An Expat Opinion

Apr 3, 2012

Fear and self-loathing in expat-land

In Vietnam, I am, and always will be, a "Tây", meaning "westerner". I’m not offended one bit by this label. Not even when I had new passport photos taken and the shop filled in the "Mr/Ms_________" section on the little receipt with “Ms Tây”, and filed it away under T.

To the Vietnamese who live around me, it’s clear where I fit in here: I don’t. The differences between us are as plain as the enormous nose on my big fat face.

In Vietnam, I am, and always will be, a “Tây”, meaning “westerner”.

I can hear the call of “Tây-Tây-Tây-Tây-Tây” in any market as vendors announce my presence to each other, making it pretty much synonymous with the sound effect “ker-CHING!”

I’m not offended one bit by this label. Not even when I had new passport photos taken and the shop filled in the “Mr/Ms_________” section on the little receipt with “Ms Tây”, and filed it away under T.

Because I am a Tây. Even if they would let me, I would never try to pretend to the Vietnamese that I’m just like them.

However, before I moved here, I envisioned making for myself a perfectly authentic, local Vietnamese life. I was sure I would assimilate beautifully. I was very much the kind of person who would travel to Asia and scoff at tourists eating pizza. “What’s the point of even coming overseas if you’re just doing what you do at home, eh?” I would say, indignant and unbearable.

Now, my favourite café in Hanoi is run by a Melbournian and serves soy chai lattes. I like Vietnamese coffee very much, and drink it often. But you know what I like more? Soy chai lattes.

I don’t care any more about my street cred or my authenticity, or being pleased with myself for being the only foreigner in a local coffee shop. That soy chai latte doesn’t lessen the Vietnam-ness of my life here; in fact, it makes it better, offering me enough comforting familiarity to better enjoy the rest of my very Hanoian day.

When visitors from Australia ask me to take them to my favourite cafe in Hanoi, I know better than to take them to this place, my real favourite café. The one and only visitor I’ve taken there looked around and said, “Hmm, there sure are a lot of foreigners in here”, and there was judgement in them there italics.

To me, this is like going to a Chinese restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown and complaining, “Hmm, there sure are a lot of Chinese people in here”.

The formation of communities with shared ethnicities and cultures is the most natural thing in the world. Liberal-minded, politically correct, cultural relativists like myself love them for bringing “diversity” and “colour” to our neighbourhoods. Yet those of us who move overseas seem to think we’re above needing the familiarity of such communities ourselves. We’re sure we’ll just slot right in to our new home because we’re so open-minded and adaptable.

No, we won’t become your typical expat. Now, there’s another word with its own synonymous sound effect: one of retching.

“Expat” conjures up two stereotypes, both of them unseemly: one clad in white linen, drinking gins and tonic, and oppressing the natives; the other sunburnt, overweight, subsisting entirely on baked beans and whinging about the locals. Both images emphasise that the expat is stubbornly, wilfully, unassimilated.

It’s a word with such awful colonial overtones. All at once it projects cultural superiority and barbarism. And for a word which is supposed to be all about someone moving to a new and different country, all it does it emphasise where they’ve come from: it seems you’re only an expat if you’re from the developed world, otherwise, let’s face it, you’re an immigrant.

It’s because of these connotations that people, like me, try to dodge the dreaded expat label. But despite my best intentions, I have become just another expat. I might not have a white linen suit, but I’m still a Tây who hangs out with other Tâys and does your typical Tây things.

So every one of my soy chai lattes could taste just like self-loathing, or I could just get over myself and own it: I’m an expat. I’ll still say it with teeth gritted against all those historical connotations, but I’ll say it: I am an expat.

Tabitha Carvan writes the blog The City That Never Sleeps In about the lighter side of living in Hanoi. She contributes to a number of publications and is a regular columnist for AsiaLife magazine and Vietnam’s largest news site Dân Trí. You can follow her on Twitter here.

(Visited 16 times, 1 visits today)


Leave a comment

11 thoughts on “Fear and self-loathing in expat-land

  1. Tuan Anh Pham

    I wouldn’t worry too much. I’m an Australian/Vietnamese national lived in vietnam 2011 and even I was treated differently. At times I was a bit of a novelty because I stood out like a sore thumb with my broken Vietnamese.

  2. eric

    As JJ says, Tabitha the advise the I got from the Culture Shock books was basically take from the culture you live in the things you like the most and also keep your own culture otherwise you have a good chance of going troppo and hating the place!.

    During the time I spent in Asia I learnt to speak reasonable Thai but I never felt that I was fully part of Thai culture and I didnt want to be.

    I also lived in southern Africa for a while and their was no way I was going to accepted there.

  3. dingbat

    No, no, aussie pubs in London are faithful represtentations of the real thing… aussie pubs in aus (or at least Sydney) are completely repellant and I refuse to ever enter one.

    (from A UK expat who assimilated perfectly well and misses almost nothing except “proper” pubs).

  4. Tabitha Carvan

    jj: Well may Vietnamese coffee be the best in the world, but there’s only so much condensed milk an expat can consume before she stops fitting into her pants.

    Maninmelbourne: Yes, that’s an entirely separate, unspeakable, matter…

  5. Maninmelbourne

    While I agree with you entirely, I still find Aussie pubs here in London to be completely repellant and refuse to ever enter one.

  6. jj

    Well said Tabitha yes you are what you are and the important thing is to be yourself – yes learn the language make friends with the people that you can make friends with and enjoy life. Note; Vietnamese coffee is the best in the world and when in Hanoi I have it daily with Pho of course!!

  7. Tabitha Carvan

    Thanks for your comments. Nice to hear from so many “proud” expats.

    Eric: The Vietnam “Culture Shock” is great, but it’s amazing how I wrote off so much of its advice when I first got here, thinking I would somehow just naturally assimilate. Pfft.

    DF: That site is a source of great hilarity and mortification. Do I have any free will at all? Or is my every action driven by my subconscious conformity to a cliche?

  8. DF

    You might find this site amusing:
    It’s primarily focused on aid workers but the thoughts on expat life will resonate.

  9. kowald josh

    This piece is exactly right, currently I am an expat in Bangkok and have been so for 6 months….its become very apparent that I will never ‘fit’ in, will always be a Farang no matter how much Thai I learn or tom yum that I eat. You are what you are!

  10. eric

    There were a great series for travel guides for people who were going to stay in foreign country for some time called “Culture Shock”‘
    I used some ot their tips when I lived in Asia for a number of years and they were spot on in their advise.

  11. ggm

    There is the part of this which is a truism: you *are* an expat, and nothing you say or do is going to alter that fact.

    Then there is the part which isn’t a truism. you have the choice to behave, nor not, like a cliche. To the extent you try not to, some people will laugh at you, and some laud you. And of course, the reverse is true as well: to the extent you ignore the question, it invites the same range of reactions, from the same and different people.

    If being Australian teaches us anything, its that being an expat is a way of life for a lot of people. After all, most of us have lineage which at some point, had an ex-pat element in there..

    (written as a uk expat, living in australia, who was an english expat child, raised in scotland…)

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details