11/03/2013 07:20 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Expat Complaints: Statistically, It Was Bound To Happen

With more U.S. and Canadian citizens moving overseas to retire and retry their lives, it was probably inevitable that we'd hear more complaints from expats about... expats.

In our experience, complaining is something all humans do. We certainly do enough of it ourselves. It's often the first step toward defining the challenges we meet well enough to either overcome them or learn to accept them with as much grace and humor as possible.

And for many expats we know, including us, good-natured complaining is a kind of sport. Get any group of expats together, and chances are we'll soon be trying to top each others' horror stories about local bureaucratic tangles, language misinterpretations, shattered expectations regarding professional service levels, punctuality, consumer product availability, etc. etc.


Photo Courtesy of Hugo Ghiara,

That's all to be expected from people adventurous enough to try life in a different culture. Sharing these challenges and shifting expectations is how we help each other cope with things in our new lives that are unfamiliar and, often, simply incomprehensible to those outside our universe.

Lately, though, we've noticed an increasing number of these expat complaint sessions opening with complaints about other expats.

It usually goes something like this: "Oh, we used to enjoy living in (Insert Name of Beautiful Tropical Beach Town or Quaint Colonial Village Here) much more until all the gringos showed up and ruined it."

Remember, this is being said by gringos about other gringos... without even a hint of irony.

"They don't even speak Spanish," it goes. "They overpay for things... they even tip taxi drivers! They have no idea what the real price is for vegetables or guide services, or even real estate. They expect this place to be "U.S. Light" where they can get exactly the same things they had back home but for half the price. I just couldn't take the gringos anymore!"

In short, all the behaviors and expectations that they and almost every other expat had when they first moved abroad are exactly the ones these expats can no longer stand in "gringos."

(A note about the term "gringo" here. In most places we've lived throughout Latin America for the past 12 years, this isn't a derogatory term. It may have been in the past, but now it's just a convenient way for locals... and gringos themselves... to identify someone who isn't a local. Germans, Swedes, Canadians, U.S. citizens... we're all gringos, as in "not locals." It's a lot easier for everyone than saying "estadounidense" or "canadiense."

And nobody but U.S. citizens call expats in general "Americans"... certainly not Latin Americans, who are, obviously, Americans themselves. No, you can bet that when the locals want to use a really nasty name for non-locals, they have a wealth of much more colorful and expressive terms than "gringo." We now notice that typically the only folks who use the term in a derogatory sense are expats talking about other expats.)

In fact, listening to expats sharing their horror stories at café and restaurant tables throughout Latin America these days, you'd think that the greatest threat to quality of life for expats is other expats.

We understand the attitude in principle... If you are lucky enough to discover a hidden paradise where, as a foreigner, you can live a simple, peaceful, affordable life, the last thing you want is more people like you showing up doing the same thing.

It's what we call the "Shut the Door" syndrome. Each group of expats who finds and settles in a particular spot wishes that someone had "shut the door" on the place before the next group of expats had made the same discovery and started crowding in.

And that's the case even if the old hands themselves told everybody who would listen about the incredible hidden paradise they'd found as soon as they got there. And even if they discovered the place the same way and through the same sources the newcomers did.

They're still shocked and disgruntled when more people like them show up to "ruin" it for them.

It's human nature, of course. We all want to be the pioneer, the original, the old hand, the first wave, the discoverer. And maybe it's just a function of the fact that retiring overseas is no longer such an exotic and shocking idea. Normal people just like us learn about it and realize that it can be a viable option, depending on individual situations.

And so they do it.

So... sorry, old hands. The newbies will keep coming, because they deserve the same opportunities the rest of us have, and the information is out there.

And remember, every one of us started out the same way. At some point, and in most cases not so very long ago, we were all newbies.

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