Expat syndrome

Sometimes I feel guilty about blogging. Not because I think it will make me go blind, but because I know it annoys people. Why do we fritter away our free time banging on about ‘Poland the way we see it‘? Who does it benefit?

From across the nation I hear an echoing cry of “Nobody! Stop doing it you annoying five o’clocker!” I can’t. It’s a hideous symptom of expat syndrome, for which there is no known cure.

This post is an attempt to provide an insight into the motivations of a blogger-about-Poland.

The other day, as I was checking the blog stats for the nine millionth time like some doomed compulsive disorder sufferer, I noticed we were receiving a lot of traffic from the fine people at skyscrapercity.com. Over I clicked to discover that some kind soul had posted a link to one of our ramblings on their forum pages. My general approval was deflated somewhat when I scrolled down to discover this comment:

to calkiem fajny blog, ale juz mnie powoli wkurza ten zarozumialy angol…

That’s a pretty cool blog, but I’m starting to get really pissed of with that arrogant Brit…

Rook Dio

You know what, he’s got a point…

Let’s leave aside the fact that there’s more than one Brit here and the fact that ‘angol’ doesn’t have a direct English translation, for obvious reasons.

It is an act of remarkable arrogance to make judgments about an entire culture, especially one that isn’t even your own (I’m casting aspersions on myself here, not any other Polandians, I add hastily). So why do I do it? The fame, the girls, the fast cars and the copious gin and tonic? I think not. Why must there be another post about rudeness in shops, bureaucratic nightmares, or Polish drivers? Am I trying to bring about a cultural revolution in which Poles will be transformed into perfect beings? Am I just pointing and laughing? Absolutely not. The reason is—pay attention this is the important bit—because I’m compelled to try and understand the society in which I find myself.

Try this thought experiment:

1. Picture in your mind somebody you know really well (wife, husband, brother, manicurist, whatever).

2. Ask that person a question about something that happened to you today, something that you haven’t actually asked them in real life.

3. Observe as your brain runs its powerful personality simulating software and provides you with an animated model of that person replying to your question, complete with mannerisms and vocal inflections.

The human brain, at least in one of its guises, is essentially a powerful person simulator. It can accurately predict how a person you know is going to behave in a given situation. This is the main reason why alien invaders in movies never get away with taking on the hero’s bodily form, his girlfriend always notices. Why? Because her predictive software doesn’t corresponding with reality. We’re so confident in the power of this ability that when somebody suddenly starts behaving in a way that is contrary to our internal predictions we assume they’ve gone mad, or been possessed by psychic being from the Crab Nebula, we don’t assume our software has gone buggy.

Why am I banging on about brain software and Crab Nebuleans? Because the brain software that works for accurately predicting the behavior of people you know also works pretty well for predicting the behavior of people who share the same culture as you. In fact, that’s a pretty good definition of what culture is—the shared and mutually predictable preferences, beliefs, and knowledge of an extended social group.

Moving to a foreign country it’s a bit like adjusting an IBM supercomputer with a sledgehammer, the old brain box just doesn’t provide good info anymore. You’d be amazed at how much of Polish culture is just that little bit different. Not much, but enough to start smoke coming out of your ears. The people around you don’t behave in the way you expect them to. Even when you get used to the way they behave you still can’t figure out why they behave that way.

This is damn hard stuff to articulate, so please bear with me.

Let’s move from the general to the specific. There are two issues that come into play here:

1. Superficially Poland looks like the cultural environment I’m used to. The people are predominantly white and European, they wear the same kind of clothes as me, they have the same kind of hairstyles, they eat the same kind of food, they live in the same kind of buildings—Dr Brain feels pretty confident that he knows what he’s dealing with. If I were surrounded by eight-foot-tall semi-naked Somalis living in huts made from mud bricks and supping fermented goats’ milk Dr Brain would shut the hell up and wait to see what happens. The British expat in Poland is lulled into a false sense of security by the general familiarity of the environment.

