Expat Subculture (and why I dislike it)

If you’ve lived abroad long enough you’ve undoubtedly encountered other foreigners who are also there either by choice (like myself) or because they’ve been sent there by their employer. In my experience a lot of them tend to fall into 1 of 2 categories – those who go out of their way to integrate with the local culture and those who band together and try to recreate a feeling of “home” while constantly moaning about how much it isn’t. Although understandable to a certain extent the latter group far outweigh the former and the communities they form bring with them a certain sub-culture which I would best describe as follows:

  • Live in expat ghettos (like Shekou in Shenzhen) surrounded by businesses catering to foreigners
  • Frequent bars where the prices are 4x that everywhere else
  • Almost exclusively eat at western-style restaurants or those in high-end shopping malls
  • Mostly hang out with other westerners and foreign women half their age (a whole other topic)
  • Complain bitterly about anything and everything in their host country
  • Think that shouting at non-English speakers in English will make themselves understood

Many of the above a fairly typical of any community living in another country not their own but I still find the attitude and lifestyle it breeds distasteful and disrespectful to a degree. Over time the behaviour creates negative stereotypes in the minds of locals who feel impinged upon by outsiders leading to resentment and even anger. This isn’t to say that all expats behave this way but it only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch and even a seemingly small incident can spark extreme reactions.

In South Korea activists have gone as far as to stalk foreign English teachers in an effort to expose unsavoury behaviour with little evidence other than they are foreign. I would never condone such behaviour but it’s clear that feelings run high and deep on these issues.

It annoys me that I’m often having to correct people’s misconceptions about foreigners but at the end of the day its only human nature to be suspicious of people who are different and the only ones to blame are ourselves if we don’t recognize that our actions have direct consequences for people’s perceptions.

I’d love to hear what other expatriates think about this. Do you find yourself slipping into bad habits or making a conscious effort to integrate?

David avatar

17 responses

  1. I’m guilty of hanging out with mostly foreigners, but I do try to dig as much of what is going on in Beijing as I can. I’ve only just started to learn Chinese and it is difficult to integrate without knowing the language, but I think that anyone who lives in a country for at least six months should try to learn as much of the language as they can.

    On the other hand, Chinese don’t “go out” like Westerners do in my experience. I find it harder to meet Chinese people than to meet Westerners. Also, Beijing and Shanghai are like fulcrums of the world right now; they are in China but inevitably they get all the trappings of cosmopolitanism along with their growing role in the world economy.

    1. Yeah language is a key point I probably should have mentioned. My Chinese is extremely limited (to maybe 100 or so words) so most of the Chinese I mix with are English speakers which in itself is a limitation.

      A good way to meet Chinese people socially is to visit an English corner (of which there are many in the big cities) or look online for activity groups.

  2. During my time in China I’ve had most Chinese friends. While I was teachning in Wuxi, most of the other teachers would hang out every night, go bar and club hopping, hold parties, etc. I enjoy experiencing the club once in a while but I don’t really enjoy drinking alcohol and in general I just didn’t feel like I fit in with that crowd. I think because of that, I was also not looked upon favourably by some of my fellow expats.

    However I’ve exhibited some of the behaviors you described. Specifically I did live in Shekou and, as time went on (going into the end of my second year in China) I became increasingly fond of eating at Western (and other non-Chinese) restaurants. I actually did eat frequently at local Chinese restaurants as well but some of them I tried to avoid for health reasons. Also as time wore on I started to complain bitterly about my host country, China. All the little annoyances just started to pile up. The constant exposure to cigarette smoke, even at work. The completely disregard, even contempt for pedestrians (even from other pedestrians!). The filthy air. The poison food. The broken Internet. 等等。。。

    As far as language is concerned, that’s mostly what motivated me to go to China in the first place, and today I am studying Chinese more than ever (despite me being back in the states). In fact that is one of the things I miss about being in China is the ubiquitous use of Chinese!

    As far as guys hanging out with girls half their age… I think most guys anywhere (including Chinese men in China) are attracted to women younger than themselves. If was 50 (and not married), sure as heck I want a smoking-hot 25 year old girl by my side if that’s possible.

