Elitism and the Expat Life

July 8th 2015

Being abroad can be hard. Navigating a different culture can make you feel confused, lonely, scared and at times make you homesick for things you never thought you’d miss (like proper garbage bags to keep out fruit flies for example).

Here in Uganda I’ve luckily had minimal bouts of homesickness, but this isn’t the first time I’ve dealt with the roller-coaster of emotions that come with being an expat. When I was nine years old I made the bold decision to move to China with my dad – and for weeks I cried every night because I missed my mom. Years later, at age 15, I chose to leave my friends and high school in Canada and transfer to an international school in Singapore. For months I would message my friends regularly to tell them how much I missed them. In both cases I took a leap of faith, and it paid off a hundred fold. I learned that the pros of living abroad far outweighed the cons.

Still though, there were times that I wanted nothing more than to be home. When you go abroad you are thrown into a new reality. In this reality very little is recognizable – the people look different, the landscape is different, the food, clothes, and the way people interact are all different. The simplest tasks become difficult. For example, going to the grocery store is a multiple step process: first you have to figure out how to get there, then decipher what foods they offer and convert the currency to dollars in your head, then navigate the checkout, sometimes in a foreign language, and finally find your way home. In Beijing going out to eat meant learning how to pronounce what was on the menu, ordering it without confusing the waitress, and then learning how to eat with chopsticks. Essentially, when you’re abroad so much energy is expended on basic upkeep that you fall into bed exhausted well before your usual bedtime. Foreign places are draining.

Not to mention that you are the target of stares and comments every time you step outside your house. Because you are equally as foreign to the place as it is to you, you attract a lot of attention. In Beijing my sister, our quasi step brother and I would constantly be approached for our picture. People would touch seven- year-old Lucy’s red hair in awe as she stood stock still, waiting for it to be over. Similarly, here people yell “mzungu!” when we pass, and in Peru they call foreigners “gringos”. Sometimes you just want nothing more than to blend into the crowd.

Surrounded by all this foreignness it is logical to look for something familiar. A person who speaks fluent English for example, or a pirated DVD of a Hollywood movie, or even a block of cheddar cheese in the supermarket. Any small thing to anchor you to the reality you’re used to. This is why I make it a habit of travelling with some small comforts from home: a bag of David’s Tea, my favorite ginger candies, and letters written by my friends and my mom. These objects become lifelines, allowing me to explore and enjoy the unfamiliar while still retaining some measure of comfort.

In this context, it’s no surprise that expats often seek out Westernized hang out spots. In Beijing for example we had a tradition of going to our favorite neighbourhood French restaurant once a week to get steak or creamy carbonara. Once in a while we’d also treat ourselves to a slice of decadent peanut butter pie at the American –run Grandma’s Kitchen. In Singapore, my friends and I would drink beer at the foreigner-dominated Holland Village on Friday evenings, and play pool on the weekends at a Westernized mall. These expat havens complimented trips to the Chinese opera, meals at hawker centers, and rickshaw rides.

Here in Kampala Shelby, Jeremy and I have found our own expat getaways. For example, once in a while we’ll go out for pizza at a nearby hostel or buy ice cream cones after work like we would do in summer in Canada. Moreover, Shelby and I regularly attend a spinning class at a nice gym, and on Saturday the two of us treated ourselves to a day by the pool at an upscale country club.

But at what point does this search for comfort take away from the experience? And is there a point where it becomes unethical?

I’d be lying if I answered no to these questions. I always feel guilty when I ask the boda guy to take me to one of the upscale malls, or a movie theatre. The fact is, even though these places can provide comfort, they can also feel like too much of an escape. It seems to counteract the point of traveling if you spend your time away seeking out the comforts of home. Why not just save yourself time and money stay in your hometown? One of the reasons for traveling is to be exposed to new places and experiences – something that eating burgers every night and living in an air conditioned mall will not accomplish.

A second reason to avoid binging on Westernized locales is that they often seem inauthentic. They’ve usually been built for foreigners, not for locals. Let me give you an example:

When we first arrived our friend/tour guide took us around to spots he thought we’d be interested in. Of these spots, one was the Commonwealth Resort: a luxurious hotel/country club on the shores of Lake Victoria, frequented by diplomats and heads of state. We were wowed by the extravagance of the facilities, but it also felt a bit hollow. It was all too well maintained, posing a sharp contrast to the chaotic streets outside.

