Expat Privilege (and Responsibility)

Last weekend, I came across a post from a local non-profit about an event they organize annually. They had started a fundraising campaign for this year’s event, and I kept scrolling. The little angel on my shoulder must have whispered in my ear, because when their post popped up again, I decided to donate. I thought of the money I spend eating out weekly, and came to the conclusion that I could definitely afford to donate something, anything.

I also shared the link with various people and groups, including a POC expat group I’m part of. There wasn’t much of a response, and 5 days later, I’m still the only person who has donated anything to this organization. I’ve noticed a similar disconnect between expats and locals on a few other occasions, despite conversations about “community.” It made me think of the politics of living abroad, and how much –or how little –expats contribute, considering the benefits we reap.

If you had the dumb luck of being born in a country like the US or Canada, your privilege is multiplied and magnified in many countries globally. While you might have been working-class back home, you’re catapulted up the socio-economic ladder abroad.

Our credentials are accepted as valid almost universally. Native English speakers need not be much more than that to land a teaching gig. And if you’re a heterosexual man, you probably have endless dating options and the unexpected confidence to speak to women you’d consider out of your league back home.

I’m saying, it seems like this arrangement is lopsided. I know some of that isn’t your fault, historical luck was on your side, but there are some behaviours we need to check.

Overwhelmingly, it seems expats only invest in friendships with each other. And what a waste to have lived in a country for 5 years and still be unable to speak a word of the local language beyond hello, please and thank you.

Do you know any of your neighbours? Do you pay attention to what’s happening around the country? Even the term “expat” itself needs examining: where do the terms “migrant worker” or “immigrant” end, and “expat” begin?

Are expats the actual worst?

I don’t think so. I don’t think most people uproot themselves to be jerks abroad. I think most people who make the big decision to leave home, do so for any number of important reasons and many have every intention of doing good where they land. But it’s like when you make a New Year’s resolution: those first couple of months are stellar, but as the year goes on, the resolutions you were so excited about, fade. The problem is, despite how the saying goes, we cannot actually pave anything with good intentions.

My dear digital nomads, international teachers, location independent peeps and all other members of so-called expat communities internationally: Let’s do more.

Let’s volunteer more time. Let’s share and teach more. Let’s be more open to learning.

Let’s stop complaining about how much better things are back home, without offering any expertise or financial support to improve things where we are. We need to put our money where our mouth is more often, especially if and when we see people doing work we think is important.

We say migration is a natural part of the human experience and I wouldn’t dare tell you not to travel. But I am reminding you to contribute. Play an active role, because your passivity will still affect your current home in ways you may not have thought about.

Conscientiously offer time and money when and where you can, giving generously. We have been allowed into these countries to pursue the life we’ve chosen for ourselves, and that is a privilege. We mustn’t forget about our responsibility.