Feature

2020 on Hiatus

What Does It Mean to Be an Expat, Anyway?

2020/05/27 ,

Opinion

Nicholas Haggerty

Nicholas Haggerty

Nicholas Haggerty is an editor for the News Lens International. He lives in Taipei.

What you need to know

Foreigners, expats, immigrants, migrant workers. Will these class labels have the same meaning in the post-pandemic world?

Lurking in the distance of hopeful news reports are predictions that the economic fallout from Covid-19 will be a downturn tantamount to the Great Depression. 

The severity of the coming depression is unfathomable. But a subplot in the story might be a rise in emigration from North America and Europe if unemployment remains high.

The underlying conditions were already dire enough to compel many in the U.S. to emigrate, escaping student debt and unaffordable health care. Middle-class lives are essentially beyond reach for anyone not interested in working in tech or finance, fueling a rising interest in socialism and radical alternatives to the economic structures of the United States. It has dawned upon many that a better life awaits abroad. 

I didn’t choose to come to Taiwan based on a rational calculus, just a sense that I had to continue studying Mandarin.

Taiwan has been ranked a “top destination for expats” in several surveys. It’s easy to see why. The problems listed above are essentially non-existent in Taiwan for these immigrants; the island’s social welfare provisions put the U.S. to shame. 

The word expat is often used without spelling out who it refers to. John Lanchester, a British citizen raised in Hong Kong, captures the gist: “an ‘expatriate’ is a relatively affluent economic migrant, usually of Caucasian ethnicity, who is temporarily resident in a foreign country, who intends to return ‘home’, and who has little or no engagement with the place in which he currently lives.”

Some expats seek to overcome their “expat status” through a variety of strategies, studying Mandarin, participating in Taiwanese society, even planning to live here for the long term. But this doesn’t really address the fundamental inequalities of our position. 

The expat phenomenon resembles in some ways a transnational form of gentrification. From the most culturally sensitive student of Taiwanese culture to the most clueless barfly, English speaking expats benefit in a material sense by virtue of this accident of birth, and for many of us, white faces. These sources of privilege are, of course, unearned.

This is what makes some of us uncomfortable with the idea. It’s the structural inequality of a class of people essentially guaranteed a decent living and a welcome environment, even if it’s not old school colonialism. 

My hope is that the crisis, as it augurs to attract more immigrants to Taiwan, will lead to a revision of what it means to be a foreigner in Taiwan. The idea is to use this consciousness of the structural inequality for the ends of making contributions to our homes in Taiwan and standing in solidarity with migrant workers who aren’t from the Global North. 

I want to think beyond the usual goals of engagement, such as language study and making Taiwanese friends. To be sure, these are essential tasks, the groundwork we can agree on. But also important is changing the way we view ourselves and other migrants. The discomfort we have ourselves can manifest in how we view other migrant laborers. 

This hit home for me at a recent dinner with journalists and academics in Taipei. The conversation turned to the expats we found insufferable. 

On the surface we were critical of their arrogance, dubious claims to expertise on Taiwan, and shoddy or nonexistent Mandarin. Beneath the surface, we were keeping alive the tradition of the narcissism of small differences. A professor in our group gave a consensus diagnosis:

“They are here to live out the middle-class lives that they were born into but are now unable to live in the United States,” he said. 

He joked that he himself is an economic refugee, only able to have a successful career here in Taiwan after his dreams crashed on the shoals of the brutal academic job market in the U.S., speaking for all of us in a sense.

The professor’s line invites the question of whether the expats we consider flawed are more suitably objects of dinner table mockery — or recognition of ourselves in the people we vainly attempt to distance ourselves from. 

We should reject the idea that access to healthcare, housing, and basic material security are privileges for the deserving, an idea sometimes implicit in saying some migrant workers are more worthy than others. Any wealthy, decent society ought to provision these to everyone, regardless of merit or value the job market places on us.  

Solidarity with all migrant workers is to see the interests of all workers as tied together. 

It doesn’t even require being a class traitor, for most of us at least. Advocating the end of the broker system, for example, is an obvious call. Mandated holidays, higher wages, and flexible work environments benefit all workers. Which side are you on?


TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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2020 on Hiatus:

Our world has been plagued by things beyond the coronavirus itself: panic, disinformation, racism, unemployment, and loneliness. In a series of essays, we’re going to talk about the social and psychological impact through personal anecdotes and observations. Together, we would imagine the possibilities that await us after the pandemic.

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