Expat

The Expat Celebrity Syndrome

Art in Paradise, Chiang Mai, 2013
Art in Paradise, Chiang Mai, 2013

There are so many interesting facets to being an expat. You learn about a different way of life, a different language and you reflect on your own beliefs and country. You can also become isolated, stubborn and self-destructive. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure + everyone back home thinks you are either brave or crazy.

But one of the things that I kind of get a karate-kick out of is the “expat celebrity syndrome”. This phenomenon happens when the intrepid traveler arrives in a foreign land and is treated like a movie star because they are different. They stand-out. Some love the attention and some hate it.

Recently, I saw a group photo from one of my former Chiang Rai students on FB. It looked like his school had picked up a foreign exchange student and they surrounded her for the obligatory snapshot at the airport. He called her an angel and I’m fairly certain she was treated like one, too.

It’s not like CR doesn’t have its share of foreigners, it’s just she embodies what Thais think are perfect – fair and young. Back home in Germany, I’m willing to wager she’s just an average girl, but while visiting Thailand, her every move, likes and dislikes will be recorded and watched under the careful guise of her host school.

When I lived in Ecuador, the foreign female teachers would be harassed on the street. My coworkers would be constantly told how beautiful/sexy/amazing they were and I suddenly realized the appeal for some of these women who moved to South America. Here, you are adored, admired and your Salsa dance card will always be filled.

I, on the other hand, blended in. I stood silently to the side while my coworkers engaged with flirty Ecuadoran men. In some ways, it felt like high school and college all over again, but I was older, wiser and knew their lack of interest had nothing to do with my self-worth. Being a wallflower actually was to my advantage when my Jewish friend was mugged while I was ignored.

selfie-shadows
Noticing our shadows at Angkor Wat, 2015

That’s the other side of the currency, when you are targeted for being different. When you are the only foreigner, or one of the few in your city, looking different can produce hard stares, loneliness, unwanted photographs, mistrust, laughter – or in the case of my friend, being poked by strangers at the market because she is so big.

But the expat celebrity syndrome award goes to those men who come to Asia. You know, those men. They are treated like rock stars or they act like them, I can’t tell the difference anymore. They do more than play the field, they create their own morals and sometimes they win and sometimes they commit suicide. It’s a fascinating world to watch and listen to. Boys fooling themselves into thinking they are: Big Papa, Big Pimpin’ and Big Money. (Here’s a thought-provoking taste by Louis Theroux)

I get it. Attention is nice. No one can really blame anyone for not enjoying the elevated status, the lift we get from being bombarded with paparazzi questions and big smiles. Everyone wants to believe they are special. As expats we get to feel loved and not necessarily because of anything we have done, but for showing up, for being here.

Art in Paradise, Chiang Mai, 2013
Just being here at Art in Paradise, Chiang Mai, 2013

When I first started teaching English in Asia, I used to joke with my coworkers that my new students will be disappointed when they see their teacher was me, an Asian face to match theirs, instead of a white beauty. I think that was my way of trying to prepare for being different, but not different enough. But my students have always surprised me by their keen interest in this Asian American. In the classroom I (usually) have a captive audience, and in there I can be bit of a stand-out celebrity, too.

What do you think? What has been your experience? Are you an expat celebrity?

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33 thoughts on “The Expat Celebrity Syndrome

  1. That must have been frightening and surprising at the same time when your Jewish friend got mugged and you did not. The expat celebrity syndrome is certainly an intriguing one. Don’t know if I told this story here before, but once I was on a holiday in Indonesia, visiting one of the seven wonders of the world there, Borobudur Temple. it was blazing hot, and all of a sudden a realised a group of dark-skinned teenage-looking local girls starting whispering and following me around. They also had their cameras pointed at me. It was weird, I wondered what they wanted and I believe at one point one of them whispered, “Nicole Richie”. Either they thought I was her or a local celebrity.

    Lol at the last photo. Toilet paper is celebrity 😀 Elevated status can be a scary thing too. You never know who might be jealous, always lurking and bad mouthing you behind your back.

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    1. The mugging incident was a surreal one – and one that took me slow moments to realize what was happening. The guys even looked at me, but never bothered me. It’s very possible they targeted her since earlier in the day she took money out of an ATM, but I’m still surprised they never even asked to see what I had on me. Maybe they thought I was a local Chinese and had nothing to offer. I don’t know.

      No, Mabel, you never told me that story! Ha! A local celeb. I didn’t know you looked like someone famous 😛

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      1. Perhaps you didn’t dress your best that day and the muggers thought you looked like someone who didn’t have much on them 😛 That is often how we are told to dress in Malaysia to “blend in” and not look like a celebrity or tourist for our safety.

        While it was flattering to get mistaken for a famous person, it was actually rather unnerving 😉

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      2. No, the muggers most likely targeted my friend. They probably watched her take out money from the ATM and then watched us have ice cream and all that until they felt they could get us. At least that’s our guess.

