The art of complaining without wrecking our expat experience

Arabic woman and a gringa

The following is a guest post by Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo, a Cuenca native who moved to the United Arab Emirates, and wanted to share her experiences with the Ecuador expat communities…in case you think just us gringos are prone to culture shock. Questions for Yolanda? Post them in comments!

Arabic woman and a gringa

Arabic woman and a gringa

I had only spent 3 months in the United Arab Emirates as a new expat, when I realized the social gatherings that would bring together a rich mixture of nationalities, were turning into conference sessions designed to complain about all the things foreigners dislike about the Emirati culture. Complaining, of course, is just part of human nature and criticism is particularly healthy when it is canalized through the right person, the one who can actually do something to improve a situation, change a procedure, enhance a service, etc.

However, positive contributions are not often the reality. In the UAE, it is not rare to hear foreigners complain about aspects of the local culture, which is almost as outrageous as complaining because oranges are orange and not pink.  I have heard expat women exteriorize how much they despise just the sight of the local women, who cover in black and often not just their hair, but also their entire face as per Islamic principles.  I’ve talked to expats who complain because there are too many mosques around and they find the call to prayer sounds rather annoying. Those who complain about the weather –with temperatures reaching 130 degrees in the summer time- are amongst the most frustrated and bitter.

In regards to bureaucracy, foreigners often complain about the long lines at the post office, the inefficiency of employees or the costs when getting an ID card, a medical test for a visa, etc.

Another common complaint is about the difficulty at communicating because lack of clarity when trying to deal with a customer service employee whose accent in English is “way too strong to grasp”, something that happens every day here as the Indian population, known by their difficult accent is the most numerous. As for the locals, I have had my own frustration and have tried to remember that it is already good enough that Emiratis are actually trying to speak English to favor foreigners, when perhaps we should be making the effort to communicate in Arabic instead.

Many professors who have experienced expat life at least twice during their career, have told me that being around other expats becomes negative, because they’ve seen the pattern repeat itself regardless of the culture they are experiencing: complaining is the new sport.  All in all, the reason may have to do with the fact we have left our zone of comfort: “home.” While home is not free of frustration (after all, there is a reason why we ended up being “expats”) I think it is always easier to take the bad when it is familiar, (when they’re your bads) rather than those that are foreign to us.

Over the years, I have seen how lots of those expats left because they could not stand one more day living in a place that only gave them reasons to complain. Then, a year or two later, I saw lots of those same expats come back to the UAE and so glad they were back. I heard them say they missed the UAE life, realizing that going back to their own countries was more of a culture shock than being in the UAE. While they were home, the UAE glowed in their hearts with good memories of the job they had here, or the interesting friends they got to make, plus the charm of seeing the diversity of cultures, the interesting local dress, the warm, sunny days, and the mystic beauty of the call to prayer.

Call this a failure in the art of complaining. My father used to prompt me to change the topic whenever he saw me go on and on about some aspect that frustrated me. And now that he is gone, I marvel at the fact that he was teaching me to be productive with myself. Complaining does not take us anywhere when we do it repeatedly over facts we cannot change. Venting with other expats is healthy as it helps us connect through shared challenges, but making it a continuous way of spending the evening with others just creates a huge bubble of anger over things that are out of our control.

I knew lots of Hispanics in the USA who would complain about the fact they felt “left out” because they hadn’t learnt to speak English. I heard others complain non-stop about how they could not find certain local products they had at home within reach, and the list goes on.

When it comes to expats in my hometown, Cuenca, I do not know for a fact that this is the case, but I figured this article would be interesting as a perspective about how other expats around the world wreck their opportunity to experience a different culture.

I can’t say I haven’t fallen in this vicious circle at times, but after twelve years living abroad, I exercise the healthy habit of not complaining excessively. I deliberately avoid those who only complain and have nothing positive to say about their expat experience. Very often, I try to remind myself I chose to be an expat here, and then I remember how fortunate I am for this opportunity. I know many others who wish they could be in my shoes.

The healthy dosage of complaint is certainly up to each of us, expats or not. Some expats out there, in Cuenca and elsewhere, will find that complaining is sabotaging the wonderful opportunity of experiencing another country, with all its flaws and its good surprises, just as we would back home.

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4 Responses to "The art of complaining without wrecking our expat experience"
  1. Paul Acee says:

    Very insightful article, Yolanda. Gracias!

  2. JR says:

    Right on the point with my own experiences in Ecuador, Yolanda.

    After 8 months, ” I deliberately avoid those who only complain and have nothing positive to say about their expat experience.” I sometimes find myself missing all the ‘good’ of life before Ecuador and then remind myself of all the wonder, joy, and new friends of this experience. I wouldn’t want to miss either.

    I hope you continue enjoying your experience in UAE, as I continue to enjoy my time in your – now our – home.

  3. Frances Hogg Lochow says:

    A very insightful article. Thank you for writing it!

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