Little Aristocrats: Elusive, ethical expat-dom and the moral hazard of life abroad

It’s been half a year since my stint living as an expat in Laos drew to a close, an 18-month blip on my radar which I shall, not-entirely-untruthfully, blame for my absence from the blogosphere. Moving to Laos entailed being thrown into one of the most intense periods of my life – both personally and professionally – as in-country manager of a large scale aid programme looking to lift the poorest of the poor (the bottom 10%) out of extreme destitution, through a multidimensional package of targeted livelihoods interventions. In this environment, my circle of close friends and colleagues naturally consisted of erudite, socially conscious, empathetic and worldly citizens, who were all too aware of the stark distance between our own experience of Laos, and that of the locals. From the ‘Stuff Falang Like’ blog, which pokes fun at self-righteous foreigners (‘falang’) in Laos, to the dystopic novel a friend of mine is writing about a bunch of privileged white people in Southeast Asia, so engrossed in their insular expat lifestyle that they don’t realise a civil war is breaking out around them, there are countless examples of discomfort and satire around what we all acknowledge is a precarious moral position to be in.

Yet at the same time, regardless of how self aware we might be, we actively participate in this lifestyle which the Guardian recently observed transforms us from ‘unremarkable young people into a little aristocracy’. Despite Laos being a relatively safe and easygoing country, all of my friends in diplomatic cadres had full-time guards working at their palatial homes backing onto rice fields, standing for hours in the hot sun to no real end except the perception that any developing country is insecure. It was the done thing for all of us to hire mae bans (literally ‘house maids’), which at its most basic is a cleaning lady who comes a few times a week, but at its most involved could mean your live-in cook, cleaner and carer of your children. Single 30-somethings have more square footage and bedrooms than they know what to do with, entirely employer-paid, supplementary to a salary that would comfortably cater to the cost of living in a western metropolis. Weekends are spent in exclusive, high-fenced expat clubs with free flowing booze and glistening blue swimming pools overlooking the brown, muddy Mekong. This high-flying lifestyle so vastly above one’s real-world status also extends to the professional arena. A young(ish), relatively fresh-faced, blonde girl-woman such as yours truly can find herself advising Lao government officials or colleagues  who have decades more life experience, if not technical/professional experience. It’s enough to take frequent pause and ask: what right do I have to be here, living like a queen, telling these people what to do?

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Champagne poolside the Australian Embassy Club in Laos, overlooking the muddy Mekong

 

I have since left Laos and for the meantime am based in London, struggling to make ends meet like most of my peer group, albeit with frequent travel to developing countries to keep me humble. For the next year or so my focus will be on Bangladesh and, as I currently sit typing this from the comfort of my Dhaka hotel room, I’m troubled again by snippets of the expat lifestyle that I’ve thus far been privy to, even on my first, brief two-week stint in Dhaka. There’s the disabled or child beggars tapping on car windows while passengers stare straight ahead, feigning obliviousness for fear of uncomfortable eye contact; the boozy parties at homes of high commissioners in an otherwise-dry country; the H&M bargain basement sale at a private expat club where privileged westerners fight over items costing 150 Bangladeshi Taka (less than £1.50; all the more sickening given the notoriously sinister track record of the Bangladeshi garment industry). In one week, there has been no shortage of spectres which heighten my sense of cognitive dissonance, as a comfortably middle class aid worker just passing through.

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Sprawling Dhaka from the comfort of a high-rise, gourmet, rotating Chinese restaurant

 

Expats of all stripes – whether aid workers, English teachers, extractive industry magnates, or diplomats – all need to make their own peace with this cognitive dissonance, and do their part towards enriching rather than exploiting their adoptive societies. My own upbringing as a “third culture kid” has rendered moot the potential alternative; that is, devoting my efforts to service my own community rather than far off lands that I know relatively little about. Lord knows there is enough need for ‘aid’ in many London localities that I don’t need to travel to Laos or Bangladesh to make a difference. But the fact of my upbringing makes me as much an alien to the British political/cultural/societal landscape as it does to Dhaka. So I remain on my path, for now, until I’m convinced that I’m doing more harm than good. And hopefully the people of Bangladesh, Laos, or wherever else I end up, will continue to teach me and keep me honest until then.

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