2. Once the expat in Poland realizes that he’s going to have to rethink his initial cultural confidence he moves into a childlike phase of exploration. Polish culture is immensely complex and multi-faceted, in fact it’s exactly as complex and multi-faceted as every other culture in the world—people made it, how could it be otherwise. The foreigner may be aware of this fact, but there is no way that he can ‘see’ all this complexity at once. All one can see to start with is the broadest of broad outlines, and he can’t help but use his existing understanding of culture to interpret it.

That’s my, long-winded, excuse and I’m sticking to it.


Consider this statement:

I’m completely freaked out by the way people walk all over the place and get in your way all the time!

Just another cliched comment about the Polish? Actually no, a comment on an American website about living in England. I was appalled! As far as I’m concerned pedestrian etiquette in the UK is second to none, it’s the Poles who constantly get in your way and have no consideration. You see where I’m going with this. To a foreigner everything is wrong, even in god’s own country.

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23 thoughts on “Expat syndrome

  1. michael farris says:

    ” ‘angol’ doesn’t have a direct English translation”

    Maybe English people don’t have an equivalent other folks do. Limey and pom(my) come to mind most quickly.

  2. scatts says:

    If he’s only “starting to get really pissed off”, we’re obviously not trying hard enough. :)

    Seriously though, I have things to say on this topic but will do a follow-up post as opposed to a long comment in here. I think it is worth commenting out in the open, so to speak.

  3. darthsida says:

    Looks like some “buttering up” (though subtly covert) and no room for “rant”?

    Strange you spoke to Dr Brain only. I’d expect the clash with a same-but-not civilisation to be observed by Dr ANS, Dr Compari Sons, Dr Gete Motional, not to mention Dr Housenost Algic, Dr Imiss Bath, Dr Bi Ases and Dr Oldha Bits.

    PS You’re wrong with the SciFi “girlfriend always knows” thing.
    PS O/T Bloomsday today, and I hate kidneys.

  4. guest says:

    Rook Dio made his comment directly after the football game. I think it was quite harmless. Compare it to Donald Tusk. Donald wanted to KILL YOU Island :D

  5. scatts says:

    Yes. Bastard! I’ve already written to 10 Ujazdowskie Street asking for an explanation.

  6. Hey Island1, why do you keep referring to England as God’s own country? Everyone knows that title is the exclusive trademark of the United States. A Stealth DemocracyMaker will be bombing you into compliance if and when oil is discovered in your vicinity.

    Seriously though, I think anyone that moves a great distance …especially if it’s to a new country and doubly-so if the move isn’t necessarily for economic reasons… well, they are bound to make comparisons.

    I don’t think it’s wrong and I don’t think you (or anyone else) should stop doing that sort of thing. Someone once asked me, after I was bitching about a bunch of stuff, how come I didn’t move back (to the States) and I told them, “because this is my home now and I love it.”

    It’s my belief that the greatest patriots are those that can take a critical look at their surroundings and speak about it in a clear, concise manner. They are not mindless nationalists, rather they love where they live so much that it hurts them to see their neighbors and fellow citizens acting with disregard or malice towards their country and home. Patriots may fight in wars for their country (of birth or by adoption) but most of the time they are waging a different kind of war: wars against inequities, injustices and other wrongs of the world.

    I believe that many immigrants are some of the greatest patriots. They weren’t born where they live and thus don’t feel that momentum to simply stay where they were placed. They choose to live where they are and if they say they are staying – and do – they must have a love of love for that place. It doesn’t mean their voice needs to be louder or forcibly listened-to but it sound be taken into consideration by those who care.

    There is a long history of immigrants fighting not just in wars but speaking out against those inequities and injustices that spark wars. Poland’s own Tadeusz Kościuszko is a perfect example of the kind of immigrant that simply does what is right. We could only hope that the sort of people immigrating to Poland today and commenting on life here have the same kind of courage and determination to see the kind of changes that they believe should happen.

