Being an expat . . .

Expatriate? Expat? Does it merely denote someone living outside their native country?

Not according to Mawuna Remarque Koutonin (right) writing in The Guardian in March 2015, suggesting that it’s a term “reserved exclusively for western white people going to work abroad”. I’m not sure I can agree with his point of view, although I do understand where Koutonin is coming from.

His article, Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? argues that not everyone who goes outside their country to work is an ‘expat’. He emphatically states that: “Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’”.

I’m a white British national, born in the UK, and spent much of my career working overseas. Was I an expat? I must have been. Not because of any ‘western superior white status’, I must emphasise. Simply because I never considered myself an immigrant. Better advantaged? Certainly. Not by being an expat per se, but because I’d been recruited internationally to work at two agricultural research centers. And that, in itself, gave me some advantages that others did not enjoy. Let me explain.

I have lived in three countries: in Peru (1973-1976) and Costa Rica (1976-1980) with the International Potato Center (CIP); and the Philippines (1991-2010) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). I was a temporary resident in these countries (even though I spent nineteen years in the Philippines), never expecting to settle down there, nor indeed become a citizen. I was employed on short-term (renewable) contracts, with the expectation that once my contract had ended, I would leave the country. In fact, it was a requirement of the visa—often diplomatic or semi-diplomatic—that I must leave.

And in each of these assignments, I worked alongside colleagues from a whole host of countries, from the Americas, Africa, Asia, as well as Europe. In my book we were all expats together. Maybe some of them didn’t see things the same way, but in terms of how we were employed and resided in each country, there was no difference.

My expat experience was different in all three countries. In Peru, my wife Steph and I lived among the community in Lima, renting an apartment in the heart of one of the city’s commercial districts, Miraflores (where we married in October 1973). At CIP, staff were expected to find and rent (although subsidised) appropriate accommodation. Some chose apartment-living like us; others moved to the suburbs closer to the center’s research facility at La Molina on the east of the city. But wherever we lived, our next door neighbors were more likely to be Peruvian rather than another expat family. Even so, it was not easy to get to know one’s neighbors.

As internationally-recruited staff, there’s no doubt that compared to locally-recruited staff (even professional staff with comparable qualifications such a PhD, for instance), we had better pay. We also enjoyed tax-free living and importation of household effects, privileges that Peruvian staff could not benefit from legally. So, in that respect there was a clear distinction between ‘expat’ staff (from wherever they had been recruited) and local staff. Some of those disparities were reduced by the end of the 70s.

Whenever possible, Steph and I traveled outside Lima along the coast, up into the Andes, and into the tropical lowlands on the east side of the mountains. This post describes one trip to the north of the country.

Climbing the Santa Eulalia valley in July 1973, a week or so after Steph joined me in Lima.

Living the expat life was different in Costa Rica and the Philippines. In Costa Rica we lived on the campus of the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Turrialba, some 70 km east of the capital, San José.

The view of the Turrialba volcano from my garden on the CATIE campus.

While working for CIP in Central America, CATIE had agreed to provide me with a work base—and housing. It was a regional center, focusing its research on Central America largely, and recruiting its own staff from South and Central America. There were few Europeans, US or Canadian staff. I don’t remember anyone from Africa or Asia. But we all worked at CATIE under the same visa status. Expats together.

And in the Philippines, at IRRI, it was gated community living once again (as it was for many Filipinos in the upper echelons of society). When IRRI was founded in 1960 there was limited housing available in Los Baños (some 70 km south of Manila) for international staff, or of a quality likely to attract staff to relocate with their families to the Philippines. Sixty years later, the Staff Housing is still there. It has been well-maintained, mostly, and provides a stock of more than 50 houses and apartments for international staff, and sports facilities like a swimming pool, tennis courts and basketball. While there are now more houses out there in the community for rent, Staff Housing, with its own generators (power cuts, known euphemistically as ‘brownouts’ are a regular occurrence) is a safe environment for the expat families. But, it does set them apart, and I’ve no doubt that generates some resentment among the local community. Although, 50 or more families do contribute to the local economy and provide employment opportunities for domestic staff.

Campus or gated community living has its compensations of course, and its challenges. Every neighbor is a work colleague, some of whom you get along with quite well, others not so much. That situation is typical of every workplace. It’s just that in a gated community you get to see these persons outside work hours more frequently than perhaps you might otherwise choose.

Steph and I enjoyed campus living in both Costa Rica and the Philippines. We had a close group of friends with whom we socialised on a regular basis. That’s not to say we avoided others. It’s just that such communities tend to subdivide more or less along nationality lines. But we all got together for various festivities, notwithstanding the multiplicity of cultural and religious beliefs: Christmas and New Year, Chinese New Year, Fourth of July, Moon Festival, Diwali, and the like. And that’s not to mention the various institute-sponsored cocktails and dinners for honored visitors, especially during the twice-yearly meetings of the Board of Trustees.

Campus living in the Philippines was great for the children. When we first moved there in 1991, Hannah and Philippa were 13 and nine, respectively. And they encountered an environment they had never experienced before, with many children of their own ages and older, who would get up to all sorts of mischief without parents never really knowing what was going on. But it was safe at least.

And if the sense of living in a goldfish bowl got too much, then there were always things to do away from Los Baños. Quite a number of my colleagues continued with, or took up golf. The Philippines has many world-class courses not far away. And many, like me took to the water and learned to scuba dive, with some of the best diving just a couple of hours south from home.

It was great learning to dive alongside my daughters, and enjoying hours underwater exploring the marine biodiversity of the Anilao coast.

Living the expat life all those years (almost 28 years) I had a very satisfying career, scientifically challenging. I visited many wonderful places around the globe, and met some remarkable scientists. But my expat status was a circumstance not something intrinsic to being a white British national. One expat among many—black, Asian, and Latino, as well as white westerners.


 

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