The (White) Elephant in the Room

I’ve spent the last couple of years researching retiring abroad. There are lots of websites and blogs devoted to the topic, but I haven’t seen any yet (they may exist) that deal with the fact that most of us expats from the west retiring in (non-white) developing countries are white. And, obviously, of a certain age. This simple fact deserves a lot of attention and discussion, and definitely, at a minimum, awareness on the part of those of us who are migrating to these countries.

What is it like living as an ethnic minority in Asia? This is where I’ve spent most of the last 13 years. It should be humbling., after all, we stand out, get stared at, and sometimes jeered. But, in most cases, our cultural dominance precedes us via the presence of westerners, especially military, and the media. Developing countries mostly want to develop to be like the west on one hand, and resent it for lots of historically appropriate reasons. Westerners enter a complicated situation when they expatriate.

There’s nothing neutral about arriving where you are a minority. That should be the humbling part. Imagine being an immigrant or refugee arriving in Europe or America, with all of the attendant issues: language, attitudes, culture, etc.. Yet when we arrive as travelers, we’re welcomed.

For the week or two holiday, it can be fairly easy to feel that you’re entirely welcomed. After all, you’re “contributing to the economy” and “respecting the culture”. The airports, hotels, restaurants and cultural events all welcome you and your dollars/Euros. Occasionally a tourist has a bad experience, but in the main the experience is pretty much structured and guaranteed to be welcoming and positive.

When you are going to stay a while. and you pay attention, the complexities should become more apparent. It’s naive to think that everyone likes and welcomes us, and that our presence is an unmitigated positive for the locals. If you are going to live in a new community, there are huge adjustments to make. We think about this in our own country, but with moving to a new country, somehow it seems a different matter.

Historic Impact of Westerners

Westerners have been arriving in non-European countries for hundreds of years. Since the 15th century, most of this has been as colonizing empires. One of the first steps of moving to a developing country should be to gain an understanding of the history, politics, economics and culture. To move to Vietnam, for instances, without knowing your own nation’s history with Vietnam, leaves you unprepared for understanding the country.

We sometimes blithely think that the past is the past and, well, we’re good people and we should be accepted as such. A man who lost his father, his family and his village to the American War in Vietnam is still burdened with his painful past. Now he sees development that isn’t benefiting his country or his community proportionally. War has been replaced by sweatshops, traffic and McDonalds. The thread that binds these is forms of colonialism. The country of Vietnam suffers from generations of birth defects from Agent Orange. The past is not gone, it’s the lived reality.

Yet, in truth, we are mostly welcomed and treated well. That takes character and forgiveness. It also takes the perspective of thousands of years of history and overcoming adversaries and the past. In a way, we aren’t so important, the Chinese loom larger. But we can experience occasional resentments and slights.

It’s good to remember, or learn, that the history we have learned in our schools is partial and culturally biased. This is true everywhere. We may think we are entering places that have received “liberation” or at least the largesse of aid, from our countries. The perceived reality of the locals will be different.

Western Impacts Today

Today when we arrive en mass in a country, such as Thailand or Ecuador, we have our own negative and positive impacts. We contribute to the economy, but in uneven ways; some benefit, a lot, often most, don’t.

Western intervention in economies and governments is ongoing. Whether it is positive or not is up for debate, that the neoliberal global economy has entered the smallest villages and enclaves of the world is not. When we arrive as expats or retirees these days, we are part of a global flux of peoples, no different in some ways than the Latin Americans entering the US, or the Syrians entering Europe. We are leaving a place that doesn’t meet our needs for a place that we believe does.

When we arrive, we cause inflation and housing shortages. When foreign enclaves form in developing countries we create rich ghettos that distort prices and cultures. Locals who live in these areas are soon displaced as McDonalds and Starbucks replace local family restaurants, and supermarkets aimed at western tastes displace small tiendas and markets. Tastes themselves are changed as westernization is to a lot of people considered a good thing, and McDonalds represents that.

