I try to remember how to act American, I really do. But so much of behavior runs on a subconscious autopilot setting, and mine stays set to “China mode” even after landing in the States. Yours, too? It takes a while to flip all those switches. Plus there are ways expats of any stripe behave that make them seem like odd ducks in their passport countries. We can end up unintentionally annoying, confusing, snubbing, and offending Americans in the U.S.
1. Looking at the Sidewalk While Walking
This habit is a result of 1) the fact that it’s weird to be smiling at people you don’t know in China and 2) if you want to make sure you don’t trip and break your neck in China, you’ve got to watch the sidewalk for loose tiles, mop buckets, live chickens, the usual. Keeping your eyes down as you walk might be self-preservation in China, but it comes across as being rude or suspicious in America, where you are expected to make eye contact, smile/nod, and give a cheery greeting as you pass anyone. Yes, even strangers.
2. Unfiltered Opinions about ‘Murica
Lots has changed about the U.S. since the last time you were here. Some of it is such a dramatic change that you can’t help but exclaim outloud about it. It’s hard to remember that everyone around you has lived through the change in a much more gradual frog-in-the-kettle manner, so they’re used to it, and they don’t necessarily appreciate your condescending judgments about this fine country, thank you kindly. It’s also hard to remember that, unlike in China where your spoken opinion is still private, everyone can understand your commentary here. Dang it.
3. Having an “Exotic” Life
Friend: “Your bag is awesome!”
You: “Thanks, I got it in Cambodia.”
Friend: * simultaneously amazed by the fact that you’ve been to Cambodia and jealous-hating you for having been there *
You: * oblivious…because to you, it practically sounds like saying you bought the bag on a trip to Nebraska *
It’s good for me to pause before mentioning knowledge or life experience that makes me sound travelier-than-thou. Places like Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Seoul might be standard flight change cities for expats in China, but they remain exotic destinations for most people in the U.S.
4. Being a Food Snob
The bananas here just don’t compare to what you can get in the Philippines? You had pho, boba, kim bap, all the foods, years before they were cool in the States? The Thai food at this highly-rated place isn’t authentic enough for you? Panda Express cream cheese rangoons are not real Chinese food?!? (100 points if you even know where Rangoon is; 200 bonus points if you know the name it goes by now.) As with keeping one’s mouth shut about places one has been to, it’s sometimes better to keep one’s opinions about “foreign” food to one’s self.
5. Not Being in the Right Political Box
I’m not sure I even want to get into this, except to say that expats coming back to the U.S. at this time in history are…hmmm… Go ahead and finish that thought at your own peril.
6. Fierce Queuing
China expats line up like we mean it. Proper queuing means you are basically spooning the person in front of you. In the U.S., that’s only considered a good way to get arrested.
Another issue is how we expats even get into the line. You know those situations where people are approaching the end of the line from different angles? (Think boarding gate or Disneyland ride.) Americans turn their heads to see if there are others coming, and generally try to offer to let those people get in line first. If you’ve been in China long enough, that courtesy has been beaten out of you. You show that kind of weakness and you can kiss your chances of ever getting your produce weighed good-bye. You know to keep your eyes on the prize – ignore anyone in your peripheral vision and just GET THERE FIRST. I’ve done that subconsciously a few times in the States. I dash off with giant strides and feel a swell of victory that I WON my place in line, then have my face go red as I realize which country I’m in and that everyone else is glaring at me like I’m a rude swine. (But a fast rude swine.) Way to culture up, girl.
7. Severely Pruned Hedges
When interacting with non-native English speakers, as many of us are used to doing, it pays to cut out all the linguistic hedges that serve to make our requests gentler. “Were you still thinking of touching base with him in the next day or two?” will not be as readily understood as the more direct “Will you contact him?” Expats adapt their English to prune those hedges down to bare stubs. Our English becomes succinct for clarity’s sake. The problem is, once you’re back in America, if you forget to reinsert the shrubbery, you can end up sounding plain ol’ rude.
8. Asking Prices
We all remember that it’s rude to ask Americans about their salaries. But we start to forget what other things are taboo. Is it okay to ask how much someone paid for plane tickets? Their new SUV? A pound of peaches? America is confusing.
9. Giving Everyone the Middle Finger (Literally but Not Figuratively)
Okay, am I alone in this? Somehow I have managed to adopt the Chinese habit of pointing at things on a printout, phone screen, map, etc. with my middle finger. It’s so embarrassing to catch myself giving the waitress the bird when I’m simply trying to point at which salad on the menu I’d like to order.