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Are you a Greek or a Barbarian?

Are you a Greek or a Barbarian?

Westerners don’t like referring to themselves as immigrants because the word “immigrant” has such nasty connotations…An immigrant is an unwanted job-stealer, while an expat is a foreigner who could be leaving any day now. An immigrant is on a desperate search for a better life. An expat is on an adventure…Our usage of these words reveals a certain double standard. Whether you’re an expat or an immigrant depends not on your residency plans, but on the relative wealth of your native country. (Andrew Kureth)

Are you an expat or a migrant? In other words, are you a Greek or are you a Barbarian?

A Greek (Hellene) fighting a Persian (Barbaroi)

A tip of the hat must go to Lorenz Khazaleh, who wrote a thought-provoking post asking whether you are a migrant or an expat. This conversation is part of a larger trope, one found in language and which defines who we are as an individual and as part of a community. It spans the length of written history. The ancient Greeks, represented by independent city-states which were constantly in and out of alliances and conflicts with one another, defined themselves collectively against what Edward Said would call the ‘Other’. In this case, it was the ‘barbarian’ or ‘barbaroi’ in ancient Greek, which essentially means ‘anyone who is not Greek speaker’ or ‘one who spoke Greek poorly’. It was the antonym for civis and polis. Although, originally not pejorative, it took on the connotations of savage, uncultured, uncivilised, inferior, after the Persian Wars in the 5th Century BE/BC. Barbarians continued to be present in the mind of Greek and Roman authors, always on the periphery of modern society.

“Hellenes regard themselves as noble everywhere, and not only in their own country, but they deem the barbarians noble only when at home, thereby implying that there are two sorts of nobility and freedom, the one absolute, the other relative”. (Aristotle, Politics IV)

I find the attitude that Aristotle expressed about the Hellenes, the Greeks, and barbarians, present in our notions of expat and migrant. We, and by ‘we’ I mean the successors of Greeks, have this same attitude to migrants: they are only noble when at home. Expats are noble both at home and abroad. But, when the others are aboard, migrating, seeking asylum, they are to be feared; they are inferior; from the Third World. There is a strand throughout written histories, which carries this distinction, this attitude, of those who are not of the same ethnicity, culture, nationality as one’s own tribe. Today, you only need to look at any debate about immigration in Europe, the US , Australia and elsewhere. We will speak very highly of, and respect, other people’s cultures, traditions and customs when confined to their country. We travel far and wide to experience these other cultures as tourists and backpackers. But, when people from these places seek to move, migrate, they lose their exotic flair.

However, the etymology of the word ‘expatriate’ suggests that it has been appropriated recently to distinguish between those of different class and race. ‘By using a different term, a distance to “the other” is established‘. ‘Expatriate’ derives from Latin, and originally meant ‘to send into exile’ or ‘to be removed from one’s homeland’. ‘Migrant’ is also of Latin origin, an adjective that referred to someone who moved from one place to another. Both terms have undergone significant shifts in meaning and connotations.

The Barbarian who dreamed of political aspirations

If the notion and label of ‘expat’ separates and privileges, then the term ‘expat aid worker’ does one better and makes a clear distinction between those working in the sector and those who are receiving the work of aid. It builds on this notion that expats are somehow unique, more noble both at home and abroad. I don’t refer to myself as an ‘aid worker’, neither do many colleagues, friends and others I know in Australia. Do ‘local’ professionals and workers in the sector refer to themselves as ‘aid workers’?

This is helped along by the blog, Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like (SEAWL); a niche successor to the immensely popular Stuff White People Like, but of different authorship. Something about SEAWL strikes me the wrong way. Although the pretentious irony is deliberate, and the humour self-deprecating, it further reinforces the division, both in discourse and in reality, between us and them. Critical self-reflection is a need for many professions, but not to the point where it becomes conceited and more about satisfying your own needs, rather than that of others. As Weh Yeoh said of David Foster Wallace in a recent post (and I’m paraphrasing heavily): If one of the great literary writers of the 21st Century does not consider himself exceptional, then surely we can do the same and avoid ‘shitty development’.

