understand, learn, and speak. Once your brain can successfully process that the super long German words are just 3, 4, maybe 5 words sandwiched together, you’re off to a good start. I’ve been taking intensive German classes (3 hours per day, Mon-Thurs) and, while it’s no walk in the park, there are quite a lot of similarities to English.

Q2: What misguided questions have you been asked about your home country, by people in your host country?
Sadly, most of the questions I get from Germans about America are about gun violence. It’s no secret that America is quite unique with its gun violence problem and German folks I talk to want to know why that is. It’s obviously a complicated question with complicated answers. The questions range from “Does every American own a gun?” to “Why hasn’t the American government done more to solve this problem?”

On a lighter note, I get asked about American beer a good bit. Germany obviously has a rich history of producing amazing beer and they are very proud of it! But I’m happy to say that Germans are optimistically inquisitive about the quality of U.S beer. I even have Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on the shelves in my local grocery store!”

Here’s Julia in Brazil

Julia gives great advice for living in Brazil and her photos on her Gram will lure you in. ”My name is Julia, or short Ju, as Brazilians like to call me. I am 32 years old, with a passion for coffee and traveling to exotic countries and with a not-so-exotic job in finance within a multinational firm. Originally from Germany, I dreamed about traveling to different countries early on and was lucky to realize those dreams, studying in the Netherlands and going on (backpacking) trips to Southeast Asia, New Zealand and later on Central America. Since 2018 I am living and working in Sao Paulo, Brazil and am feeling very grateful for all the experiences I have collected during my time here.  I started my IG profile @gringa.stories to share with others my personal impressions as well as facts about Brazil and helpful content on living here as an expat.”

Can you show me the way to the rainforest please?

When I talk to people from Germany, my home country, I often realize the images and associations that they have about Brazil. The Amazon rainforest appears as an immediate picture in people’s heads, so that they might be surprised to hear that it does not play a central role in Brazilians everyday life. Sure, it represents a huge part of Brazil, geographically speaking. And also the Amazon represents a vital part of Brazil’s ecosystem and is influencing the world’s climate. However, upon asking any Brazilian in Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro the likelihood that this person has ever visited or will ever visit the rainforest is super low. Additionally, there are many more different ecosystems to get to know that offer a variety of amazing animal species and fascinating landscapes. Two examples are the Pantanal tropical wetland or the different “chapadas” that are highlands or mountain plateaus. 

A second common misconception about Brazil is that it is a place of flourishing criminality with shootings on the streets, impossible to visit or live. This is a complex topic indeed. Obviously, there are differences in crime rates between a mid-sized town in Germany and a 3 million inhabitant city in Brazil. Main reason for that is the wide gap between rich and poor in Brazil and probably a dozen of other political and socio-economic factors. However, the majority of crimes involving homicides is associated with gang conflicts, drug trafficking rings and conflicts between police forces and criminal groups living in the communities (favelas). If you are visiting as a tourist you should avoid certain areas that are known to be controlled by drug cartels or that represent trafficking routes (e.g. borders to Venezuela). That being said, there are some basic precautions to take to avoid getting yourself caught up in a bad situation such as pickpocketing or armed robbery. Most of those measures are really common sense and you just need to adapt a bit your behaviour. But no need to walk around in a panic mode.”

The beer-drinking but hard-working German.”

On the flipside, I had some very amusing conversations with Brazilians about my home country. I recall not one, but several persons looking at me with an astonished expression “What? You have never been to the Oktoberfest?”. Maybe the Oktoberfest is THE analogy for Brazilians when hearing the word Germany – just like the Amazon for Brazil. The surprise was even bigger when I mentioned that I had been to the Brazilian Oktoberfest in Blumenau, the south of Brazil, though never to the original one in Munich. Well, I guess there is still room for me to become more German.

Another commonly held perceptions by Brazilians is around efficiency and quality of work produced. Many times, I have heard a comment somewhat like “but in your country things are working well and efficient”. This idea of German efficiency and disciplined work goes well back into Prussian times. Over the decades, Germany has made itself a reputation of a highly industrialized and efficient economy where there is a rule and process for everything. In some areas of life this might still hold true, however I also do have a number of examples that prove that processes and rules are not always efficient. Just think about public processes where it is almost impossible to request or fill out forms online, or the lack of digitalization that we have seen now with regard to Covid case reporting. If I compare that to how many things I managed to take care of via online services or even Whatsapp in Brazil, I come to the conclusion that this might be an outdated idea.

Debunking Singapore Myths

As for the misconceptions about Singapore that I mentioned in the beginning. Here are the truths.

It’s not illegal to chew gum in Singapore.  You’re allowed to bring in your own personal supply.  It is illegal to import and sell gum.  But if you must blow your own bubble, you can get a prescription for it. 

Singapore is not China. Singapore is an island sovereign independent city-state. Similar to Monaco and the Vatican City.

How am I going to learn the language?  Well, fortunate for me, English is one of the four official languages in Singapore. The other three are Mandarin, Malay and Tamil.

When it comes to confirming assumptions about a country. Ask an Expat.

Outdoor enthusiast thriving in the expatriate traveling lifestyle. Looking to connect with your sense of adventure.

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