[This post originally appeared on my blog about life in China. Check it out. There’s pics! –> http://mwover.tumblr.com/]
People move abroad for a variety of reasons. Usually though, those who go into voluntary exile correspond to a number of identifiable types. This summer, while drifting around Central Asia, my friend Eric and I, both long-term expats, undertook to categorize these types.
First, let’s put things in historical context. A hundred years ago who would you find on a terrace in Hyderabad or at a bar in Canton? The first character that springs to mind is the colonial official. This is the son of a vicar from Stroke-on-Trent, a rook in the great, great game, to quote “Pink India” by Stephen Malkmus. He’s at heart a bureaucrat. He’s gone abroad for God and country, but mainly for his CV. His rule is enforced by his close counterpart, the solider. This character is of more varied economic circumstances than his boss. Maybe he’s a leader among men or maybe he’s a simple Mancunian street-tough, sent abroad after one too many drunken rows.
Outside the government sphere, you have the explorer/adventurer. This character may be a wealthy playboy seeking ancient artifacts. Or a journalist, drafting florid accounts of the barbarians for the folks back home. Henry Morton Stanley, who found an ailing David Livingston on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, fits in this category. As for Dr. Livingston? He was a missionary, another important type. And finally, in colonial times, the merchant/trader was omnipresent. He exported silks from Hangzhou and opium from Bengal, tying cultures together in the pursuit of profit.
So how do these categories map onto the current expat scene? Well, upon closer inspection, it seems that many of these older types are now extinct. In our post-colonial world, there are of course no more colonial officials. The same is largely true of the solider. Even in the places where he can be found (E.G. Itaewan in Seoul or Ric’s Kountry Kitchen in Bahrain), it seems to Eric and I that the military man is a negligible presence in the expat sphere.
The profit seeker remains through. This group can now be divided into two subtypes. First, we have the expat executive. This is the MBA-holder from London or Chicago who is sent abroad by DuPont or Halliburton to perform some obscure managerial function. She lives and works in a high-rise in Tokyo and for her troubles receives a generous “package” which includes a car+driver and her kids’ tuition at an international school. She spends two, maybe three years in-country, most of it in offices. Back home, she hangs a painting of a coy pond in her living room and talks about how Asian people are “so polite.”
The second business-type is more committed. Instead of moving abroad at the whim of some multinational, he set out in search of business opportunity. In-country he takes a native lover, learns the language, possibly experiments with Buddhism or Islam. This is the kind of expat who starts English schools, Mexican restaurants and microbreweries. He offers his services as a procurement specialist and general “fixer” among the tech plants of the Pearl River delta. He puts on a suit and provides a white face in business meetings. He’s profit-driven, but adventurous and a bit of a rogue. We can call him an expat entrepreneur.
The second major category of modern Asian expat is the English teacher. Again, this group can be divided into two subtypes: the slacker and the cynic. The former skews young. This character has just graduated from college, maybe worked for a few years at a coffee shop or art gallery. He or she comes to Asia for adventure and to put off real adulthood, with the job and car and house, for a few years. Teaching English, for this group, is a means to an end, with the end being life in Asia: interesting food, cheap beer, maybe time to paint or work on a (never to be completed) novel.
The latter type of English teacher, the cynic, is a wholly different species. This character is older, grizzled and as the name implies, very cynical. He has ex-wives and credit card bills. Sometimes active arrest warrants. Unlike the slacker, who will eventually return home, the cynic is a true exile. For whatever reason– perhaps rabid anti-Semitism or gambling addiction or a tendency towards drunken violence– the cynic is incapable of integrating back into Western society. He (sometimes she, but usually he) explains this exclusion via conspiracy theories about 9/11. In his sixties he takes a young Thai wife who is definitely not a prostitute. His presence at the language school or university serves as a warning to younger, slacker-style teachers. Stay too long in Asia and this will happen to you!
After businessmen and English teachers, the third most common Asian expat is the backpacker. Among this group we find the long-term traveler, the modern equivalent of the adventurer/explorer. This character may have a blog or a contract with Lonely Planet, but by in large, travel is his vocation. Since May of 2012 he’s been biking across Asia. He wintered in Bishkek, where he lived in a yurt, helped the locals tend their goats. He lives on less than two dollars a day, which means he spends a lot of time sitting around obscure crossroads, seemingly doing nothing. He’s typically the dirtiest but most respected person at the hostel.
The other type of backpacker has a very large backpack and an expensive water bottle. We can call this group gap-year Brits (though they may well be Australian or German). This group, as the name implies, consists of young people traveling around Asia for a fixed amount of time. They take lots of selfies and wear hemp bracelets, do pub crawls in Hanoi and drink beer out of buckets at full moon parties in Thailand. They stay up very, very late. And the places where they congregate (hostel rooftops, anywhere with four-wheelers) are best avoided by those over the age of thirty.
So, there you have it: the profit seeker, the English teacher and the backpacker. Upon much reflection, undertaken in airports and Chinese bars, it seems to Eric and I that most every white person we’ve met in Asia fits into one of these categories. We certainly can place ourselves in this taxonomy. Perhaps our reader can do the same.