Friday, September 17, 2010

Expat Society Is Riven By Class Differences


Phuket Island, Thailand

A surprising aspect of expat life is that the class divisions of the old country follow you.

Academic and popular literature has noted the class-transcending quality of travel. Employees of the English East India Company in the eighteenth century were middle-class merchants back home but could amass the wealth and influence of a maharajah after sailing east. In the opposite direction, an unpromising son of minor Persian nobility could study at Oxford and be treated like the Shah’s personal ambassador.

Expatriation can loosen cultural restraints. A number of gay American servicemen stayed in Japan to work the Occupation because they could live a freer life than possible back in the States. Although the Paris in the ‘20s meme is probably overblown, a coterie of authors believed they had more latitude to express themselves abroad. There are plenty of Brits, Aussies and Kiwis in Asia today who are from middle-class backgrounds but who want their kids to grow up wealthy.

Expat World is divided by language, of course, although a non-Anglophone receives a pass to the Shakespeare Club by speaking decent English. So it’s common for a German expat to move between two social circles based on gutturals. For some bilinguals, like the Dutch, the home crowd is small, and most socializing occurs among the English speakers.

I’ve always envied the French for their global network of culture. It lies below the surface, like the wizarding world of Harry Potter, and you have to seek it out. But, if you walk into the right bistro in Saigon or Mexico City, you see groups of Gauls at the zinc bar and at the tiny wooden tables surfing the L’Equipe site or arguing about whether François Bayrou is a third way or a spoiler.

But then you notice that most of the customers have the uncalloused hands of university graduates and that they’re wearing brand name or bespoke clothing. The owner is a petit bourgeoisie patron, flattering and deferring to his wealthier customers. The bartender is a rough man who doubles as the bouncer, while the chef supervising the local cooks has the hungry-eyed, splayed-haired look of a thin man who rents his room by the day.

They travelled thousands of miles to a place that imposed no obligations, a city on the edges of their imaginations which accorded them the assumptions and privileges that benefit white Europeans – and, with that freedom, they chose to replicate the social structure of the Île-de-France.

Perhaps V.S. Naipaul is correct. Perhaps people have no ability to change their condition. Perhaps humans are too stupid or timid to grasp freedom when it’s half an arm’s length away. Perhaps language is centripetal, pulling the expat back into the society he left.

Whatever the reason, expats stratify themselves by class. Westerners abroad do the same type of work they would have done back home, socialize with the same type of people and read the same books and websites. Across Asia, there are private clubs and temples and apartment buildings that cater to a specific stratum of the expat world, and, if you don’t match all the entrance requirements, the common passport won’t matter. An Irish policeman can walk into the fashionable nightclubs in the Chaoyang District of Beijing, but he won’t feel comfortable among the architects and designers.

The classes, by the way, are defined more by education and taste than by money, so maybe there’s a mild leveling. The graduate student researching Jawi literature and the social media marketer are, roughly, on par with the younger lawyers and certified financial planners. But even that commingling fades as careers advance, children are raised, and social distance increases.

The notion of expat camaraderie, of a bond born of shared blood and past soil, is a romantic myth. Ultimately, there are people like me, and there are people not like me, and we don’t spend a lot of time together.

Just like home.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Rahul said...

It came as a surprise to me that the culture shock is less from adjusting to an alien culture and more from the class differences rife in a multi-cultural society.

I am an Indian expat in Singapore and my plight here is similar to that of Anglo-Indians in India during the British Raj.

Caught between elitist white expats and xenophobic locals, I live in this strange cocoon of familiarity that insulates me completely from experiencing a new culture.

7:37 AM  
Blogger Mr. Santo de la Sera said...

And then there is that phrase "gone native"...
It is certainly possible to create different worlds for oneself, even to co-exist. But it requires total separation.

11:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always imagined that Americans abroad were less divided by class and background than Europeans in the same exotic locations. You think not? (Nice choice of photo, BTW).

5:21 PM  

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