    1. Thanks for your comment Chris – fascinating (and somewhat humorous) insight into your own experience here!

      I’m sure it’s only natural for anyone, myself included, to miss a few home comforts but at the same time that also makes it very easy to slip into a very negative attitude about everything which goes against what you are used to. For me the no.1 complain would be internet censorship and blocking which in itself is almost enough to make me want to leave but on the other hand does make for an interesting situation to observe! Living here would be boring if it was just like the UK or USA.

      I wish I had your same passion for learning the language – something I’ve always found very hard to get into…

  3. Great post, David. I think you and I are of the same mind.

    I find myself slipping into bitterness when I compare China and its way of doing things to my home country. That’s a mistake, you can’t ever compare the two. Is there something beyond polar opposites?

    I’ve met some great expats, and I’ve met some total douchebags. The China experience is what you make of it. If you want to attend your foreign drama group with your expat mates you’re certainly not going to get what China has to offer.

    Language is important but I’ve spent many great days with people I could barely communicate with. That’s part of the adventure, part of the fun.

  4. I agree with Stevo there. You just can’t compare apples and oranges, yet it’s so tempting to do so.

    Learning Chinese is much easier the more you immerse yourself in the language. It’s challenging to throw yourself to the lions like that, but I wish I would have started doing that earlier.

    As a side note…I love that post picture! Hilarious!

  5. Thanks for your comments Stevo & Josh. I guess it’s hard not to make comparisons but you’re right, it’s a sure path to making yourself bitter and unhappy if you do.

    Someone once told me that in China most expats end up with either a drink / work / women problem (or a combination!). I’m trying to avoid all three 😀

  6. A relevant article from Gadling, “In Defense of the Complaining Expat:” http://www.gadling.com/2010/04/03/in-defense-of-the-complaining-expat/

  7. I think your post offers a rather objective view, which is good.

    I agree that there are many foreigners who bemoan quite an unfair bit about how things are so different and how much they miss this and that back home. Like duh, you’re away from home. While there are the others who embrace this new culture and style of living readily, or at least somewhat readily.

    Regarding the part about South Korea trying to clamp down foreign behaviour, it reminds me how xenophobia works both ways. For both the local being exposed to the foreigner, and the foreigner adjusting to the locals and their lifestyles.

    1. Interesting point about xenophobia working both ways – it’s often easy to forget that both sides are seeing things through different lenses each with their own preconceptions which is what causes all the misunderstandings. Humans are not very tolerant of differences!

  8. cooliron avatar

    It is a good write. I am a chinese and had the same feelings when I was studying and working in the UK. For the first couple of years, I just hang out mostly with chinese together, traveling, eating etc. And then later stage of my staying in the UK, I went out a lot with the locals ( have different culture backgrouds as well), which did open a totally differenct world for me, give me a great benefit during my stay. I regreted I should start doing that earlier.

  9. Seoul010 avatar

    As a teacher in Seoul all of my friends are other expats. Even after living here for two years I still feel and am treated like an outsider. I am still an oddity here, When I am done with work I like to spend time with people that treat me like a normal person, not as a foreigner. You can’t integrate into a culture that doesn’t want you to.

  10. Onica avatar

    I am in : Fuyang city, Anhui Province and I would love to meet other Ex pats, I’m finding the language barrier very difficult

    1. candice avatar

      Hey there are you still in Fuyang City and am looking for an expat just to have beer with and have a normal conversation without repeating myself lol

    2. cassim avatar

      I will be teaching in Fuyang city from the end of Oct 2012 … most informative reading .. hope to meet a few expats.. really dont know what to expect…

  11. Well, most of what you outlined above did not apply to me when I was living in Shezhen…Perhaps only the “complain bitterly” part in my last 2 years…And I only lived in Shekou for one year before moving to HK and it was largely because I couldn’t find anything affordable in Futian any more.
    I can understand the wish to mix with other foreigners and eat mostly western food after you’ve been in China for a long time. Even those who are initially fascinated by China and love Chinese food will eventually get weary.

  12. Josep avatar

    One of the worst examples I can think of is ToyTown Germany, a forum where English-speaking expats can discuss life in Germany. Unfortunately, it also allows some of said expats (Englishmen in particular) to act like complete know-it-alls, whining about mere cultural differences, acting like they know better, and creating an us-VS-them dichotomy. This is why I have trouble differentiating between ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’.
    Many of their complaints match your description of the typical whining expat. IMO foreigners should either adapt to their host country’s norms/habits or else go home!


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