Ex-pats (The Elephant in the Room)


The first gift I received from a colleague upon arrival to my new school was a small paperback book entitled, An Expat’s Guide to Japan. At first I thought he might be trolling me: was this some sort of comment on my character? Had he made a snap judgement about me, and found me wanting? And then I realized…he was trying to be helpful.

Thus began my tenuous relationship with Tokyo’s self-described “expat community.”

Having lived in several countries in Latin America on a variety of tourist, student, research, and work visas over the past 25 years, I learned early on to steer clear of those who called themselves expats. In my experience, they were easy to spot. They only hung out with each other.  They had little to no interest in learning the languages or customs of the country where they were living. Yet somehow they spoke with great authority (and no little disparagement) of their host cultures. They lived abroad because it was less expensive than their own country (thus their standard of living was much higher), because they got paid better, or both. And/or because they liked the climate, landscape, and rhythm of life. …While at the same time they were quick to describe the native peoples as lazy, thieving, backward and/or childlike. In other words, they sounded basically like any other European colonizer of an American, African, or Asian country has since the 15th century.

I guess you could say that the word expat, for me, has a negative connotation.

Back in 2015, the Guardian put out an article that astutely and succinctly put words to what I had intuitively understood from my very first run-in with proud expats, decades ago:

“Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?”*

Because colonialism, that’s why.

As a person of European descent (or an actual European), it is impossible, or at the very least egregiously irresponsible, to not consider the historical context that has allowed you (us) to freely roam the earth, while others, fleeing desperately for their lives, find doors closed to them all over the planet. Today there are over 68 million forcibly displaced people worldwide; more than 10 million of those are stateless (meaning, in a nutshell, they have no country to return to)**. And here we are, tra-la-laing of to “Cabo” or “Costa” without batting an eye.

As a teacher in an international school, I am acutely aware of the current and historical realities that make the accident of my U.S. American birth and English-as-a-mother tongue (not to mention my light skin, hair, and eyes) a form of currency that opens doors to me all over the world. Yes, I have worked hard to get where I am, and am working hard to stay here. Yes, I have had to leverage a thousand angles to travel as much as I do, as I have always funded it through my own labor, mostly as a barely-making-it single mom. However, without the magic combo of my genealogy and my geography, my chances to do what I have done would have been greatly reduced, if they existed at all.

And then there’s the very fact of international education, itself. International education as it stands today — particularly in the form of the International Baccalaureate (IB) system — officially has its roots in movements with which I am deeply aligned philosophically: the decolonization movements, movements for world peace and justice, and civil rights movements that followed World War II. However, the roots of international education go back much farther than the 1960’s, as any historian could tell us. (See nuns and priests the world wide, 1492 onward. And, my Irish ancestors would likely argue, well before that.)

…And to make matters more complicated, I am teaching at a Catholic school. But I’ll leave that aside for the moment, as that’s a topic that deserves an entire blog post to itself (or several).

What I really want to talk about here is the constant double consciousness I am experiencing in my current situation (see W.E.B. DuBois). On the one hand, I long to spend time with people who speak my home languages (which in this case would be English, as I know precious few Latin Americans here). On the other hand, more often than not, I will be out with a small group of “expats,” when suddenly someone will say something so breathtakingly disrespectful, if not (and usually it is) downright racist that I will want to sink through the floor and/or begin apologizing to everyone in the room. (These episodes inevitably take place in public, where expats tend to assume no one speaks English.)***

Case in point: I was out for a birthday dinner with a group of colleagues and spouses a couple of weeks ago when everyone began discussing their plans for Autumn Break. Someone said they were going to Bali. Another someone said Phuket. “Ach! I never want to go to Thailand again,” pipes up the tipsy expat spouse down the table, “I don’t mean to generalize, but in the time I was there, they gave me the impression that all of their men were thieves, and all of their women were prostitutes.”

Wow. Just, wow.

Or: crossing the street with a couple of colleagues earlier this week, one of them darts out in front of a car, on our red light. The car about to proceed through the intersection stops, waiting to see what the rest of us will do. The colleague left behind with me gestures wildly at them to keep driving. “Jesus!” She cries, eyes rolling. “These people need to learn how to drive!” (Emphasis on “these people.”)

These are just two recent examples that come immediately to mind. I could go on and on.

My point here is not to say that I am somehow above other foreigners living in Japan, simply because I do not identify with the term “expat.” Nor is it to say that the term “expat” is exclusively for White people (though pretty much). Nor that all people who identify as “expats” are repugnant, either. Rather, it is to point out the dangers of falling into colonial and colonialist dynamics, when living abroad as a European, Australian, Canadian, or US American (particularly of European descent); and to explicitly state my own humble commitment to continuing my work towards equity and justice, in whatever setting in which I find myself.

A couple of weeks ago, in a professional development workshop on global mindedness at the high school where I teach, our principal asked us, “What is the difference between being an international teacher, and teaching internationally?” I raised my hand and replied,

“I have known many people who teach internationally who never seem to actually leave home — they stay in their own cultural bubble, never learning the language or showing any interest in the customs of their host culture. They teach a European or American curriculum, drawing from authors, thinkers, and sources that only reflect Western thought, history, aesthetics, and achievements. On the other hand, I have known teachers who never leave their local context who are incredibly globally minded: their curriculum draws from cultures all over the world, while they encourage and embrace students bringing their own home languages and cultures to the classroom. They, for me, are international teachers; whereas the latter are merely teaching internationally.”

That is all for now. I don’t really have any earth-shattering revelations, just observations to this point. Observations and the determination to be ever cognizant and vigilant of my own expat tendencies, so as to be the most open-minded and culturally responsive teacher-student that I can be. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Thank you for listening. ❤

Resources (if you want to read further):

  1. *”Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?” (Guardian, 3/2015): https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/mar/13/white-people-expats-immigrants-migration
  2. **Brief review of the 2018 UN Report on Refugees: https://www.vox.com/world/2018/6/20/17479612/world-refugee-day-immigration-venezuela
  3. **On statelessness: http://www.unhcr.org/statelessness.html
  4. Trevor Noah’s brilliant rebuttal to the French Ambassador, who took him to task for saying Africa won the World Cup. (Ambassador: “The rich and varied backgrounds of these players is a reflection of France’s diversity.” Trevor: “I’m not trying to be an asshole, but I think it is more a reflection of France’s colonialism.”) A beautiful meditation on race/ethnicity, citizenship, and how colonialism underpins how we think about both.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COD9hcTpGWQ
    ***This, by the way, used to be fairly common when I found myself in groups made up solely of White people in the States, as well, but in the last couple of years folks have become a little more conscious of their off-the-wall racist/ignorant thoughts, at least in the PNW. Thanks, 45? JK. Thank you, Black Lives Matter, and other activists working tirelessly to raise people’s consciousness. It is seriously lacking in the ex-pat community, I have found.

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