Blogging's Cure for the Expat Blues


By Eric Wahlgren Imagine moving from a midsize U.S. city to a tiny island off the coast of Sweden. In winter, Tjorn, population 20,000, is lucky to get five hours of daylight. What's more, in this Scandinavian country, neighbors think nothing of dropping in unannounced, even at 11 p.m. And these were just a few of the trials for American Tracey Marshall, who moved there in 2003 with her Swedish boyfriend. It was enough to make her want to just lock herself in a room and...blog.

That's right, when culture shock hit, Marshall, 33, did what a growing number of Americans expatriates are doing: She started her own Web log. On Tracey Marshall Knows Swedish, the former computer trainer chronicles the daily ups and downs of her life in Sweden.

WORLDS APART. Sure, blogs have been around for at least eight years now, often serving as a forum for their authors to share personal musings on pet interests: food, knitting, politics, the planet Mars, and TV series Seinfeld have all inspired online journals. Through blogs, total strangers can get in touch to swap information, offer support, even arrange to meet in person.

But for American bloggers like Marshall in far-flung locations, online journals serve a unique role. Expats are less likely than bloggers in the U.S. to have friends and family living nearby to seek out once they log off. And while it's true that Americans based in big cities like Paris and Hong Kong can easily encounter fellow Yanks at, say, expat bars, places like Tjorn have no such hangouts. For Marshall and other expat bloggers, online journals can become something of a lifeline.

Through her blog, Marshall struck up a correspondence with a blogger named Vivi in Troyes, France, whose struggle to learn French mirrored Marshall's own difficulties with Swedish. "It was interesting to read her trials and tribulations with learning the French language and dealing with new people and a new place," the Tacoma native says. "I realize that I am not the only one who has moved to a foreign country and is trying to acclimate to a different culture."

ME, FOREIGNER. Marshall and Vivi, a 31-year-old former administrative assistant from Greenville, S.C., who writes the Dispatches from France blog, ended up organizing a gift exchange with more than 100 homesick bloggers in 16 countries. Vivi, who asked that her real name not be used, says she has finally found people online who understand her experience of moving with her French husband to a town of 60,000. "I can't call home and say everything is so weird here," she says in an interview. "They have no idea what this place is like."

Through blogs, expats may be finding the support they left behind. But of course, experts say, the blog can't be a substitute for the real expat experience: learning the language and making friends with the locals. "Blogs enable expats to make connections with people across the broader Net," says Rebecca Blood, San Francisco-based author of The Weblog Handbook: Practical Advice on Creating and Maintaining Your Blog. "They can get advice, broaden their social network, and enhance real life. But a blog shouldn't replace real life."

That's the attitude of Honolulu native Ricky Tom, who started a blog in late 2004 after moving to Yokohama to teach English. The 30-year-old is learning Japanese and slowly making friends. Like most expat bloggers, he started his site -- Megaijin, meaning "Me, Foreigner" -- to avoid sending mass e-mails to all of his friends and family members.

CHRISTMAS IN CYBERSPACE. But once his blog had been live for a few months, he started to get the sort of reader feedback that have made blogs so dear to certain expats. "Sometimes it sure is lonely in Japan, for a foreigner during Christmas time even more so," writes Tom in a post describing the downside of spending the holiday season in a strange land and culture. "The Christmas spirit isn't exactly around."

That forlorn entry resulted in several "Merry Christmas!" tidings from readers around the globe. "My blog helps me keep sane in a country that has a different culture, language, and writing system," Tom explained in an e-mail. "There are other people out there that had the same experiences and, for the most part, were in the same boat."

It's unclear exactly how many blogs like Tom's exist. One directory of blogs in China on Sinosplice lists more than 200 expat blogs, probably just a small fraction of the total in that country. "The number of all kinds of blogs is growing very fast," Blood says.

Overall, the Pew Research Center estimates the U.S. now has 8 million bloggers, or 7% of the 120 million Internet users. Worldwide, that number is higher still, although other countries aren't seen as being as blog-happy as the U.S.

ONLINE THERAPY. The big question: Is anyone reading Dispatches from France, An American in London, Notes from Germany, and the rest? Apparently so. Quoting the traffic counter at Dispatches from France, Vivi says she gets about 100 readers a day. Other expat blog writers report similar numbers.

Despite growing readership, expat bloggers, like their U.S. counterparts, haven't figured out how to make much money from their sites. A few have signed up to have ads placed on their blogs. But generally, bloggers say these barely cover the software and Web-hosting fees that can run to about $15 a month on privately held Six Apart's TypePad service, a popular online publishing tool. (Basic, no-frills blogs are hosted free of charge at Google's (GOOG) Blogger.com).

That's no matter, say these bloggers, as their online journals are a labor of love -- and sometimes an emotional necessity. Although the author of La Coquette uses her blog to recount her adventures in Paris for friends back home, it's also a place for the 24-year-old to vent. In a recent post, the Vero Beach, Fla., native's target du jour was Madame L., a downstairs neighbor who frequently complains about noise from the blogger's apartment.

SSSSH! BLOGGER AT WORK. "Do you know that I whisper on the phone if I receive a call after 11 p.m.?" she fumes in a long letter to her nemesis, posted on her blog. "I'm sure you didn't know that because I'm so quiet, not even the person who's paying 15 cents a minute to call me from the U.S. can hear me."

For the expat, the blog can be great therapy, this blogger says. "It does feel good to be able to get it all down." It has had other benefits, too. She made friends with several other expat bloggers in the City of Light.

These days, expats may ask for just one item in their care packages from home: a computer to set up their blogs. Wahlgren is a correspondent for BusinessWeek Online in Paris


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