“I don’t know how to put this but I’m kind of a big deal…I’m very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany”. (Ron Burgundy, Anchorman)

It is no wonder we constantly argue semantics about such terms as ‘participation’, when we have created such a clear distinction between who is who. How can we truly facilitate participatory practices if there is already a deep divide between groups? We are ‘aid workers’, they are ‘recipients of our aid working’: consultants and beneficiaries; NGOs and local communities; facilitators and participants; Greeks and barbarians. There is an imbalance in the power relation and structure in such a distinction. We always need to divide; ‘west’ and rest; developing and developed; south and north. Make sure we know who we are and where we are, in relation to those around us.

“We are aid workers. We are expats. This is the stuff we like”. (About page of SEAWL)

It feels like we are trying to define ourselves as somehow different, unique and special. SEAWL also has a niche marketplace, where you can buy SEAWL branded T-shirts, just to further emphasise your differences in the way you dress. According to the site, the interests of expat aid workers include blogging for folks back home, smoking, sleep aids, jargon and personal drama. Sounds like expat aid workers are just like everybody else. I get the detached irony of the posts, the double hypocrisy. I enjoy the personal blogs of SEAWL’s creators, but SEAWL reminds tragically of hipsters.

I recently put aside half a Saturday to watch ‘On the Trail of Genghis Khan‘, a documentary about a journey by Tim Cope, beginning in Mongolia and ending in Hungary – on horseback. What was planned as an 18 month journey took three years. I was inspired by the way Tim approached the people, traditions and conditions he encountered over those three years. Despite the extreme hardships of loneliness, weather, and tragedy he was always incredibly humble when meeting others. He seem to truly feel a connection with just about everyone he met, never placing himself above them, and always open to receiving their wisdom, knowledge and goodwill. Despite the journey he was undertaking, Tim never seemed to think of himself as exceptional. David Foster Wallace. Tim Cope. Me. You. Those who work in the aid and development sector are not unique or exceptional. Just fortunate.


  • Don’t refer to yourself as an ‘aid worker’
  • Don’t refer to yourself as an ‘expat’
  • Read David Foster Wallace’s superb speech to Kenyon College grads in 2005
  • Practice humility
  • Watch ‘On the Trail of Genghis Khan’
  • Avoid generalisations about cultures, people, history, and pretty much the entirety of human achievement (recurring tip)
  • And, as always, be aware of Greeks bearing gifts

Update 18th May 2011

Since not everyone is on Twitter, I wanted to post the replies we received from the creators of SEAWL. We offered to post a full reply if they have one, but are still waiting.

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Brendan Rigby

Managing Director & Co-founder at WhyDev
Brendan is an education specialist and co-founder of WhyDev. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education exploring complementary basic education and the literacy practices of out-of-school children in northern Ghana. Formerly, he was an Education Officer with UNICEF Ghana, and Director of Venture Support with StartSomeGood. Brendan has also been an education consultant and trainer for Plan, UNICEF, ScopeGlobal and the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. He is obsessed with tea, American football and karaoke.

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7 thoughts on “Are you a Greek or a Barbarian?

  1. […] people have written about the questionable political correctness of using the term “expat” rather than “immigrant” to describe yourself, pointing out that it comes with an […]

  2. Interesting discussion! This was always going to be something of a controversial post, so I appreciate there will be multiple points of view. I also think that Brendan has done a good job in raising some of these issues and making us think. Accordingly, I don't think "you're overthinking it" is a particularly fair reply – I generally think that’s the lazy option.

    Like anything that involves humour, it's always going to be a case of personal preferences. One of the reasons why I agree with Brendan is because I personally don't find SEAWL funny. Yet I understand that SEAWL is very popular amongst "expat aid workers", and again that's a case of personal preference.

    If you do check the link of how SEAWL was started, it seems that it began as a quest to define what the "expat aid worker" is. There were similar sites around the web, but nothing about "expat aid workers" in particular. So as a result of this beginning, there are many consequences, some positive, some negative, some intended, some unintended. I'm interested to read that for some people they feel like it creates a place to bring up interesting and worthwhile discussions. But for others, and I'm sure this is the angle that Brendan is coming from, it seems to create a divide. Moreover, and I'm sure this is the main purpose of the site, for many people it's actually very funny.

    I'm reminded of the New Zealand cricket umpire Billy Bowden. Because he is so extravagant in the way that he umpires – he's another character who is a matter of personal preference – people either seem to love him or dislike him. Personally, I'm not a huge fan, because I would rather he be known for making good decisions, instead of being known for wild and inventive hand signals. At the end of a game, I think it's better to not know who the umpire was – that's a good sign that the umpire hasn't done anything controversial and has had a good game. I feel much the same way about "aid workers", it's far better to be the type where you are almost unrecognisable, rather than having the spotlight shone on you.

