Who or what is an Expat when the world is flat?
Expat (short for expatriate) is derived from the Latin ex and patria – out of homeland.
It is a word used to describe both people living and working in a country other than their own and a lifestyle.
I don’t loathe the word but wonder in an increasingly “flat” and interconnected world whether it is one that we should retire. What is a “home” in a day of mobility and global interconnectedness? Is it possible to be “out” of our home when our home is the world?
Saigon is a city that attracts foreigners for work. Some come and “go Vietnamese”, eating locally, buying a motorbike and risking city traffic, picking up more than a few words of the language. Some marry Vietnamese women and have families.
Seeing these “expats” (I will call them that since that is how some self-identify) I wonder if they have gone Vietnamese or whether they have inculcated Vietnamese with things Western.
The Pizza Huts and Kentucky Fried Chickens, for better or worse American creations, are filled, not with expats but with Vietnamese.
The group that I occasionally run with, while dominated by Brits, Irish and Australian attracts young Vietnamese professionals who understand the latest fashions, work for multi-nationals and dream of living outside of their own native land. Does that make them expats in waiting?
Government officials in Vietnam I meet with are likely to know San Francisco and Houston better than I do and have more than a passing knowledge of American political and social currents or the application process for a Fulbright award.
My own housing complex, the Saigon Pearl is a seemingly expat outpost (despite its much lamented power outages). Yet, the apartments are owned largely by Vietnamese who have “made it” or are seeking an investment opportunity not Westerners. And, there are more Taiwanese, Japanese, Koreans and Indians in my building than Americans or Europeans.
Reality television, popular culture, integrated marketing and communication, brand identity for fast foods, fashion and the like have made a global community of conspicuous consumption unfettered by borders.
The image of the expat is a dated one; Graham Greene, gin and tonics, stuffy colonial clubs, a haughty imperial attitude and living in a kind of ghetto where conveniences are garnered by the privileged few. Of course it still exists but at ever shrinking margins as the benefits of globalization, education and communication have begun to expand opportunities around the world (even if some of that world opts for the mythic expat “lifestyle”.
Despite my travels, Vietnamese residency and US passport I am not without a home; no ex patria here, maybe more of a multi patria.
(Can you guess who went to UCLA or lived in the US or who is wearing the most fashionable jeans. Hint: It’s not me- so who is/are the expat(s)?