        Or maybe it was my dress 😛

        Okay, no more mistaking Mabel for being famous, everybody!

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  2. Thank you again for an insightful post. To some degree, I can understand the hard stares and what our son and daughter in law that live in Japan call “The Stink Eye” coming from a xenophobic closed society. When we visit and are on trains we nearly always have Japanese people move away from us. We call it the Gaijin perimeter.

    I have a hard time understanding the same treatment having lived in Chiang Mai and now Hua Hin. These cities are full of Falangs and the Thais interact and see them every day. We are stared at more in Hua Hin and notice people covertly taking our photograph when we aren’t looking. The condo we are living in mostly owned by Thais from Bangkok and they only visit on the weekends. We tend to clear the common rooftop area and are often given the stink eye.

    Just the other day while walking on the beach a Thai man asked if he could take our picture. Ok, fine….. but just as the young woman that used his phone was done and they started to walk away I decided to troll them back. “I want a picture with the girls!” They were shocked and not happy, but went along with it because it is not ok to say no.

    I used to take it personally when asked to buy a refrigerator, tractor, teach grandson English…for free, and even move in to my house and take care of my elderly parents! I am gradually accepting that it is a completely different society and I am an alien from another planet. Can Eric draw a cute little old lady alien with curl hair?

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    1. Ahhhh, the infamous ‘stink eye’ – very Hawaii. It comes from being territorial, really. And I’m surprised to hear that you two sweeties get it! I can’t imagine a nicer couple! Do you think it has to do with the poltical climate right now?

      What great points you bring up – the double standard w/ the photos, the buy a….teach English and I laughed when I read the “Gaijin perimeter”. Must be the hats 😛

      I’ll see what I can do re: the little alien. 555 Maybe the next time you get stared at you try making funny faces. Just throwing that out there…

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  3. On 20th September, two of my foreign colleagues and I, including our boss did a video shoot for the local TV station. I was approached by someone’s dad who recognised me from TV. I sure was embarrassed. In this part of Turkey, there are very few foreigners. We have not meet other foreigners yet.

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    1. Ohhh, yes, I owe you an email. I’m keen to know about your new life in Turkey. Yes, expat worlds can be very small and it sounds like you are already on your way to celebrity stardom!

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  4. I’ve had some mixed experiences in my life and travels through Asia – the first time a group of kids wants to take a photo with you it’s cute and funny, but by the 17th time I want to scream “I’m just a person, what’s the big deal?” I don’t mind the occasional person telling me I’m so beautiful, or the little kids who get shy and peek at me. but I also have kids point and laugh, mothers literally reach into my grocery cart to inspect what I’m buying, and entire families gape at me through my whole meal. the worst was when I traveled solo to Hong Kong – I tried to wave some guy off who wanted a photo because I was eating lunch. he came back, demanded the photo, and then tracked me down inside the nearby starbucks to ask for more photos. that was just scary. I guess my point is – it’s not ALL bad but there are many days when I wish I could blend in!

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    1. I’ve heard some pretty horrific stories from my b/f who lived in rural China so I can imagine easily what it must have been like for you to be harrassed for photos. I’ll never experience that so it’s just weird to wonder…yes, the boldness takes me back. I had a woman try to look into our apt as I’m closing the door and I’m like, uh, no, that is rude. Sorry about the Hong Kong stalker, foreign women must be his obsession…

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  5. I didn’t get many stares for my dirty blond hair and blue eyes when we lived in Manila, but I did get a few comments for having three half-Chinese daughters. Even then though, the comments were kind. They pointed out that I had “tres Marias.” Visiting China in 1983 and 1986, the stares and comments were more intrusive. In Xiamen, virtually none of the young people had ever seen an American, and they weren’t shy about staring. In Shanghai, everyone wanted to practice their English with me. In the eighties, no one had a cell phone, so they didn’t ask to take my picture.

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    1. Yes, China is probably the most invasive as far as their “lack of manners” towards foreigners as far as I know. It’s amazing how they don’t hold back and will stare contineously. It sounds like you were able to take it all in good stride though.

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  6. I’ve never been to Asia, and in Europe the American mongrel mix works in my favor. As longs as I don’t wear white tennis shoes, I get mistaken for a local on a regular basis. Especially in Germany.

    In Asia, I have no doubt I would be met with “So huge!” and followed around like a carnival sideshow. Flip side might be not getting mugged. I mean, does any man really wanna mess with a woman who towers over him? I’ve tested this theory in sketchy parts of South Central LA, Miami, and DC. No muggings yet.

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    1. *Knock on wood* My American friend was actually harrassed when she was cycling and she was much bigger/taller than her attacker. It shook her up pretty good, but she was able to out strength him. But generally, I believe most men pick on women smaller than their size. Either way, scary.