In contrast, after the Commonwealth Resort our guide took us to Gaba Beach – a local market and port for fishermen and small passenger boats. Here there was life and noise and haphazard stalls everywhere. People were practically on top of each other as they squeezed their way down the crowded dirt path. Although far less serene than the resort we’d just come from, Gaba Beach felt authentic. We finally felt like we were in Uganda.

But I wonder if we’re also kidding ourselves to seek out an ‘authentic’ experience. Isn’t it a bit of a condescending farce? When we went rafting on the Nile one of the girls from Operation Groundswell said something I’ll never forget: she said that she’d seen “the real Africa” because they visited a slum. That phrase made me cringe because 1) she assumed the slum represented the whole of Africa, and 2) she was commodifying the ‘authentic’ experience. It is now becoming increasingly popular to see the real Global South by volunteering in remote villages and living without running water or electricity. Afterwards people go back to their home countries and smugly talk about the hardships they endured as part of their ‘authentic’ trip. So even if you avoid the expat hubs, will you ever truly get the authentic experience of living in said country? And is it just some new brand of consumerism to seek this out at the expense of local communities?

But that’s a topic for another time. Let me move on.

A final danger/unethical factor of overfrequenting Westernized locales is that it stinks of elitism. Only foreigners and rich Ugandans can afford gelato at Acacia Mall or can regularly attend a spinning class. Shelby and I felt a pang of guilt as we splashed in the pristine blue pool at the country club on Saturday, because we knew that only a small fraction of the Ugandan population could afford to be there. Even if it’s not our intention, by going to Westernized places we automatically surround ourselves with the rich. And that’s an icky feeling (not that there’s anything wrong with rich people, but I’d like to operate in a more varied social milieu. Especially as a very non-rich, Mr. Noodle-eating, recent university graduate).

I keep asking myself: is it fair for us to go to all these upscale places while Ugandan children are selling bananas and corn in the street outside, struggling to survive? Are are we supporting class divisions by frequenting places that are relatively expensive? (Although still far cheaper than in Canada) It’s obvious when you’re entering a foreigners hub because the percentages of Caucasian faces in the crowd shoots way up. It’s like there’s a semi-permeable membrane at the doors to Acacia Mall that lets in everyone who grew up using dollars, but only some who grew up with shillings. This division based on income and country of origin (to some extent) makes these places slightly uncomfortable for all sorts of reasons.

But then I wonder; if accessibility is the root of it than where do you draw the line? Even in Canada there are many people who can’t afford to go to the hot yoga classes I go to, or the coffee shops I frequent. So should I stop going there? Probably not. And to use an even more extreme example, many Ugandans can barely afford to feed themselves, but that doesn’t mean the three of us will stop eating to make it fair. So where’s the line?

I think ultimately it comes down to a matter of degree. Sometimes we treat ourselves to little tastes of home because we need a break from the exhaustion of navigating a foreign place. There are things like spinning classes that may cost a bit more, but that we know are good for both our physical and mental health. And our weekly trips to get steak and carbonara in Beijing didn’t take away from the view of the Great Wall from my window, or my weekly Mandarin classes. But does that mean we should spend our Saturdays here in Uganda lying by the pool at the country club rather than exploring the city? Obviously not. Or at least the time we spend exploring should far out-way those token poolside afternoons. Not only to avoid the threat of elitism, but also to enrich our own experience here.

Before going to the pool on Saturday we went to the big, very well-stocked grocery store in Acacia Mall. There we saw a young blond women picking out peanut butter and red wine. Later we spotted that same woman at the country club eating lunch. My first reaction was to judge her for spending her Saturday in a Westernized bubble. But then I realized that Shelby and I had been to all the same places that day. The realization made me feel uncomfortable.

So maybe it’s time to tone it down a bit. I won’t deny myself the occasional trip to the movie theatre, but I’ll try to keep that and other homey indulgences to a minimum.

Along those lines, if you need me I’ll be drinking Nile Special or haggling over the price of matooke.

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2 thoughts on “Elitism and the Expat Life

  1. I always love reading your posts – they are so gosh darn relatable. It’s refreshing to read about our experiences through both yours and Jeremy’s eyes; always illustrated from a new and equally interesting perspective. You are both an inspiration to me. Keep writing!!

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