  7. Pawel says:

    (just a tiny off-top, Brad commented about the god’s own country, I thought you meant either Vatican, Israel or Saudi Arabia eheh)

  8. island1 says:

    My oh-so-subtle point being, of course, that all nationalities regard their own country as god’s own.

  9. Pawel says:

    …….reminds me British reactions to Aleksandra Lojek-Magdziarz’s comments in the Guardian :D


  10. Anna says:

    Oh please Pawel! That woman is a cow! I’m not a pom but for once I agree with them. Mercifully, she hasn’t been blogging lately…

  11. guest says:

    look at that


  12. island1 says:

    I was going to mention Aleksandra Lojek-Magdziarz and compare the repulsive roasting she got from The Great British Public to the criticism we’ve received, but frankly we haven’t had any to speak of.

    Anna: I know a lot of people seem to dislike her, but I don’t get it. Nothing I’ve read has caused me the slightest discomfort.

  13. island1 says:

    guest: *rolls eyes* football is a wonderful thing

  14. anglopole says:

    Cool post, Island! I really and trully can appreciate where you are coming from!
    “Moving to a foreign country it’s a bit like adjusting an IBM supercomputer with a sledgehammer, the old brain box just doesn’t provide good info anymore” – that pretty much sums it up, for me too! :)

    I did live in Nigeria where I had a super cultural shock, but then my brain at least had this excuse that it is, after all, a different continent with totally different ethnic groups and customs, etc. Moving to the UK, in theory shouldn’t have overloaded my brain that much especially after eyars of coming here for holidays… Yet, I feel exactly the same as you do….. Hence the idea of doing a similar blog, only about god’s own country;)

  15. Pawel says:

    island1, we didn’t get THAT MUCH criticism, because we don’t have such readership;)

    whenever you have some opinions about something there will be people who strongly disagree…

    I remember the discussion about Aleksandras idea that English people simplify their language… and the lashing she got for it:) Poor soul.

    I quite like her actually, because she’s being honest, and says what she thinks. She was finding her own way to understand the culture of her new home…

    I too sometimes shriek at things immigrants write about Poland;) But that’s the beauty of it, that everyone has a different point of view and is coming from a different place…

    I often find that immigrants like Scatts or you island1 have more understanding for Poland and treat her with more friendliness and patience then people who were born here:) But you also criticise and it’s always interesting to see things with other people’s eyes…

  16. […] expat – stupid word, integration, living in a foreign country Following on from Jamie’s “Expat syndrome”, two posts down, I wanted to give my own point of […]

  17. Jacek Wesołowski says:

    “Angol” means just “Englishman”. It’s not a casual term. It has a derogatory meaning. Polish has two common ways of calling many nations – one is an actual name, and the other is an insult. “Angol” = “Anglik” = “English”, “szwab” = “Niemiec” = “German”, “pepik” = “Czech”, “chinol” = “Chińczyk” = “Chinese”, “rusek” = “Rosjanin” = “Russian”, and so on. That’s generally part of the darker side of Polish culture, althouth there is a derogatory term for Poles, too. It works in a different way, though. Usually, when a Pole uses the word “polaczek”, it means “a Pole I despise”, so the nation at large is divided into “Polacy”, the proper Poles, and “polaczki”, or the ones whose ways are not acceptable. By contrast, if someone says “angole”, they usually mean all the English without exception.

    This duality of vocabulary is quite common in Polish, and I often rely on it when I need to make a quick estimate of whether or not I should take a given person seriously. Their words betray them, so to speak.

  18. mochafueled says:

    ahh what a pleasure to sign on… using dial up.. from this little piece of Africa and read of P-land. If you ever get board come live where power is something they do when they feel like it… water when they feel like it and so on. The door to the hut is open. And I use the word expat all the time…


  19. Sylwia says:

    It’s a very interesting post and reminds me why I don’t emigrate. I feel homesick after a month no matter where I go. It must be tough to live in another culture. It’s so true that it’s easier to get used to people’s behaviour rather than recognize its motifs. I find your posts interesting because they allow me to understand ourselves better. No one is able to see themselves from the outside, one needs an outsider for that, or a clash with another culture.

