I was reading earlier in the week that several people have been pondering the meaning of the word “expat” and why the definition of expat seems to include only white westerners who are living in a foreign country, while everyone else would be referred to as immigrants. As an expat myself for much of the past twenty years, it’s an interesting question and has many important features to ponder. It touches on difficult topics of race, ethnicity, colonialism, white privilege, socioeconomic status as well as many possible areas. It’s a lot to consider and nothing a short blog post will be able to do justice to.
However, I do have to acknowledge that my white face opens doors. Today I had a perfect example of this. For the past couple of hours, I’ve been buzzing around Georgetown (Penang) checking out the Chinese New Year decor. When it was time to find a restroom, I, without putting any thought into it whatsoever, walked into a hotel, through the lobby and to their bathroom near the first floor restaurant. I made no gesture towards any of the hotel’s commercial endeavors. I simply walked in, used the restroom, and walked out.
The doorman didn’t notice me. The front counter reception barely glanced my way. The other guests milling around in the lobby didn’t have any sort of shocked look on their faces. I was a six-foot three, white American in a Southeast Asian country and yet it was if I was an invisible man – completely blending into my surroundings.
I bring this up because my face, at that moment of entry, acted as my “passport” into that hotel. I conjecture that the homeless person sleeping across the street wouldn’t have been afforded such a safe passage. In fact, while the hotel has guests from a multi-cultural background, I’m confident that not just anyone of any color or dress would have been treated (or in my case – not treated at all) that way.
It’s an uncomfortable truth of living here. I enjoy certain privileges simply because I have more means than some. At the same time, I will be the first to admit that I am no better, and often times much worse, than my fellow humans. There’s nothing magical about having a white face, but yet I must admit that there is a difference. I’ve experienced it numerous times in my time in Asia.
Expats live a good life, but there is nothing I hate worse than a spoiled expat who believes that he or she deserves that good life. I’ve seen my fair share of those kind of people, unfortunately. Like the time when an expat I knew was complaining about a power outage and yelled, “I deserve electricity! I’m American!” It was cringe-worthy.
Or the snide comments about how “they do things here.” A little patronizing, perhaps?
May we all come to the place in our lives when we can look at another human being and realize that they are another human being – no different from ourselves and race and socioeconomic status means nothing.
We’re humans. We might as well act like them.