Some of this is caused by what we consider largesse.  A good example is local transportation. The cost of a rickshaw in Chittagong around a foreign university is much higher than in more traditional neighborhoods. I couldn’t in good conscience pay the tiny amount a Bangladeshi pays. My rationalization is that if I am making so much more than the locals, I should try to spend it locally. Knowing that I was contributing to a problem, I was also trying to solve a problem. My high wages I paid to my rickshaw driver allowed him to move himself and his family back to the countryside, which is a big improvement for them. But this has unintended consequences that I recognize.

Western culture and values are easily acquired, especially among the young who have been so influenced by the media. In traditional societies this means changes that aren’t always welcome.


This is a dense and contested issue. I look forward to the thoughts of others on it. My conclusion is that we as expats need to be humble, respectful and aware when we move abroad. Often I read people maligning the locals, or condescending to them. Almost all cultures outside of the west are more ancient and developed than our own. They have their own dignity and collective meaning. There is a lot which can be learned by us.

When we do arrive eager to learn the language and local ways and sometimes feel rebuffed, try to remember that we are not just well-intentioned individuals, we are part of a historic movement of peoples that has not always been good for these countries.

We are the elephants in the room, and it is time we talked about it.




19 thoughts on “The (White) Elephant in the Room

  1. I love your thoughts, you are so understanding. I hope you will enjoy the place you choose to live in.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. That’s very touching

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thoughtful and insightful commentary.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I have never heard anyone expound on this subject. It is definitely something to think about

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Very thoughtful. We always need to talk about the elephant in the room no matter what it is. Civil discussion is the way to understanding.

    An aside…where are you originally from and why do you want to leave?

    Liked by 2 people

  6. This is such an important, thought-provoking post. Reading this through an indigenous perspective, the truth of your insights is particularly poignant. White privilege in so much of the world is built on such a shallow notion of the history of imperialism, dispossession, and oppression, past and present. Sadly, for most of the newest immigrants this was and still is unknown and perhaps largely unintentional. People were and are merely looking for a better way of life for themselves, not realizing that it comes with a heavy cost for those who are displaced.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for your feedback. It was a challenge to write because there is so much more to be said. While we could do a lot more to ameliorate the costs we inflict, it would do a lot if we would just humbly see ourselves (expats) as no different from other immigrants (we have that very sexy title “expat” which is seldom applied to non-white migrants). If the discourse in the US would include an understanding that immigrants are just other people trying to take care of themselves and their families, it would be a great improvement.
      This is a touchy subject with expats, of course, and doesn’t win me a lot of invites to the dinner table.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting perspective. I have close friends who’ve moved to C. America, and offer similar thoughts. Having worked and traveled throughout SE Asia, Africa and the Americas, there’s definitely a different “welcoming spirit” felt by those on holiday, those providing services (ex. Doctor’s Without Borders, American Red Cross) and the souls who want to live out the remainder of their days abroad. It’s also dependent on the country in question. If the country’s government and economy are stable, then the perspective of the people will differ from that of other nation’s considered to be in a failed state (or with collapsing economies). Humans have basic needs, and unfortunately they aren’t being met with dignity and respect across our globe. Best wishes on settling in a peaceful place where you can enjoy your new experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thoughtful and brave. I agree. How does one practice cultural competence in parts of the world where our physical selves ( I am white, 6 feet tall, female, over 60 and often travel solo and independently) sends a multitude of nonverbal messages? Being humble and respectful helps. Also researching before traveling. I am regularly stunned by fellow travelers who haven’t delved any deeper into where they are than what their tour guide tells them. And as for living as an expat, why would someone move to another country to live in a gated expat community with a full complement of expat social activities – the very thing being promoted in many expat publications?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Ann. Nice to meet you! I guess the expats who move to the manicured gated (and guarded) communities want the good climate and the cost of living, but not the bother of the language and culture. Some are concerned about security. As for the expat publications, I am trying to differentiate myself from them, and to provide more balanced information. I know that by writing such posts, I probably won’t find them sponsoring my site. So it goes.
      Are you living in Ecuador? Just traveling? You sound like you are a younger version of me. I’m 5’10’, 67, and generally travel alone and independently. I’m on a small pension, so my travel has to be pretty basic. I’ll be heading to Seattle (from Australia) in January and south from there to South America, mostly overland. Have a great Christmas and New Year. Joanne


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