The Dos and Don’ts of Life as an Expat
Advice for Living Abroad Responsibly and Thoughtfully
By the time I finish my Global Health Corps (GHC) fellowship, I will have spent three years abroad. My degree in public health is in international health, with a focus in health systems. I spent two years in Benin helping to strengthen the community health model, and I currently work to improve the quality of non-communicable disease (NCD) service delivery in Rwanda. My education was supposed to have led me here, working internationally. And yet, at times, I am conflicted about being an American expat. The privileges that come with that are both visible — such as being pulled to the front of a long line — and more subtle — like knowing that the place I call home in a rural village is by choice and that, at any given moment, I can leave it. I believe in leveraging and advocating for locally-initiated changes with locally-sourced material, labor, and ingenuity. So how do I justify working abroad, doing work that perhaps could be done by a national?
I could argue with myself that I’m here to build capacity until the local community and people take over. I could say that I add a different perspective that could contribute to a better solution or approach to a problem. In Rwanda, strict immigration laws are in place to prevent foreigners from taking local jobs unless organizations can justify the special skills they bring. While this calms my concerns somewhat, I doubt that I will find an answer that can fully reconcile this tension any time soon.
The reason I entered this field in the first place and why I want to continue working and living abroad is because, simply, I want to be of service. I want to learn about the world and the people that inhabit it. I want to understand the challenges people face and the environments they navigate. I also want to be intentional about my role conscious of the privileges I enjoy. Through experience I have learned that “wanting to help” and even “wanting to learn” are not enough. As foreigners, we have to understand how our background shapes our perspectives. We have to be aware of the power dynamics at play. We can’t be careless in our words or our actions. We have to act thoughtfully and hold others to the same standard of informed action.
As I finish my third year abroad and prepare to stay a little longer, here are the most important “dos and don’ts” of being an expat that I’m keeping top of mind:
1. Fight and stop perpetuating stereotypes.
Whether we admit it or not, we have all been fed with messages about people based on their skin color, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, and other factors, and we have learned to internalize these messages. In America, this includes “knowing” Africa as a place full of poverty and its peoples as helpless and waiting on the aid of foreigners.
As Chimamanda Ngozi said in her TED talk, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” There is, in fact, poverty in Africa. But there is also so much more than that. When we share stories and images with our friends, families, and the general public, we can do more than share those that confirm their preconceived notions of Africa. We can refrain from using language that exaggerates the impact of our small acts; not because they may be insignificant, but because it simplifies a complicated story.
“We have to actively, consciously and continuously unlearn internalized biases and stop perpetuating them.”
We have to actively, consciously and continuously unlearn internalized biases and stop perpetuating them. As expats, we are in a unique position to acknowledge the stereotypes we have been taught and replace those with other ideas that help to tell the whole story.
2. Amplify voices; don’t speak for others.
When I lived in West Africa, on more than one occasion, I was told that, as une blanche, I was second only to God and whatever I said must be true simply because I was saying it. My presence at public events was sometimes, I felt, exploited to somehow legitimize them; news reporter cameras often trained on me instead of capturing the other participants or the event itself.
I have found the Rwandan mindset, in general, to be different than that. In my experience, Rwandans have a strong desire to be self-determined and to rely on local and regional talent to advance. However, there have still been instances when co-workers have implied that local colleagues would take what I say more seriously than if the same message were given by a Rwandan.
I have been continuously working on amplifying the voices of those around me throughout my fellowship year. I am striving to be conscious of and act on opportunities to highlight the ideas and thoughts of others and defer to my colleagues whenever possible.
At a recent event during the commemoration of the Genocide Against the Tutsis in Rwanda, I passed by a local news team interviewing a couple of foreigners. While I don’t doubt that the reporter sought out the foreigners, they could have refused, recognizing that, as foreigners who were not present during the genocide, they did not have the authority to speak about something so significant to the people here.
“When we stop speaking and start listening, we can amplify voices that may not always be heard and better support efforts towards a locally-identified goal in a locally-determined manner.”
As expats, we are coming to share our expertise, and that doesn’t mean we can’t also share our opinions. But our status as expats does not exempt us from listening and learning from our national colleagues and friends. When we stop speaking and start listening, we can amplify voices that may not always be heard and better support efforts towards a locally-identified goal in a locally-determined manner.
3. Don’t try to transplant your native country to your new country.
Expecting your new country to be like your home country, or trying to recreate your home country in a new setting will quickly end in frustration, and misses the point of being in a different place. We have to constantly check our expectations and adjust to the realities of our new country. Are there inefficiencies? Can things improve? Sure. But complaining and thinking, “This would never happen back home” does not change the situation.
“Expecting your new country to be like your home country, or trying to recreate your home country in a new setting will quickly end in frustration, and misses the point of being in a different place.”
This “rule” also applies to how we act and with whom we interact. We’re not in America, so why not have more than just a circle of American friends? We live in a more conservative setting, so why not wear longer shorts when running in public?
I recognize there are many subjective “dos and don’ts” of being an expat, but I think these three are core to ensuring we live abroad responsibly and thoughtfully, acknowledging and leveraging our privilege for social change.
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