Expat

Why expats (outsiders) are good for a community

cropped-AUA-Halloween-2013
Hey, we’re not all ghoulish creeps and weirdos, you know!

Growing up in Hawaii offered many wonderful experiences that, as a child, I wasn’t even aware of. Sure, I didn’t see snow until I left, but I lived outside, in the sunshine, the warmth, the play that many children seem to be deprived of nowadays. We didn’t know seasons, really. And I never owned an alarm clock until I moved to the Mainland, because I woke up naturally with the sun.

Hawaii is also a popular tourist destination, the premiere holiday hotspot for US citizens and Japanese alike, which has given me a unique perspective that I’ve carried, as I’ve drifted from place to place. I know what it is like to be one of the home-grown folks who watch tourists and visitors rent their fancy vehicles and dress like motley fools.

I remember locals bitching about haoles (foreigners), muttering, “Haoles go home.” (It should be noted that Hawaii is also a glorified US military base, and this is a big reason why many “foreigners” are considered unwelcome to the Islands.) But some of us also recognized that tourism is the biggest source of revenue for Hawaii, too.

So I understood, when I lived in Colorado, the “Don’t Californicate Colorado” stance that was going on in the 1990s. California seemed to embody what not to do to your cities, and the growing migration of Californians moving out of state meant pristine places like Colorado (and other places in the SW) were developing at a rapid rate. Californians were the haoles of Colorado. (When I left Portland Oregon, Californians were the new home buyers during the early-2000 economic slump.)

Now, I can’t say this Californication was accurate, but we do seem to want to blame others for whatever development or problems our towns and cities are experiencing. Right now, I live in Chiang Mai and even though I have lived here for only a few years, I’ve seen it change a lot. Part of this stems from seeing Chiang Mai back in 1989, but mostly my experience has been from recent years of more and more apartments and malls cropping up.

And as it becomes increasingly more challenging to live comfortably back home, Chiang Mai/Thailand has seen more expats moving here. (I daresay, many places have, like some countries in South America, too.) My first primitive reaction is to grumble and complain about the development, growth and overcrowding. But, I know a lot of Bangkokians have moved up here, too. It seems everywhere is growing.

So, do we blame folks who are looking for a better place to live? Do we blame people for going on vacation???

Just the other day, in the teachers room, we were talking about the “probable nationality” of an idiot dressed in a black leather kilt with a black leather jacket complete with what appeared to be the Nazi Swastika emblazoned on the back.

“Oh, European probably. Definitely, not American,” I said.

“Why not?” Some of the Brits protested.

My fellow Americans added, “Because those types would never leave the country, let alone their neighborhood.”

I bring this up because among expats (and lifestyle travellers), we are horribly embarrassed when Tourists Behaving Badly are pegged on “our people,” or our homeland.

But what about the good stuff? What about the good things/qualities that expats and tourists bring to the “vacation” mix? You almost never hear that side of the news story.

When I spent some time checking out a local orphanage I learned how many foreigners (Americans be proud!) go through the grueling application process, waiting years to adopt a child. I also learned how many foreigners donate a lot of money and time, as opposed to the mainstream Thai way of thinking where it is perfectly acceptable to donate once or volunteer once, and then your “good deed” is done.

And what about those who dedicate their energies into caring for street/soi dogs, or the other multitude of charity projects for displaced people, migrant workers or the environment? There is a bit of eye rolling that goes on, which I’m sure comes from our infamous history of Western missionary entanglements.

But, I want to remind myself that expats/outsiders bring positive change to a community, too. I think this is worth mentioning in lieu of the bitter/sarcastic/negative stories we expats (and let’s face, the majority) seem to love to share. I believe there can be a healthy marriage of ideas that we bring from our cultures and backgrounds. I mean, haven’t we been incessantly told diversity is a good thing?

I feel like as outsiders to our new country of residence, we are afraid to speak out or even have an opinion. We’re not supposed to get involved with politics or if we do, then we are poo poo-ed by our expat peers or the locals themselves. Like anything, there is a fine, and not so fine line, between okay and not okay. So, because we aren’t officially citizens, just long-stay-permanent visitors, we can’t have a voice?

Look, I’m not saying we should have Thailand be like X, Y, or Z, country, that would be absurd, I’m just saying, there were some solid things figured out over time, that work and we should participate by trying to make those things work here or where ever we live.

For example, the “everyone here drives the wrong way down the road, so why can’t I?” doesn’t show off your bravery or ability to “be local,” but instead your ability to cause problems and perpetuate a way of behaving that simply is unnecessary and dangerous.

Of course, be careful, if you are going to share your good opinion in a bar or restaurant. You never know who is listening, and this is when outsiders get a bad rap. I say, lead by example. Pick up rubbish. Carry your trash until you find a trash can. Drive carefully. Stop for pedestrians, make room for cyclists. Wash your hands with soap. Bring a basket or reusable bag to the market. Treat others how you want to be treated. Make room for people to pass when walking on the sidewalks. Don’t block traffic.

I love how new ideas can spread quickly. But this doesn’t have to be via the Internet, ideas can spread simply because someone is watching. And in this day and age, believe me, someone is watching. This is how we also learn. Children do this almost to the point of embarrassing their parents when they mimic mom and dad’s political opinions or when they reveal that drivers are called jerks.

But if I stop for a pedestrian, then I’m teaching something. I believe we teach not only directly through our words, but indirectly through our actions as well. And if more and more people learn to pause for a few moments, so people can walk, then this becomes acceptable, until finally, this learned behavior is commonplace.

On the contrary, it seems it’s the negative behavior that spreads like a Miley-Cyrus-gone-viral. It’s the negative actions that seem to clinch on fast, and the “Well, if he can do it, why can’t I?” becomes the norm. I can’t believe how many people throw their trash on the ground, or toss it as they drive by, or cut the cue, or pee on the side of the road. How much of this is “cultural” and how much is just universally rude/crude/me-first behavior?

You know, even during my most downtrodden days living outside of my passport country, when I feel powerless or depressed, I have to remind myself that I do have control over my behavior. And by doing so, I can be a good expat, a mindful citizen to my Thailand home, and an overall decent human being. Even though I feel teachers should be good role models, I believe everyone’s a teacher, including you.


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4 thoughts on “Why expats (outsiders) are good for a community

  1. This explains why a foreigner parked his car on the sidewalk the other day, and the growing trend of parking cars on the sidewalk.

    Like

    1. I’m afraid so. I know that I’ve been in similar positions like seeing a driver cut through a parking lot and thinking, “That’s a good idea.” and then following them.

      We do this kind of stuff all the time.

      Like

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