  20. island1

    “I was going to mention Aleksandra Lojek-Magdziarz and compare the repulsive roasting she got from The Great British Public to the criticism we’ve received, but frankly we haven’t had any to speak of.

    Anna: I know a lot of people seem to dislike her, but I don’t get it. Nothing I’ve read has caused me the slightest discomfort.”

    Why was the roasting repulsive rather than well-deserved?

  21. I’ve read many reasoned denunciations of pani Ola on the web. This is one of the better ones, (there are many more):

    Lektor, Szkola ABC

    Well it seems like we might have to wait a while for the happy announcement that Warren and Pani Ola are to be united in matrimonial bliss.

    My own exposure to the great Pani Ola Controversy came as a result of reading a post on another forum from a guy who constantly bashes the Brits, where he name dropped her as a character witness for his argument about the Brits being pathologically dumb, etc, etc

    I couldn’t resist this provocation so I wrote a reply, which I’ll include here:
    I’ve read some of her earlier articles, and she seems to be nurturing some kind of persecution complex about being Polish in the sceptred isle, as well as betraying an element of wounded self-hatred that comes across as juvenile and neurotic (like the tone of her articles), as if she wanted to flagellate herself in public for some reason.

    In her article ‘Eastern Promises’ ( commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/aleksandra_lojekma… she cites a perception that Polish girls are seen as having yellow teeth, which is bizarre. If there is a perception about Polish girls amongst the UK natives, it certainly isn’t as yellow-toothed mingers but rather the opposite. Her research for this assertion appears to have consisted of picking up one of those free newspapers on the tube.

    She then goes on to say the following:
    “Or there is the other reaction: yes, they are nice and hard-working, but we will not invite them to tea because their job is dirty. But we can patronise them from time to time and be grateful that the economy has been boosted. And deconstruct them in the media as if they were just cute creatures able to work like robots, take benefits, and get drunk. *** There is no deeper approach in the public realm..” ***(my emphasis)

    So that’s it then. Apparently the only approach taken is what she’s told us above and no other commentary about the Polish in Britain, in any part of the media, goes beyond this. Note the juvenile and neurotic tone. Mommy must have sent her up to bed early for being naughty.

    ‘Instrumentalisation’ – the word she uses as an example of her superior vocab, is not a word in common currency, at least outside the realms of sociology departments. It is not present in either the Chambers dictionary or the Cambridge (Advanced) dictionary, or in the OED Concise. Try typing it in a Word document and see what your spell checker does (try the -zation version also, in case you have US English). Someone might perhaps mistakenly use it in a music review when what they actually mean is instrumentation.
    Perhaps with her instrumentalizacja she has actually made the same mistake as some of my students, who often say localisation when they mean location (lokalizacja). Maybe she picked it up from French, where it appears to be more popular.

    She also has the quote (from the earlier article): Some urbanites ask: “Well, golly, you’re a university professor. Are you sure you want to clean my house?”

    This sounds like something she just plucked out of thin air. The sentence is deliberately ambiguous – perhaps *she* is the person that was asked this question, as many readers will assume, but a glimpse at her profile gives us nothing to indicate she is a professor of anything. Perhaps one of her friends is the professor who went to the clean the house? In which case, might I suggest that her friend writes the next article?

    And that’s my last word on Pani Ola.
    As the Arabs say – though the dog barks the caravan will pass.

  22. Sylwia says:

    Warren: ‘Instrumentalisation’ – the word she uses as an example of her superior vocab, is not a word in common currency, at least outside the realms of sociology departments.

    I think it likely that the Polish word ‘instrumentalizacja’ is a part of the communist newspeak. Not surprising then that you don’t use it. We wouldn’t either if not for our history and many films making fun of some typical phrases back then.

  23. […] on from Jamie’s “Expat syndrome”, two posts down, I wanted to give my own point of […]

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