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.