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Thoughts from a sanctimonious expatriate


Ellena on the beach at Mui NéThere is a difference between immigration and expatriatism. I think. It's semantics, of course, but from what I have observed, whatever difference is imagined is based on class, race, and nationality.

The term 'expat' seems only to refer to the affluent, particularly (though not always) those with Caucasian ancestry. The expat has no obligation to learn the language and customs of the place they live; the language of 'assimilation' does not follow them around their daily lives. And expats always have a home they can return to where they can enjoy safety, security, and economic opportunity. If they can handle the tax regimes.

'Immigrant' on the other hand is understood to mean a person who is motivated by a lack of opportunity in their homeland, or an ousting due to war or famine or corruption. The mythology around the immigrant is that they start from scratch with about five dollars in their pocket, and make what they can of their adopted home. Some 'succeed' by adequately assimilating and doing well in the private property department; others 'fail' to adapt and live out their lives in some sad littoral space.

The terminology is accorded based on colonialist ideas about which kinds of people mean what.

I've recently accepted that in my taking a job in publishing in South East Asia, and moving into a house with other English-speaking fugitives, that I am an Australian expatriate. I'm not ashamed — not really. It's just a fact of my life. I don't know how long I intend to stay, and I have opportunities back home that I can return to if things don't work out here. I am the kind of person who gets to be thought of as an expat. That feels weird.

Not because there is anything inherently wrong with being an expat, but because my morality is so sanctimonious, so staunch, that it is always in conflict with the reality of my decision. Many people are comfortable in the expatriate lifestyle; they make the most of their host city, and they cover their footsteps when they leave. Others are basically evil incarnate: people whose private staff in their way-too-big houses force me to wonder how they made it to adulthood without the basic skills of self-sufficiency.

Being a newly minted expat in Vietnam is rife with moral dilemmas: to what extent do I accept other people's choices to employ full-time domestic labourers? And without local knowledge, how ethical is it for me to pay for help, in any incarnation? My gut says that it is not acceptable, that I am solely responsible for my own upkeep in every situation. But without a Vietnamese parent, someone who can tell me what the word for Drain-o is and where to find it, I am left with these decisions that make me feel at once useless, judgemental, and indulgent.

There is a quote by Flannery O'Connor I relate to strongly: 'If it's a symbol, to hell with it.' She is talking about the Eucharist, which for me as a lapsed Catholic is neither here nor there. It relates more to the sense that the symbolic is staunchly grounded in the real; the difference between language and action, abstract and manifest, may as well be nil. That moral decisions that are grounded in the symbolic always have real expressions.

Participating in a labour exchange that I don't think is fair on the labourer reiterates a historical pattern of racial and class violence. But sometimes, I do it.

Coming from a country whose government is currently depriving other humans the right to security, movement, and basic human dignity, it feels a little bit wrong to enjoy my own freedom to move with such ease. In some abject way, the cost of my relative affluence, and the cultural affluence of all Australians, is the deprivation of someone else's dignity.

This is not about white guilt; is it about the struggle to find a way to live without hurting other people because of arbitrarily assigned freedoms. It's difficult to feel thankful for freedom when it is guaranteed on the basis of someone else's servitude.

I can't imagine what it might be like to not possess the ease of movement and guarantee of personal security that my passports give me. Because I experience it, I feel that this relative ease is a right. Indeed freedom of movement and freedom of security are enshrined human rights in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The older I get, though, the more I realise how 'alienable' those rights are, and how it is post-colonial privileges that prescribe who has the right to rights.

Ellena Savage headshotEllena Savage is an Australian journalist and editor who edits an entertainment and pop culture magazine in Ho Chi Minh City. She tweets as @RarrSavage

Pictured: Ellena on the beach at Mui Né

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Vietnam, expatriatism



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Existing comments

Congratulations, Ellena: you're an expat with a conscience. More intelligent, reflective ones like you who don't just accept the status quo at face value are needed. You certainly won't be an Ugly Aussie who destroys our reputation.

Edward F | 21 February 2014  

Ellena, you have such insight for a person of young years. I can relate to your feelings and have felt these when travelling in China and some Eastern European countries where I feel so guilty because of Australia's privileged position. I feel guilty when I see the wages these people are paid and when Europeans/Australians bargain in the face of these facts. We must have regard for those well off and the excuse that the cost of living is lower is no excuse as these people deserve to lift their expectations.

