Friday, 23 October 2009


‘Expat’ is a heavy word. For most of us, the baggage it hefts is negative. Volunteers generally despise expats. I think insulation is the main reason. Expats to them are people drive from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned office in an air-conditioned jeep. They bring home with them, thus neatly preventing ‘abroad’ from having any chance of becoming their home. Their privilege maintains an imbalance (of goods and power) that makes it very hard to form real friendships. So they become ghettoised. I guess they find their unfreedom to walk unmolested through the streets a preferable state to living like the locals. And their ghetto is usually companionable and comfortable, and not packed with searching questions or eyes.

But do I stop being a foreigner myself, just because I despise the expat lifestyle? Just because ‘all my friends are local people’ does not mean that they view me as one of them exactly.

There are two kinds of books that fill me to overflowing with rage. One type I mentioned previously: “Grapes of Wrath” or “Cry Freedom” paint injustices that act on me like caffeine. My pulse quickens, my throat tightens, I leap and dash. The Chinese have a fantastic word for stimulant- ‘ciji’ –which combines the word for thorn with the idea of energy. That’s it exactly.

But the other kind is a book so vacuous, so glib that I’m filled with disgust, and a burning desire to slap someone. I have just finished reading an American publication called, simply, “Expat”. If you are unpleasantly racist about Americans and seeking evidence to support your bias, buy it immediately. Such a collection of solipsistic, arrogant, smug, incapable, narcissistic, racist, self-satisfied, neo-colonialist, unresourceful, judgmental, pitiable fools has not been seen together in public since the British Raj tea-parties in the late thirties.

The majority of the women speaking through this volume moved abroad to write. Perhaps they hoped that being somewhere more interesting would make them more interesting. They move to exotic foreign locations such as Belfast and Liverpool, as well as Bangladesh, Mexico and China. Most are pre-Copernican in their belief that the central drama in the lives of the foreigners they encounter is their arrival. There are four main kinds of story: comedy (‘Aren’t they absurd?!’), pathos (‘It’s really really difficult being abroad’), righteous anger (‘They should be like us!’), and the most honest: autobiography (‘Look at me! Look at me! Look at MEEEE!’). The majority seem to gain no self-knowledge from their experience.

Take one instance. A young woman spends a year in China, and writes a story about trying to cook a chicken. The obvious thing to do is to make it funny. Nope. One might suspect that the hapless foreigner unable to do basic tasks would be the butt of the story. Nope. She begins by being disgusted by the market, is then disgusted with her oven, and finally gives up and THROWS AWAY A WHOLE CHICKEN. This should be a parable about spoilt brat waste, not a biographical account of a life abroad. The terrifying thing is that I think she hopes we will empathise with her. It does not occur to her to boil the chicken. Or make stock with the chicken. I am particularly struck that in walking down twelve flights of stairs, presumably past 24 flats or so, it does not occur to her to GIVE THE CHICKEN AWAY! She throws it on the rubbish for the rats. Or “perhaps the wispy-haired homeless woman who searched the trash pile daily would make her a meal”. Fortunately, she had the foresight to wrap the rubbery carcasse in a copy of the Washington Post, so if the homeless woman was disorganised enough to have no cooking appliances handy, she could read some good quality American journalism instead.

Did she never once look inside herself and wonder whether Qingdao’s refusal to adjust to her bore any relation to her refusal to adjust to Qingdao? Did she ever wonder if the disappointed expectations extended further than the market and the oven manufacturer’s? I wonder if the homeless woman despaired of (or indeed noticed) her?

I suppose everyone who writes does so in the hope that people will feel. But these women all seem to write in order to encourage the reader to clone THEIR reactions. Most remind me of the tidy blonde girl in the primary playground, mocking in a piping voice those who can’t do the newest skipping game, arbitrating primly on acceptable shoe style, and squealing to teacher if you step out of orthodoxy in any way. The best stories are the anxious ones. Four out of twenty-two recognise that it might not be reasonable to expect the country to adjust to them, rather than them to it. Most striking of all is the narcissism. They are greedy. I am flicking through again, desperately trying to find one who isn’t unquestioningly hoovering up all the benefits to themselves. Yes, there is one- the one who goes mad and goes home.

I am checking in the honestest bit of my head. Yes, embarrassed though I am to admit it, I can see the ‘Look at MEEEEE!’ in this blog. I can see the pathos too. But I can truly say that I write to try and bring Aishalton into your room like a vapour; sights, smells, occasions, particularities. I think I am more interested in you imagining Guyana than imagining me in it.

I am an expat here, whether I like it or not. I do not belong and never will. But that brings its benefits. We all need sympathetic outsiders sometimes. Aishalton already has plenty of bright, committed, interesting locals. They don’t need any more. They accept me for my good intentions, my hard work, for some useful skills I might bring, and BECAUSE THEY ARE KIND! To be an outsider and not resented is a lovely abnormality, not a divine right.


  1. Is this by Christine Henry de Tissan? I'm VERY tempted to unleash my inner anti-American racist and get hold of a copy! Sometimes it's good to read stuff that grinds your gears; usually I rely on the Daily Mail's letters pages (and 'journalism'). B x

  2. Well, you brought out the comedy in the not-cooking-a-chicken, even if she didn't. It made me laugh!

    I find the whole idea of moving abroad to write intrinsically quite rubbish. If you have nothing interesting to say, going somewhere else won't change that, no matter how picturesque and amusing the natives.

    I'm not sure I want TOO much Aishalton in my home Sarah ;-) - I'm still shuddering at the idea of re-washing cow slobber off your clothes. I think of you every time someone tells me I'm some kind of eco-heroine/nutcase for using washable nappies.

  3. My darling, if it makes you that cross perhaps you should change your reading material! It is too hot for that much fury surely!?!
    (speaking as an Irish ex-pat in England of course!!!!)

  4. Barbara, yes indeed it is Christin H de T. It's quite good in a worrying sort of way. As you say, it grinds the valves in a very Daily Mail style!

    Jess, glad it made you laugh; couldn't agree more about the moving abroad to write malarkey. Keep it up with the nappies- only a year or two left! x

    Esther, I wasn't really angry, it's a proper Summer-of-95 rant (bet Jess remembers that!)