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.
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.
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?