Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Fear and self-loathing in expat land


This post first appeared on Crikey, and features a couple of observations from previous blog posts. Sorry for the rehash - I hope to post properly soon!
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To the Vietnamese who live around me, it’s clear where I fit in here: I don’t. The differences between us are as plain as the enormous nose on my big fat face.
In Vietnam, I am, and always will be, a Tây.
I can hear the call of “Tây-Tây-Tây-Tây-Tây” in any market as vendors announce my presence to each other, making it pretty much synonymous with the sound effect “ker-CHING!”
I’m not offended one bit by this label. Not even when I had new passport photos taken and the shop filled in the “Mr/Ms_________” section on the little receipt with “Ms Tây”, and filed it away under T.
Because I am a Tây. Even if they would let me, I would never try to pretend to the Vietnamese that I’m just like them.
However, before I moved here, I envisioned making for myself a perfectly authentic, local Vietnamese life. I was sure I would assimilate beautifully. I was very much the kind of person who would travel to Asia and scoff at tourists eating pizza. “What’s the point of even coming overseas if you’re just doing what you do at home, eh?” I would say, indignant and unbearable.
Now, my favourite café in Hanoi is run by a Melbournian and serves soy chai lattes. I like Vietnamese coffee very much, and drink it often. But you know what I like more? Soy chai lattes.
I don’t care any more about my street cred or my authenticity, or being pleased with myself for being the only foreigner in a local coffee shop. That soy chai latte doesn’t lessen the Vietnam-ness of my life here; in fact, it makes it better, offering me enough comforting familiarity to better enjoy the rest of my very Hanoian day.
When visitors from Australia ask me to take them to my favourite cafe in Hanoi, I know better than to take them to this place, my real favourite café. The one and only visitor I’ve taken there looked around and said, “Hmm, there sure are a lot of foreigners in here”, and there was judgement in them there italics.
To me, this is like going to a Chinese restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown and complaining, “Hmm, there sure are a lot of Chinese people in here”.
The formation of communities with shared ethnicities and cultures is the most natural thing in the world. Liberal-minded, politically correct, cultural relativists like myself love them for bringing “diversity” and “colour” to our neighbourhoods. Yet those of us who move overseas seem to think we’re above needing the familiarity of such communities ourselves. We’re sure we’ll just slot right in to our new home because we’re so open-minded and adaptable.
No, we won’t become your typical "expat". Now, there’s another word with its own synonymous sound effect: one of retching.
“Expat” conjures up two stereotypes, both of them unseemly: one clad in white linen, drinking gins and tonic, and oppressing the natives; the other sunburnt, overweight, subsisting entirely on baked beans and whinging about the locals. Both images emphasise that the expat is stubbornly, wilfully, unassimilated.
It’s a word with such awful colonial overtones. All at once it projects cultural superiority and barbarism. And for a word which is supposed to be all about someone moving to a new and different country, all it does it emphasise where they’ve come from: it seems you’re only an expat if you’re from the developed world, otherwise, let’s face it, you’re an immigrant.
It’s because of these connotations that people, like me, try to dodge the dreaded expat label. But despite my best intentions, I have become just another expat. I might not have a white linen suit, but I’m still a Tây who hangs out with other Tâys and does your typical Tây things.
So every one of my soy chai lattes could taste just like self-loathing, or I could just get over myself and own it: I’m an expat. I’ll still say it with teeth gritted against all those historical connotations, but I’ll say it: I am an expat.

27 comments:

  1. By living up to this 'label' you deliver what Vietnam wants. Be ever more glamorous, and stick your big nose where it is wanted! As far as I know that is what Vietnam will respond to.

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    1. I like your confidence in Vietnam's enthusiasm for my glamorous big nose!

      But seriously, I think this post is not so much about doing what Vietnam does/doesn't want. It's about knowing what makes you happy. And I'm sure Vietnam wants as many happy Tays as possible. :)

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  2. Nice work, I am really glad to be 1 of several visitants on this awful site : D

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    1. Umm, thank you?

      This is the best spam comment I have ever received. I will honour it by not sending it to the spam pile.

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    2. Hi Tabitha, you can disregard the comment by "Keira". The exact same sentence has been posted hundreds of times on various Blogger sites, including on my site, so don't let it get to you. It is either some attention seeker or just a "bot". I just wanted to make sure that you don't let it dishearten you.

      Keep up the great work. :)

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    3. You crack me up....gotta love the spam. apparently I am in serious need o help and am the worst mother in the world. Nice to know. Yet we keep blogging?

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    4. I lived in Turkey for years and some of my Turkish friends referred to me as the Turkish English girl, as I developed some (rather limited) harmony with the language and Turkish habits. I always found it very flattering to be accepted in that way. Good on you making the most of your expat life!
      ps. funny spam!

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    5. Thanks Ryan. And thank you for being 1 of several visitants.

      Dani: Whoah! That's harsh! I think I prefer just being awful.

      Liv: Thanks for commenting. One of Nathan's proudest moments was when he was described as "more Vietnamese than the Vietnamese".

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    6. Hilarious as always, Tabitha, unintentionally or otherwise, keep up the fantastic blog. I don't know how many people I've referred you to and every single one of them comes back to me with a chuckle at least. Kiera, could be like your friend who described you and Nathan as the perfect 10?

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    7. Thanks Kerrie! I should start a rewards scheme for referrals. :)

      And Keira is just a sassy spam-bot. But I'd happily be her friend if she was a real person.