  3. Soph Kagan

    Good to get some debate on this! Two points: (1) the site isn’t ironic, it’s satirical – unlike irony, satire can be about mocking something which is partially true (eg. use of stereotypes). Take SEAWL article about how EAWs enjoy telling people how much they know about a culture more than actually learning about it, and to demonstrate their knowledge, sprinkle foreign words into their sentences. Ironic? No. It’s an exaggeration of something people in aid (and backpackers!) do annoyingly often.

    (2) Does satirical use of stereotypes make that behaviour more prevalent? No. Take anything by the Chaser boys as an example. Use of stereotypes in satire is intended to shame people into better behaviour. Does use of the phrase ‘expat aid worker’ on the site suggest that they are better than the locals they assist? No, it makes them seem ridiculous. Does it entrench difference? Maybe. That’s another topic entirely but to deal with it briefly – people who work in development aren’t special but they are different to the people in communities they live in and this is an inherent division we must come to terms with.

    Unless you’re willing to leave behind your iphone, twitter account, worldwide jaunts and spend the rest of your life in an impoverished Ethiopian village, you are different – whether you call yourself ‘expat’, ‘aid worker’, ‘migrant’, ‘westerner’ or something else (again, not better, just different). Whatever ‘we’ are, we aren’t a heterogenous group, but ‘we’ often seem to share some inherent characteristics borne of media, upbringing, education, etc, (which can be dislodged but not without conscious effort). It’s this that SEAWL pokes fun at. It holds up a mirror that lets people see their own pretentious quirks. It won’t change the nature of development (that’s what we need the Tim Copes for) but it might embarrass people into modifying the more obnoxious elements of their behaviour. And that can’t be a bad thing.

  4. solemu

    Hi Brendan,

    Sorry I didn't have a chance to pass my twitter reply here. First I'd like to clarify that I'm a big fan of SEAWL, but I'm not one of the creators. I'm just a reader who enjoys the analysis & conversations that the site generates. I replied on twitter as I've RT initially your article pointing it to the creators and other followers to check out.

    I completely agree with the analysis that Soph is doing. Your argument is good, particularly linking the sad behaviour of many development workers to the concepts of "whites in shining armour", but the SEAWL site is not in opposition to that argument. I'm a big fun exactly because I think they use humour to generate similar conversations about professionalism, ethics and demystifying preconceptions about aid work. It's just a different tool to do it…

    Great blog, keep it up! And thanks for asking my opinion on twitter.

  5. Thanks for your feedback and view Soph. Perhaps I am being too harsh and thinking about it too much. Claiming that everything on the site is ‘irony’ is perhaps ironic itself. There are many misconceptions about what irony is. Like ‘barbarian’, irony comes from the ancient Greek, meaning ‘affected ignorance’. I think the site is more about self-deprecation and identity building (for the sake of humour) than it is about irony. I am not suggesting that the purpose of the site is to create a distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’; but I think it is an unintended consequence and something that is occurring. It is just my reading of it. Not everyone is going to read it the same way. There is more than one way to think about it.

    For more on the use and abuse of irony:

  6. Soph Kagan

    Awesome article Brendan! This and Weh’s article about DFW really hit the nail on the head about how people should approach development work – with sensitivity and humility. However, I finally looked up SEAWL website today and must admit that I think you’re being too harsh! Although it won’t be a regular read for me, overall I find it inoffensive because it’s so overtly satirical. The fact that it makes ‘expat aid workers’ sound like wanky braggers on the quest for ‘finding themselves’ clearly feeds into your argument about how not to behave! You both seem to be approaching the same position but from two different directions – whydev with inspiration, SEAWL with cynicism. To me, the division SEAWL creates is not between expat and local, but (as with your article) between expat vs expat (the reader on the one hand, and ‘aid workers’ who like ‘jargon, personal drama’, etc, on the other. Or between fresh-faced juniors, and cynical old-hacks. SEAWL is a touch depressing and fatalistic (which is why I prefer whydev of course!) but some of the content (particularly on UN bureaucracy and antiquated working styles) is surprisingly perceptive and is probably a good frustration outlet for some.

  7. Alexandra Grey

    Very thought provoking and informed, Brendan. Thanks.

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