LynneZ | 21 February 2014  

Maintain your conscience, Ellena; it is a precious part of one's personality. But don't let it stop you employing domestic help. Refusal to employ domestic help denies (in your case) a Vietnamese person an employment opportunity. Many years ago in Indonesia, I thought it wrong for the expat to employ domestic help when, in their own country, they lived without any. But now, with a better awareness of Indonesian society and culture, I know it is better to employ domestic help because it means employment to those who work in your house and it means that you, a middle class person, lives similarly to local well-off people. The rights and wrongs of employing domestic help lie in whether you treat your employees fairly and speak to them with respect (albeit with authority) or treat them harshly and speak to them as if they were children or animals.

Ian Fraser | 21 February 2014  

Ellena, your first paragaph is completely wrong. I am an immigrant, having come to Australia to live permanently many years ago. Now I am an expat, living in Indonesia to work but knowing that I will be here for a limited time. There are no semantics involved - the words are completely different. As an expat here, I have learnt Bahasa Indonesia and I have tried to immerse myself in the culture. We employ a housekeeper not because we want to swan around saying "Look, we have a maid" but because we want to give someone employment. (If you don't know how much to pay, check what the minimum wage is and adjust for your own higher income.) And that gives you time to get into doing something locally that will help others. Commit to going to local schools to help kids learn English, find some young people who could do with some financial help to go to school or University and sponsor them, become involved in charities ... The list is endless. Whatever else you do, make sure you give back. And enjoy the wonders of being in a culture so different from your own and the opportunities that provides.

ErikH | 21 February 2014  

Ian Fraser's comment reminds me of something I say to expats I employ when they arrive. "Your pembantu (literally 'helper') is your employee, not your servant."

ErikH | 21 February 2014  

Nice to read these distilled thoughts of an Australian expat. I think there's rather too much internalized angst there, though. We live in SE Asia (not Vietnam) and we treat house staff, who value and really want their jobs, as we would anyone else. We pay them a small premium on local rates, because we want to, but don't want to unbalance the equilibrium. It is NOT colonialist to pay ruling wage rates, neither should it be a matter of bad conscience to do so. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with giving people the job of looking after your home. Having lived around the world, we can say that "expatriates" everywhere fall into basically two kinds of people, something else that absolutely matches the more general demographic: Nice or Not Nice. We avoid the latter.

Richard Laidlaw | 21 February 2014  

What a sophisticated bit of sophistry. Refusal to employ domestic help denies an indigenous person an employment opportunity. It is NOT acting as a ‘colonial’ to pay ruling wage rates.
In Malaya, with an awareness of Asian society and culture, employing domestic help means employment to someone who may be otherwise unemployed. Australians generally are preferred employers. They treat employees fairly, NOT as servants, and show respect. It's something I am proud of. Your ‘semantics’ are in fact pure sophistry.
I learnt Bahasa Malayu and Indonese when in those countries. French in France. I always immerse myself in the ‘other’s’ culture. I did the same in India, learning Hindi and Sanskrit.
Always check what the minimum wage and pay that (with a little extra from time to time). We had a friend in India who insisted on paying New Zealand rates for some of the reasons you have expressed. That was “imperialism” at its best and showed improper conduct “within a culture”. It unbalances the equilibrium. In Vietnam, taxi drivers and others take advantage of “colonial” naiveté, and good luck to them. Enjoy the wonders of being in a culture so different from your own and the opportunities that provides.

Karl H Cameron-Jackson | 22 February 2014  

There's a few leftie myths about labour and exchange bubbling under surface here coupled with a dash of post-modern West-loathing guilt tripping. Never mind ... I know you won't treat your hired help as appallingly as Karl Marx treated his servant girl Elanor. Come back to the Church with your gifts, Ellena, go to confession and confess your sins. It does wonders. God bless.

HH | 27 February 2014  

Ellena, you will appreciate this brillant 2013 article on "Colonial Nostalgia Vs The Brutal Facts" March 2013 by Simon Kuper The Financial Times (UK). This article speaks to all of us, including those in "white settler societies" like Australia who were not expelled in the decolonisation era after WWII. It all springs from a fantastic project of the Dutch Tropics Museum Exhibit in Amsterdam. http://www.fotozoektfamilie.nl/

Phil Mahnken | 28 June 2014  

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