Friday, February 18, 2011

“My Life In…”

I met up with a good friend the other day, who had just returned from a trip to China. We spoke about the effect that life in China has on foreigners. She described a family of missionaries who have grown arrogant and condescending towards to Chinese people over the course of years spent living in Beijing.

I know what she meant. I’ve seen this effect amongst the diplomat and corporate families of Beijing, as well as the English teacher population, and it’s not pretty. Even exchange students aren’t immune from it (though it’s manifested more as a type of solipsism). I guess it’s a bit like what a colonialist attitude would have been like. Brendan wrote a good post years ago which mentioned that people in Shunyi would describe a trip to inner Beijing as “going to China”.

It got me thinking, how do different countries affect expatriates in different ways (compare China with, say, Italy)? How do different countries draw different types of people? And obviously you can then try to spot similarities within expatriate communities of whichever country you live in.

What I think happens is that if the expatriate community is sufficiently small, the members start to construct a reality in which they take on roles in some television drama or film. You can often see this in play if you observe the international students at your university cafeteria; the interpersonal dynamics are not real, but modeled and acted out.

In some ways it might be a healthy change from the anomie which affects us when we live in big cities, likely in far larger populations than our brain is equipped to deal with. But it turns ugly when it results in the local population of a country being treated as no more than authentic looking extras in some Hollywood production.