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Expats must constantly accommodate to live in Canada

I have seen a number of expats in my practice as a psychologist. Expats (or expatriates) are people that have left their own country of origin to live and work in a foreign country. In my practice, my expat clients have left their country of origin to come to Canada.<< Details in the stories that follow have been changed to protect privacy >>

Expats come to my office for a number of reasons. They have often moved to pursue a work opportunity. Sometimes they are the spouse of the person that was offered the job. Sometimes they are students attending graduate school. Whatever brought them here, they have travelled from countries that include the United States, Japan, Sweden, Pakistan, England, Mexico, the Philippines, Spain, and Barbados.

A theme that is common to my expat clients is that they are tired. Some arrived in Canada 1.5 years ago and some 20 years ago. Regardless of how long they have been here, their adjustment to life in Canada has been hard and many believe they are not succeeding.

One of the first conversations I have with an expat will focus on what they miss about their home country. Sometimes it’s the food. Sometimes it’s the opportunity to speak their own language. Sometimes it’s that the culture here is different and they are penalized for behaviour that would have been rewarded at home. For example, maybe they are seen as too meek here, or too abrupt.

We discuss cultural differences between their homeland and Canada. As we talk about these differences, my clients tell me they never have conversations like this with Canadians. They say they can’t complain to a Canadian about Canada because Canadians are not receptive to being told what is wrong with their country. I say that my experience was quite similar when I lived abroad.

My clients tell me they are surprised they can talk freely with me. To illustrate that I understand this to be the case, I will tell them about some of my own experiences because they can relate to many of them.

I will share a list of small things that I struggled with when I lived in the United States. I lived in New York for 18 months to work, and later in Phoenix for 6 years to attend university and complete my psychology residency.

 I might tell them about how excited I was, the first time I crossed back into Canada from New York and held a Canadian quarter in my hand. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how many accommodations I had been making. Holding a Canadian quarter made me realize how much I had missed handling my own currency. It was a small thing, but the relief at holding something so familiar that had been gone made me cry.

 I might share that I was excited to hear Canadian radio announcers, that first time I crossed back in Canada, because I recognized their voices. I will tell them I realized I had missed being able to eat my favourite breakfast cereal on this trip. How nice I was to be able to write “favourite,” using the letter “u,” rather than having to drop the “u” and write “favorite,” using the American spelling.

 I might tell them how much I missed being able to say the letter “zed” using the Canadian pronunciation, rather than using the American “zee.” I will say I missed having people know what I was referring to when I said the word “chesterfield” rather than the American “couch,” or used expression such as “twigged to that” or “cottoned on” because they weren’t understood in the States.

 I might share that it frustrated me not to be able to vote. I had opinions but could not act on them at the polling station.

 I might tell my clients how important it was to talk to my friend George, who was also a Canadian expat, living in the US. I needed George during this period because he understood what I was going through in a way that my friends back home could not.

In return, my clients will share stories about their own experiences. Things like how you do not say please or thank you because in their home country, if they were to do so, it would imply that the relationship they have with the person is not intimate. They might say they cannot bring themselves to follow Canadian customs because they cannot make themselves act rudely according to their home customs. And they might talk about what the ramifications are when they refuse to accommodate.

As we discuss cultural differences like this, we talk about how exhausting it is to have to accommodate all the time. They frequently agree with me that there are thousands of ways they have to accommodate.

I frequently suggest that they refuse to accommodate on a couple of key points that are really important to them. I tell them that the two places I chose to not accommodate while living abroad were how I chose to pronounce the letter “zed” and “zed,” and how I refused to give up the word “chesterfield” when referring to a couch.

I might say that I understand why many people from Britain continue use the word “boot” when they refer to the trunk of a car. As we talk, I encourage my clients to reclaim as much of their own behaviours and thought processes as they need to feel whole. I suggest that their feelings of not succeeding, and of failing, may have more to do with cultural differences than with their actual performance. We might discuss how successful they actually are, to be living and working in a strange land.

If you are an expat, I encourage you to think through what important places you would like to stop making accommodations. I anticipate they will be small, like my own continued pronunciation of the letter “zed” as “zed.”

If you work with an expat, or have an expat that you care about in your life, I encourage you to be tolerant when the expat expresses an opinion that on the face of it might be offensive to Canadians. The fact is, their opinion is possibly an opinion that would not be offensive in their home country.

Dr Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta

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