Gringoes is a website which provides a space for foreigners to comment on life in Brazil. Whilst many go there with honest intentions – certainly more so on the Facebook page – I think it’s fair to say that the site has developed somewhat of a reputation for providing foreigners with a forum in which to projectile-vomit expat bile.
Hyperbole perhaps? Maybe, although I suggest you view a forum posting from February in which someone catalogued 66 reasons why they hate living in Brazil. Fair enough, it was posted in the section called ‘Vent your frustrations’. However, its ferocity (and banality) prompted many impassioned responses (both for and against) and the thread currently stands at a length of 44 pages.
Mark Hillary, a British writer and blogger based in Brazil, responded by writing an article for the Huffington Post (and a few months later self-published a book with the same theme), in which he provided a more-balanced account of what it’s like to be a foreigner in Brazil. In it he also pondered why expats, particularly those who espouse a ‘hatred bordering on obsession’, continue to put themselves through the apparent misery of living abroad.
Interestingly though, I’ve subsequently observed from afar somewhat of an existential crisis develop amongst ‘expat’ bloggers and forum commentators (including some Brazilians) – with there being much heated debate as to how or if it is appropriate for foreigners to criticise Brazil.
Well, is it?
Firstly, it should be said that part of the problem is online anonyimity. The comments section of most online articles are commonly filled with filth – views which I have no doubt most of those making them would not dare say to someone face-to-face in public. Likewise, on a forum like Gringoes you find people saying what the hell they want – with the most vitriolic often gaining the most attention.
Secondly, expat criticism undoubtedly stems from the fact that people who live outside their countries of origin inevitably make observations and comparisons with life back home. This is quite normal – and it’s certainly not a uniquely ‘expat’ phenomenon.
Between 2005 and 2012 I worked as a social worker with refugees and migrants, and I was intrigued to listen to what they thought about the UK. For example, I remember one young person, experiencing his first ‘summer’ in the UK, being seemingly bemused as to why on one mildly hot day (it was about 25c I think) in London so many people were stripping off and heading to the park to sunbathe. He soon realised why, as that day was followed by five successive days of rain. “Welcome to the UK,” I joked.
With expats though, the main problem seems to be the term ‘expat’ itself.
I’ve written disdainfully of this previously, positing that ‘expat’ is a self-categorisation by which rich, predominantly white ‘westerners’ subtly insinuate their privilege through differentiating themselves from less saccahrine categories of foreigner, such as as immigrant or migrant.
However, the problem is that foreigners who self-define as ‘expats’ not only distance themselves from other types of migrant, they also do so from the local population as well. One negative side-effect of this is that ‘expats’, through self-defining themselves (‘expats’ must be the only type of immigrant who gets to do this) and privileging their own status, can become viciously self-righteous about the countries they live in and the people who live there.
And don’t get me wrong, I am more than willing to admit having partaken in this myself.
For example, I started this blog partly upon the suggestion of my Brazilian wife and sister-in-law, both of whom were amused by some of the observations I made when I first moved to São Paulo in early 2012. Inevitably, given that I am British, my first post was about the weather, and it was all very innocent and self-deprecating – and the comments seemed to appreciate this.
However, I then discovered that writing a blog about being a foreigner wasn’t as original an idea as I thought it to be. Slowly I started to find and receive invites from websites that solely exist to provide directories of ‘quirky’ expat blogs, and I even did a couple of interviews for them.
I’d fallen straight into the the expat honeytrap, although it wasn’t something I realised myself until I wrote a post about São Paulo’s buses. The responses were mixed. The Brazilians who read it seemed to appreciate its sentiment and tongue-in-cheek humour. However, it received a fair bit of negativity and all of it came from other ‘expats’ (check the comments). My error, I think, was that in my eagerness to attract hits I’d posted links to various forums (a blogging no-no). Ironically though, most of the negativity seemed to come from the link I’d posted on….Gringoes.com.
It’s ironic because commenters on a site in which many go out of their way to post the most outrageous things about Brazil now fell over themselves to criticise my post. It almost felt as though you had to be of a certain ‘expat’ authority to be permitted to make any qualified criticism of Brazil – and clearly I was just a novice who was way out of line.
Nevertheless, I will acknowledge that during that period, whilst I had written those posts ‘tongue-in-cheek’, it was an early up-and-down phase in which I was still adjusting to being away from the UK. My posts perhaps reflected this, with the undercurrent being one of me being just another expat moaning about stuff – the subtext being that “everything back home is much better.”
In reality, my posts were as much about my struggle to adjust to Brazil as they were about Brazil itself. More importantly, I realised that making a habit of critically comparing ‘home’ with ‘home home’ really isn’t good for your mental health. It ends up making you bitter and unhappy, and it’s also the quickest way to make you feel even more homesick.
Even worse, it can easily become a self-righteous rant whereby you start asserting some supposed cultural superiority—a nasty throwback to the attitudes of our colonialist ancestors that did no-one any good back then and will do no-one any good now.
The problem then, I think, is neither criticising or comparing, it’s where those criticisms or comparisons come from. The next time you do either, ask yourself why you are doing so in the first-place.
I shall very shortly be reminding myself of all of the above. The reason? Drum roll…..In January I shall be moving to Peru – as you do – and I’ll be starting the whole living abroad venture all over again.