Know Your Expats

I have had a few intriguing meetings with various expats in the past few weeks, which led me to write the following bit of tongue-in-cheek amateur anthropology. Is it apt? Absurd? Pretentious? Missing a few categories? Let me know! Add your own edits in the comments.

The Fish Out of Water – Usually a young person on his or her first trip outside of the geographic comfort zone, who either did not do enough research on the destination, did not get his or her head in order before departure or both. Finds difference disconcerting–even little things.During my Fish out of Water days as an exchange student in Russia, I remember having a near panic attack over not being able to find lined notebook paper (it was all quadrilled). Sometimes suffering from temporary culture shock. Fish out of Water usually evolve into Bubble people, Coffee Snarks, In Good Faith or Balance people. Fish out of Water who don’t evolve withdraw from society and count the days until they can come running home to mummy. I must confess that when I went to Russia when I was 20, I was a Fish out of Water for nearly five months and even went running home to mummy on vacation. An even more extreme case concerns a Norwegian in Mali who I read about in another travelogue, who was so unprepared for the weather that a few days after his arrival, he booked a flight on the next plane back to Europe and, until then, stayed perpetually under the shower. I personally eventually evolved, fortunately for me…

The Boy (or Girl or Woman or Man) in the Bubble– You and your friends have money that goes a lot farther in this country than in your home country, and you’re not afraid to show it. You go to expensive restaurants that serve things like pizza, spaghetti and elaborate egg dishes– “Western food”– to posh cultural centers, air-conditioned sports bars with cable and expat-heavy nightclubs. You don’t often see a face that looks different than yours, except perhaps the cook or the security guard. In many cases, it’s not that you have anything against making local friends, learning the local language or venturing into non-expat-heavy neighbourhoods, but you’re just happy in your bubble. Excessive bubble-ism can lead to forgetting the most basic facts about the country– I talked to an American contractor in a queue in Burundi who seemed unaware that French was spoken there or that Visa cards were not routinely accepted.

The Missionary– Note that not all missionaries are Missionaries, and the category of Missionary is in no way restricted to missionaries. You feel you have come to teach something, even if you didn’t come as a teacher or trainer. These poor backward people must certainly have something to learn from you. Those locals you befriend are the ones that you feel you can teach something to, to whom you can spread your gospel, be it a religion, a language or a better way to crack an egg. They, for the most part, respect your expertise and recognize your good faith, but warning– that condescending, syrupy tone of voice doesn’t often go over well with anyone over 12, and you may be missing out on learning from others as a result of your conviction that you are The Source of Knowledge.

The Coffee Snark– You are not particularly comfortable here, but here you are, out of a sense of duty, a lack of money, a contract or who knows what else. You don’t have the money of the Bubble folk. Nevertheless, you hunger after cappucino, Wi-Fi, air-conditioning and Western food. You get some kind of enjoyment out of complaining loudly in public, and speaking your own language at native speed to bewildered locals. You snap at anyone who gets on your case, notably wait staff and work subordinates. Who has a right to be happy when you aren’t, especially these odd people?

In Good Faith, But…— Like the Coffee Snark, you are not entirely at home here, and you just can’t get used to the cold showers and patchy Wi-Fi. Unlike him or her, though, you really are trying your best to get used to this place, find the lovable things about it and make local friends. Your intentions are good. As long as you don’t lay the whininess on too thick, people (expats and locals) will pick up on those intentions and help you out. Often, these people evolve into Balance people with a little time.

The Old Colonist — You are almost certainly a man, over 40, white or occasionally South Asian, with a deep tan and a succession of long-term visas in your passport. Nothing about this place surprises you. You’ve made a bunch of local friends, in the same socioeconomic category as you are, but you (and they) feel more comfortable in expat circles than at a neighbourhood bar. They speak your language; you speak only a few words of theirs. Perhaps you met your current (local) lover or wife in one of these circles.

Who, Me, Expat?— You might not see one of these people unless you are one. These people have changed countries for a short-term contract but ended up staying a decade or more. They have made a conscious effort to avoid the company of all other expats and avoid posh expat-heavy events and watering holes like the plague; nearly all their friends are locals. Many speak the local language fluently and some have no desire to leave, ever. Some have run from something. Others feel like they were born on the wrong continent, kind of like a transgender person has the impression of being born in the wrong body. Others are totally absorbed in their work. Still others are just good at compartmentalizing– Africa is Africa and home is home, and never the twain shall meet.

The Insufferable Know-It-All— Enough said. You know (a bit of) the language, (something about) the political situation, (enough about) what to do, you’ve been around awhile, and you never, ever, admit being mistaken or surprised…at the beginning, new arrivals flock to you like flies on a strawberry, eager to lap up your precious knowledge, but eventually it becomes clear what an Insufferable Know-It-All you are. Relax and open up a bit…travel is about learning every day.

Mr. (or Ms.) Balance — This is what every young expat aspires to, or probably. You recognize you are different, but don’t make a big deal out of the privileges that may offer you. You’re not particularly homesick. You are knowledgeable but not a know-it-all. You are relaxed, and this makes it easier for you to reach out to people and people to reach out to you. As a result, you have both expat and local friends and are equally comfortable eating a $10 burger and fries at an expat restaurant with one group as picking apart a goat with your fingers at a corner bar with another. Although you might not speak the language fluently, you make an effort to learn it, and this too endears you to people. A status to aspire to indeed.

