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.


Alex Goldie said...

My uncle spent a good deal of time in Kyrgystan recently managing a gold mine before returning to his usual stomping grounds in Indonesia. Mining expats tend to break into nationality groups. Amusingly, the French are apparently notorious for their introversion. From the way my uncle talks he walks amongst commoners like some type of lord or perhaps more like a 19th century industrialist in some workhouse. His largesse is free flowing and often subsidizes this medical procedure or that dental operation, but it all seems a little backward in it's expression.

Paul said...

Interesting post CMW. Trying to integrate into an entirely foreign culture is incredibly difficult and I guess most people just cant make the effort.

Younger people who marry into a foreign culture (myself included) have a vested interest in making the leap but probably will never fully integrate.

I think this theme would make a good short film or two. I can't recall any recent "expatriate going off the rails" type of movie but I'm sure they are out there.

BJW said...

Hey Coops.

Interesting post and comments. By modeled and acted out, do you mean they perform ethnically/nationally-based caricatures and/or that the expats themselves become hyper-ethnocentric?

On the former, I remember being incredibly irritated by the uber-ocker Australian ex-pats I met in England last year. It was as though they'd been possessed by some sort of spectral Paul Hogan.

In relation to the latter, perhaps there's also something to learn from observing the numerous 'littles' or 'quarters' that dot metropolitan cities (e.g. little China, little Italy, the Latin Quarter).

In either case, there's probably something interesting to learn from the way that maintaining connections to the 'home' or 'old' country anchors the expats experience of the world and constitutes an attempt to nullify perceptions of threat that the new country present to the solidity of that anchor point. (But I'm starting to get a little too psychoanalytic for my own liking).

Cooper said...

Hey Alex- That is right out of the pages of some 19th century novel, like you said! Interesting!

Hey Paul! Yeah, most people won't fully integrate, and I don't expect them too, but I think the problem is that they go in the complete opposite direction and deliberately create a bubble. Definitely some interesting characters waiting to be written into a film...

Hey Ben! The caricatures they seem to play out are grounded in a culture from their home country, yeah, so I suppose it's the former. I love your phrase "spectral Paul Hogan"!

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