The Expat Paradox

It’s often said that living abroad helps you become a well-rounded individual, open-minded to other ways of life and people from different cultures. I can say from personal experience that all of this is true.

Being an expat practically changes your biological makeup. I was 20 when I moved to Australia, my first foreign home, and when I came back to the United States everyone commented on how different I was: more confident, more mature, more selfless. But I didn’t feel different. I felt new.

I was 23 when I moved to Thailand. This was the first time I saw how “Westerners” are generally viewed by those in the “Far East.” In the city where I lived, despite being full of Westerners, all English teachers like me, the locals weren’t used to tourists and still greeted my white face with a smile and a “sawadee ka” – Thai for hello. However, in the more touristy places such as Bangkok and Phuket I noticed some stark differences. Tourists were rude, often demanding things rather than politely asking for them. Locals didn’t smile or greet in Thai. Instead their faces were always stone-cold. Whenever I was in Suvarnabhumi, the main airport in Bangkok, I would attempt to speak to the people working there in my very limited Thai and was often met with a grimace and responses in perfect English. I felt moved to apologize for every person who looked like me that treated them with disrespect and entitlement.

One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed between expats and tourists is that tourists often think of locals as zoo animals, speaking about them in generalized behavioral statements, and treating them as servants, only there to make their trip the best it can possibly be. When you’re on vacation, and even when you’re not, it’s easy to think about the people around you as two-dimensional objects whose primary reason for existence is to ensure you have a pleasant stay, rather than real people. Even my experiences abroad haven’t fully reformed me and I often catch myself making the same mistakes as visitors. It’s something I am actively working on being better about. However, expat status allows us to know who these airport employees are, get a drink with them after work, go on trips with them to the secluded islands only locals know about.

Despite this, there is still a special name for us, often spoken in a friendly tone, but still divisive. We are called farangs, the Thai word for foreigner. I was a “short-timer,” someone who stayed for less than a year, but many of my friends had been there five years or more and will stay the rest of their lives, will marry Thais, will have Thai children, but will always be a farang. In Bangkok, Phuket, Pattaya, Koh Samet, anywhere touristy that people don’t recognize them, the worst will be assumed of them. They will live in Thailand for most of their lives and still never be able to own property. Instead they will hover in a strange in-between: no longer a Westerner but never Thai.

I now live in Ireland and celebrated St. Patrick’s Day this past March. In America, where I grew up, St. Paddy’s is one of the biggest drinking holidays of the year. The bars are always packed like sardines and people are wasted in the streets. In Ireland, specifically Dublin (where I live), the Irish generally don’t go out on the 17th of March. If they celebrate at all, it’s in their homes with other locals. However, the bars are still packed – full of Americans and other tourists coming to the home of Saint Patrick to do their drinking. Usually, when I walk down Grafton Street or O’Connell Street in the center of Dublin, the voices around me are thick with Irish accents. In the days leading up to St. Patrick’s Day they were primarily American accents and they all wore ridiculous green hats, fake ginger beards, and tied Irish flags around their necks like capes. I had never in my life felt so embarrassed by my own people, and we are the country that elected Trump as our president, so that’s saying something. I felt offended on behalf of the Irish to have a culture so thoroughly appropriated and it wasn’t even an accurate portrayal of said culture.

Even amongst my Irish friends, no matter how long I will live here, I will always be the token American, a novelty. More than that, for many of them I’m the only Jew they’ve ever met. This will always set me apart from the true Irish culture, which is rooted so thoroughly in Catholicism. But I actually live here. I know the bars the locals go to, I understand what craic means and use it properly, and I kind of understand the Irish language. Maybe. A little. I don’t have a single drop of Irish blood in my body, but I am probably more genuinely Irish than most of the people donning “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” t-shirts.

My extreme disgust with the influx of American tourists was an interesting sentiment to feel. My Irish roommate joked with me: “This is the most anti-immigrant sentiment I’ve ever heard from an immigrant.” And it was true. I realized that between my experiences in Thailand and Ireland, falling in love with the local cultures and people, I have become xenophobic towards my fellow Americans. And even that phrase – “fellow Americans” – feels strange for me to say. I don’t identify as American but I’m not Thai or Irish either. I’m part of a different culture entirely. I’m an Expat.