      Yes, the white tennis shoes. The mark of an American! So how “German” did you go – did you wear sandals with socks? 😛

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  7. Other than some people being curious enough to ask to touch my hair, nothing out of the ordinary, lol! That’s not celebrity … 🙂 . I’m glad to read your students are curious about you, which means they are curious about the world.

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  8. While the celebrity treatment can be nice, it does get old (especially in Asia). I also noticed it’s harder to assimilate into the culture, or feel a sense of ‘belonging’ if you look foreign. In Japan this is especially true–even if I lived in Japan for 20 years and spoke the language fluently, people would still “HERRO!” “YOU USE CHOPSTICK!?” me to death, and I think my patience would wear very thin.

    I always somewhat envied my Asian looking friends because they could at least kind of fake it and blend in, but when you look white it’s hard to hide. You’ll just never fit in.

    China was a little more welcoming than Japan, I’m sure Thailand (and Cambodia!) is too.

    Are expats in Cambodia treated differently than in Thailand? Just curious!

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    1. I’ve heard how insulated Japan is and I have heard about never being part of the culture/country no matter how long you’ve been there. And I do find that – sad. America is so much more a melting pot.

      It can be nice to blend in, but being AA produces another set of questions/stares and problems, too. It seems none of us can escape judgment! Gah!

      I’m not sure if expats are treated differently. I know everyone wants me to do a comparison, but I’ve only been here 2 months!

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  9. I don’t even notice the staring in China anymore! Well, there are a lot of foreigners in Shanghai and Suzhou so we are not a novelty anymore. But there is always someone who just arrived from the countryside and will yell HALLO at you. I haven’t been asked for a picture or been told that I am beautiful in a long time (I am getting old and unpretty, ha!) but that happened many times when I was a student in Beijing. Many foreigners get tired and angry but I was fine with it… I am very patient, haha.

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    1. You’re very patient with compliments 🙂

      Believe it or not, I get stares and my b/f doesn’t like it. I think it’s the “She’s Asian, but she doesn’t look like us” stare. And since I used to get stared at alot in the US when I lived in Colorado, I’ve gotten used to looks too!

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  10. I once was mistaken for Sandra Bullock and some Taiwanese once thought my friend was Pamela Anderson. And during my early days in Taipei, I had a stalker [not joking – very scary and serious stuff.]

    If I am with my husband, no one really talks or bothers me. But, if I am out and about by myself, people are more willing to approach and talk to me.

    And I know what you mean about ‘those guys.’ However, there are some good ones among the bunch.

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    1. Absolutely! I’m friends with “those guys” and the good ones, too.

      How interesting that you are approached so easily and often when you are alone. You must seem friendly and not intimidating 🙂

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  11. Well, not much super negative experience for being foreign ex-pat –except when I was in GErmany, in little village some local children simply stared long at me..but not at my non-Asian (white and German descent) partner. In Greece, late 1980’s, I hardly saw Asian faces in Athens which is probably Greece’s most cosmopolitan city. Most people think we’re from Asia…not from Canada.

    And don’t get me started on occasional treatment (negatively) as a “foreigner” in Canada, my birth and home country, when I am Canadian-born and haven’t stepped on Asian land at all so far..

    I have been more a celebrity for being the few women in a rm. of 80 firefighters and there were only 2 other women. There were no Asian-Canadian male firefighters.

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    1. I look forward to your comments because you always have something special to share. Firefighter! What in the world were you doing in there?

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      1. I was a librarian for a number of years where I managed a library on resources specializing on fire protection engineering, emergency planning and firefighting. I did deliver various presentations…

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  12. This is such an interesting and divided topic. You’re right when you say people either love it or hate it. Being the proverbial white girl in Asia, I do get a lot of looks. In Taiwan, where foreigners are rarer, it was more noticeable. I got stared at, called beautiful out loud, hello-ed at and presented with children to converse with. In Korea, foreigners are more common, so I get the perfunctory look but I’ve had only one random conversation with an elderly lady. It’s quite nice, in many ways, not to be hailed every time I go outside, but I still feel like all eyes are on my at least once, so I still watch my step. My students still find me fascinating too, despite my being one of many white foreigners at my school. My arm hair is examined, my nose pinched, my eyes squinted at (are they contacts? Surely they can’t actually be green!). I do feel for those who end up in dangerous situations because they stand out. I pray that never happens to me or anyone I know.

    For me, though, really, it depends on my mood. If I’m feeling strong and confident and assured I don’t mind the stares. If I’m feeling a bit down or insecure then I usually don’t go outside to avoid the people. It’s a real love or hate thing with me, every day.

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    1. Perfectly and honestly stated. Yes, attention is nice. Locals showing interest in you is nice. It makes us feel good, but when we are feeling vulnerable or “having one those days” it can really make you feel like an outsider. It’s such a mixed plate and something I don’t think anything prepares you for until you are right smack in the middle of it.

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