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  3. Gotta love your writing Tabitha! Well written.. I can totally identify with being an 'expat' - we immigrated from S Africa - now although we own a piece of property in Australia, and we are citizens of Australia but yet we still feel 'Tây' some days! I guess when you leave your country of birth,(temporary or permanent) you remain a 'nomad' or 'Tây... but this is what makes the world a more colorful place.. adding value .. imagine Vietnam without the Tây? or Australia without the Greeks/Italians/Vietnamese/S.Africans/.. or Paris or London .. aah.. life is good .. I'm thankful to Au for changing me! - cheers to another soy chai latte. x Keep writing please.. I love it!

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    1. Thanks Cape Club! Yes, I hope we Tays bring to Hanoi even a tiny fraction of what the Vietnamese community has brought to Australia. If not, at least we give the locals something to laugh at.

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  4. I agree with what you say, but I still reserve the right to look down on tourists eating pizza. Why would you fly half way around the world to eat a crap version of something you can get at home? It's your one chance to sample authentic VN food. I was dismayed when I went to one of those Thai holiday islands and had to actually search out the Thai food amongst all the pizzas and hamburgers. If I'm only in a country for a week or two, I want to make sure I eat the local food as much as possible. When you live here, there's not the same pressure to try things so day-to-day it just comes down to what you feel like eating.

    Having said that, I always have a Burger King in the airport, partly because we didn't have one in VN until recently, and partly because I refuse to be introduced to a country's cuisine by some crap restaurant in an airport.

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    1. Well, you bring up an interesting point, which is that expats might have a bad reputation, but they at least get to look down on tourists! And then tourists who eat local food get to look down on tourists who eat pizza. Hierarchies within hierarchies...

      I know exactly what you're saying about the benefits trying local food, but when you're traveling, and so having to eat out for every single meal, there's no harm in mixing it up. I remember being in Italy and thinking I would die if I had to eat any more pizza or pasta, delicious as it was. You can get too much of a good thing, it seems.

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    3. I am in agreement with "Im with stupid." I don't know why you would fly to Vietnam and not experience the rich food culture here. I am an expat from America, but I am half Vietnamese, so maybe it is different for me. However, to most of the Vietnamese it is hard to tell I am anything but a westerner. Anyway, I absolutely love the food here. It is very diverse and there is so much variety. I eat everything I see and I eat a different thing every single meal. I order things that I cannot even identify. It gives me a chance to learn new words and hopefully chat with the locals. Any western food is unappetizing in comparison, so I plan to not eat anything western.

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  5. It's funny how much they use 'tay' up in Hanoi - I don't think I've ever heard that word down here in the south.

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    1. Yes, when I first started writing for AsiaLife HCMC, Brett said he had never heard "Tay" before and I was shocked! Just one of the many reasons that Hanoi is better than HCMC, obviously.

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  6. Maybe part of the reason that expats regularly eat non-Vietnamese food is that not all the Vietnamese food you can buy in restaurants in Vietnam is delicious? Just because someone is Vietnamese doesn’t mean that they have good Vietnamese food cooking skills - there are good places to eat and bad places to eat - just like in any country. Just as a hypothetical Vietnamese expat in the UK might be disappointed with the quality of a lot of the food served in English eating establishments, such as the Little Chef (unless they ordered the fish fingers, and were a 10 year old boy) so I have been sometimes disappointed by a bowl of noodles in dirty water flavoured with a handful of dissolved MSG masquerading as pho. That said, I’ve had some excellent pizza in Hanoi, cooked by Vietnamese chefs…

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    1. Ooh, you've opened a can of intestinal worms here. I agree that it's wrong to assume that all Vietnamese food in Vietnam will be necessarily good, or even better than Vietnamese food you can get outside of Vietnam. And like you, I don't feel too bad eating delicious pizza, or delicious Japanese food in Hanoi when it's some of the best food in town.

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  7. Tabitha~simply put-YOU ROCK! I love this blog, love the title, love the hair! You are hilarious. Brilliant even.
    Having 5 kids here in Vietnam and trying to keep them fed and happy, is a challenge. I take great solace in Dominos 2/1 tuesday delivery and couldn't/wouldn't want to live without my little old lady down the street selling cafe sua da. (Or the 'That's Cafe' brewing a nice hot cappucino for the occassional splurge.) I call it balance....
    Thanks for keeping it real!

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    1. Thanks Kristina. Not sue what "hair" you're referring to, so I'll just take it as a compliment. :)

      I think you've earned more than the occasional splurge with five kids in Vietnam. I'm impressed!

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  8. please tell me which cafe you are talking about, I NEED a soy chai latte!

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    1. Hey Liza, the cafe is the Hanoi Social Club: http://tnhvietnam.xemzi.com/en/spot/7366/the-hanoi-social-club-hanoi

      Get a slice of flourless chocolate cake too! :)

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  9. Thank you Tabitha,
    I follow your blog, but never comment (you delurked me with soy chai latte!). You have a great blog and I loved your Hanoi wedding pictures. I DREAMED of having Vietnam style wedding pictures, but my boyfriend is too shy. You guys rock!!!

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    1. Thanks Liza. Your boyfriend doesn't know what he's missing out on! Nothing cures shyness like white slip-on fake leather shoes.

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  10. He's getting better, I treated him with singing and dancing at citi and fivi marts, but he kept pretending he wasn't with me! It helped prepare him for his kimono debut in Van Mieu for our wedding photoshoot.
    Hanoi gives people so much opportunity to be ridiculous! You are my beacon of glamourous wedding style

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