Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Expat Mantra

article from July 24, 2012
by Julie R Butler

This is a point that escapes some people when they move abroad. Yes, they take note of the obvious differences, such as language, food, music, how people look and how they dress, which side of the road they drive on, and when the dinner hour is. But beyond customs, it just doesn’t occur to many people that there are other kinds of differences, such as ethical principles, legal systems, rights, and laws that can catch the unaware off guard.

There have been several occasions when I have come to the sad conclusion that people think that rather than being in a foreign country, they have merely entered a larger version of Epcot Center in Disneyland, and the “employees” are there to serve their every wish and desire, which is to have good old “American” style french fries with regular old catsup or to have A-1 Steak Sauce with their beef rather than chimichurri. (Asking for “salsa ah-uno” will probably not elicit the desired result.) Maybe they will get used to the exquisite flavor of plain and unadulterated all-natural grass-fed beef, and even find it pleasing, after a while.

Then there is the surprise when, faced with a sea of bureaucracy, with a legal advisor who is unable to expedite anything and, in fact, seems to only be shuffling papers, stalling, and piling on unforeseen fees, they discover that there is absolutely nothing that waiving their passport around and exclaiming (in English, of course) “I am an American citizen!” or even complaining to the nearest US consulate or embassy about having been ripped off or getting the run-around can do for them.

That is precisely what it means to be in a foreign country.


There are scammers and con artists everywhere in the world, so it would not be fair to characterize any one culture as having more when, from the point of view of a newly arrived foreigner who does not speak the local language and is entirely unfamiliar with the country’s system of law as well as the specifics of the law in that particular place, it may seem like everyone is out to take advantage of you. Scammers have honed the skill of finding the most vulnerable people to scam. It’s their job.

It is therefore the job of the newly arrived foreigner to do their due diligence and learn all they can about the laws, along with figuring out whom to deal with, before engaging in any legal or serious financial transactions. Get to know people in the community, and then get references for the necessary lawyers, real estate agents, translators, builders, etc. – but not from the same organization that is looking to make a bundle of money off you in, say, a property sale. Ask a variety of other people who have gone through the same process that you are about to go through.

Latin American culture values time well-spent over expedience; arrangements for the future are often not considered to be very binding; and time frames can be even wider than when your cable company promises their guy will show up sometime on a certain date – we are talking weeks, here. In many places, it is a cultural habit to commit to things that one has no intention of actually committing to as a strange twist on what is considered to be politeness, as it seems to be more polite to say “yes” without meaning it than to be honest and just say “no.” It may even be the case that the society you are in is somewhat insular, and taking advantage of outsiders is not a reflection on how ethical someone is considered to be within that society.

These are all issues that take time and experience to learn about, so patience should reign for any new expat in any foreign culture. Do not allow yourself to be impatient, and if impulsiveness is your modus operandi, then try not to commit more money than you can afford to let go of, in case your judgment turns out to have been off base because you didn’t quite grasp the subtleties of a situation or were too trusting of someone you didn’t know that much about.

Legal systems

It may also be that the legal system is so convoluted and arbitrarily enforced that even the most competent attorney will not know exactly what to expect in each case.

Civil law systems are often characterized as such. People from the US and the UK are used to common law, so it is difficult to comprehend a system that emphasizes procedures over substance. For example, going through the various steps required to register a piece of property takes precedence over the deed to the property. You may be the owner of the title to a parcel, but unless that title is properly registered, you may not be the owner of the land that the title is attached to.

This system is vexing to anyone who believes they should be able to look at a list of required documents on a website and take care of the process themselves because the emphasis on procedures means that each official will interpret those procedures somewhat differently, and there is no way to know what each one will decide to emphasize.

Add to the confusion that the rules and regulations might change frequently. In this case, if you are undertaking a particularly complicated maneuver, by the time you have managed to complete all the necessary steps, the rules have changed, so you have to get a whole new set of signed and notarized documents and pay the new, higher fees that have been put in place, even though you began the process under an entirely different set of rules, regulations, and fees. Argh!

The expat mantra

These are just a few of the ways that things can be different in a foreign country. Just keep repeating the expat mantra: Patience and Due Diligence, Patience and Due Diligence, Patience and Due Diligence... Sprinkled generously with Oms, and who knows, maybe wearing special shoes and clicking your heels together three times might also help. Just don’t expect a wizard (or an ambassador) to show up with a bag full of solutions. And forget about transmogrifying yourself back to the farm in Kansas. Instead, think blissful thoughts of eventually getting your residency.

You are in a foreign country. Things are different here.

Julie R Butler is a writer, journalist, editor, and author of several books, including Nine Months in Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). She is a contributor to Speakout at Truthout.org, and her current blog is Connectively Speaking.
email: julierbutler [at] yahoo [dot] com, Twitter: @JulieRButler