UPDATE: A reader who is an American living in South Africa (and happens to be black) reminded me that I really shouldn’t use “expat” and “white” interchangeably, as I have been doing. BAD blogger! By the way, black, Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern expats, how do you think your race affects your experience in your host country? I’m asking because lots of ink has been spilled talking about the white experience abroad, but less about yours…

UPDATE #2: A Canadian reader who has worked in Rwanda sent in the following comment via Facebook, which gave me pause:

“Met lots of people that could be described as such, travelers or otherwise. I can identify with Mr. Balance, but I would stop before calling it ideal. I think it’s important to understand that many different people exist in this world and that we are shaped based on various life experiences and situations. For example, ignorance can be interpreted as a choice of an individual or an inherited circumstance of someone’s upbringing. That’s just one thought I had while reading the blog post. Similarly, locals in a foreign country project certain characteristics, and one can attempt to group them by archetype. When grouping people like this, I typically employ humour as a device to shave the edge off the prejudicial tone, which is hard to avoid, I know. Anyhow, aside, I’ve found I am shying away from projecting the idea that I understand what is right or wrong behaviour the more I travel (within reason) and push myself instead to identify and interact with those I am dissimilar to when possible. Be they racist, lacking formal education, sexist, whatever. Most people are good, I think. How they express themselves can be misinterpreted. Personally, I seek out people who are not pretentious. They own who they are and accept me/others for who we are, respectively. Within reason, of course. I’m not talking about psychopathic murderers here. That’s just my current headspace and immediate thought stream Maybe it got a bit off topic. Cheers.”

Update #3: Completely knocked over that this little post has gotten 170 views and so many comments. Looking forward to interacting more with all these new readers! Cheers!

Update #4: A Zimbabwean reader living in Canada (who has worked in Rwanda and, for full disclosure’s sake, is a very good friend of mine) says, “There is room for more categories too, but the way you broke it down from least involved to crazily engaged took the cup for me. The expat debate is complex. Some people have stayed in Africa for years, but living North American lifestyles. You cannot expect anyone to neglect who they really are, yet in that same breath that is what is expected of us immigrants here in North America and elsewhere. The politics of North-South power inbalances.”

About msmarguerite

Young Quebec City-based freelance journalist. once and future nomad. I blog about life, about travel, about things I notice and every so often about work. I enjoy language learning, singing, swing dancing, skating and...other stuff, sometimes. My heart is somewhere in East Africa, Haiti or Eastern Europe. English, français, русский, malo slovensko, un poco de espanol, um pouco de português ndiga ikirundi, mwen ap aprann kreyòl...
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6 Responses to Know Your Expats

  1. nashdown says:

    Ha, brilliant!

    I think I aspire to be the “Who me, expat?” but am at times the Insufferable know-it-all or the In good faith but…I acknowledge that I’m just too irascible to be Mr. Balance.

    It’s funny how each country has a different mix of expats. In Africa there sure are a lot of Bubble people and Missionaries, and I have zero tolerance for them, which often results in me being called a “Self-hating white man,” or saying that I’ve “gone native.” I wish I could Go native the way Rimbaud did in Harar. If only I had the guts.

    I would also add The Sex Tourist, as I’m sure you often came across in Russia. I just couldn’t get along with about 95% of the expats in Moscow – the only ones I liked were the American former Russian Studies students who spoke fluent Russian and understood/respected the culture.

    I guess I have a love-hate relationship with Western expats; I can’t seem to get along with the majority, but there’s a sliver minority who are amongst the finest people I’ve ever met. Here’s something similar I wrote a few years ago after spending 6 months in Istanbul and 2 years in Moscow:

    And this one I wrote after Rwanda:

  2. Millie says:

    I am a black African (Burundian) daughter of a UN expat in another African country (Ethiopia). He’s been an expat for 21 years now so I was brought up expat style. I would say I am a mix of expat who (after 2 decades come on) but realistically I am more of a Mrs balanced. I tend to have a circle of friends that are African expats, which is actually not a small group so expat is not only white but not always from the West. I would say from my later travels it affects my idea of panafricanisme. I absolutely hate the Missionary with all my guts. I think you covered most the categories. …good job!

  3. i’m an immigrant, not an expat. *hmph* *pouts*

    y’a une différence. une grande différence.

  4. msmarguerite says:

    @ursanegro I stand corrected. So does the post. Also,one might wonder where I would place myself among these categories. I would certainly aspire to be Ms. Balance, but I wouldn’t be so self-satisfied as to say that I am her. I do have friends on both sides of the divide and I like it that way, and I certainly have no hangups about eating grilled fish with my fingers or popping a barbecued goat heart into my mouth during dinner at someone’s flat. But I get really homesick every so often (perhaps because I’ve been away since January, and before that I was away for a full year and a half) and I just can’t get used to the cold showers. I’m firmly in the category of “In good faith, but…it’s still not home.” On some days I can even, regretfully, be a bit of a Coffee Snark…but only until I’ve had my coffee. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Port-au-Prince II | Ruby Pratka – Year of No Fear

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