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 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.
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.