That Expat Title

According to my handy dictionary, expat is an adjective that means living in a foreign land.

The previous article I posted doesn’t ring true for me. I am a Filipino expat because I’m living in a country other than the Philippines. People around me here call me an expat. My classification in school is an “expat”. I’m no immigrant. I get expat treatment like my American colleagues. If we enjoy the same privileges, I won’t know but I’d like to think so. Although according to my experience, I am wary now.

At which point that article rings true for me now. The title “expat” isn’t the issue here. It’s the indirect racism. The word “expat” is used sparingly with coloured people because it has superiority attached to it, and whether we like it or not, especially in places where it was colonized by Westerners, which are, bluntly speaking, the Third World countries (they colonize us and they won’t let us in their countries via visa restrictions – funny).

The word denotes privilege. When I was a child, I grew up in a place where expats outnumber the locals, so being an expat wasn’t different. I grew up with a consciousness that foreigners are locals though: my neighbors were Germans, Japanese, Canadians, etc. My parents were sort of local expats though, and they were in a tough spot: they were not from the same island as the locals. They didn’t know anyone, and since they came from the capital Manila, they spoke Tagalog which is deemed more superior than the dialect. They do not have the same values as the locals and that made them stand out, and standing out in a sea of similar-looking people sharing the same kind of ethnicity is a breeding ground for jealousy and backbiting. My parents did not want to retire there.

See when you are uprooted from your hometown or home country, the leaders (or at least the smart people) understand that you have no support being an import. No family, no house, no friends. You have to adjust to new cultures, new places, new food; maybe even time zones. It’s not easy. So managers/leaders give out “perks” like housing, settlement allowances, earlier home time and holiday allowances to compensate the lack. You are treated to first class facilities and treated to the best parties because your host is showing off his country. You are most probably in the company of leaders and movers in the industry themselves because, well, leaders have to move places to move people and companies. And locals only see the “perks” because they want it, too.

And in Asia, whether we like to admit it or not, the culture of caste system is very much alive, thanks to having centuries of colonial rule. Colonial rule meant having the white people (colonizers) being superior, and more powerful. The natives don’t have ANYTHING. Now you know why Asians have the penchant for skin whitening products. All if it, even the concept of beauty, boils down to power.

So if an Asian comes over to work on a white country, I would understand the discrepancy of the white-coloured labeling of expat: do you want your slave to have that power? What’s worse is that the Westerners don’t label the Asians like that. It’s the Asians who label their fellow Asians. The Asians, with our very strange non-confrontational, everything-is-okay-but-you’re-treated-like-shit culture, can be very difficult to deal with because of this ingrained racism.

I am lucky because I can speak Engish better than most people here, if not, my dark skin and curly hair would have proved to be a disadvantage, because, hey, I look like a real Asian – not worthy to have “perks”.


Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?

This article originally appeared in The Guardian


In the lexicon of human migration there are still hierarchical words, created with the purpose of putting white people above everyone else. One of those remnants is the word “expat”.

What is an expat? And who is an expat? According to Wikipedia, “an expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person’s upbringing. The word comes from the Latin terms ex (‘out of’) and patria (‘country, fatherland’)”.

Defined that way, you should expect that any person going to work outside of his or her country for a period of time would be an expat, regardless of his skin colour or country. But that is not the case in reality; expat is a term reserved exclusively for western white people going to work abroad.

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’.

Don’t take my word for it. The Wall Street Journal, the leading financial information magazine in the world, has a blog dedicated to the life of expats and recently they featured a story ‘Who is an expat, anyway?’. Here are the main conclusions: “Some arrivals are described as expats; others as immigrants; and some simply as migrants. It depends on social class, country of origin and economic status. It’s strange to hear some people in Hong Kong described as expats, but not others. Anyone with roots in a western country is considered an expat … Filipino domestic helpers are just guests, even if they’ve been here for decades. Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese are rarely regarded as expats … It’s a double standard woven into official policy.”

The reality is the same in Africa and Europe. Top African professionals going to work in Europe are not considered expats. They are immigrants. Period. “I work for multinational organisations both in the private and public sectors. And being black or coloured doesn’t gain me the term “expat”. I’m a highly qualified immigrant, as they call me, to be politically correct,” says an African migrant worker.

Most white people deny that they enjoy the privileges of a racist system. And why not? But our responsibility is to point out and to deny them these privileges, directly related to an outdated supremacist ideology. If you see those “expats” in Africa, call them immigrants like everyone else. If that hurts their white superiority, they can jump in the air and stay there. The political deconstruction of this outdated worldview must continue.

Mawuna Remarque Koutonin is the editor of, where this blog was first published. Follow @siliconafrica on Twitter.

Join our community of development professionals and humanitarians. Follow@GuardianGDP on Twitter.

Happy Valen — Chinese New Year (Or How Asia Screws Up My Holidays)

Last night, I had cereal for dinner. Now that’s not bad, in fact, that was a norm once upon a time. But I’m really trying to have a healthy and balanced diet these days so a bowl of Rice Krispies doesn’t really cut it. I had to shop for food.

I got stoked because it’s Valentine’s Day! In my world, Valentine’s Day means Valentine’s Day Sales, and that includes food, particularly chocolate. It’s treat time for me. I don’t care for flowers or candle-lit dinners… I’m more practical. With Ash and I, we spent our last Valentine’s together on a beach in Thailand eating falafels for 60 Baht. It was the greatest Valentine’s Day ever. (Then again everyday together for us is like Valentines lol)

The point is, for me, Valentine’s is a normal day with awesome sales that you’re supposed to give to your partner. Well, screw that, I’ll buy those stuff for myself. They’re nice, especially the food. Heart boxes of Ferrero Rocher for half the price! McVitie’s dark chocolate digestives on a buy one take one! Gimme some of that!

So I woke up in the morning, cleaned the house, and it was time for food shopping! Ack! I went to the shop. I opened the door. I saw red and they weren’t love hearts.

Oranges. Stacks of them.  In boxes. My world went “whaaaaat?” My sweet dreams — crushed by reality called Chinese New Year. No more sales. So I moved slowly across the aisles, wondering about how different I am to the rest of these people. My reality isn’t compatible to this. I want love hearts instead of red, round lanterns. This is false. I expected to see roses, chocolates and jewelry along the shopping arcades, not dragons.

I felt really fragmented then. You see, I’m Asian. I’m Filipino. I should belong to this reality because, well, Chinese New Year is Asian; but no, I felt super alienated.

Chinese New Year isn’t new to me, we celebrate it in the Philippines by having token promos for it in shops, like buy one take one on luxury rice cakes, and maybe one section of the shop decorated in red and gold with angpaos and dragons. I’m part Chinese as well, but back at home, it’s Valentines that paints the town red. News programs don’t report news at this time, instead they run news features on how to spend valentine’s day if you’re on a budget.

I know should not impose my culture on another country but I fully expected that Valentine’s, like Christmas, is omnipotent. In Indonesia as well, where there is a lot of Catholics – I work in a Catholic school for Chrissake (then again it’s not run by nuns or priests which is kind of a no-no in the Philippines. Hm. Culture).

In my utter disappointment, I wandered to the local fruit section marveling at their weirdness thinking, hey these weird fruits belong to my circle of being strange. Instantly I thought, damn these strange fruits aren’t weird, they are the normal. Awkwaaaaaard.

I also asked myself – why is my notion of fruit apples, bananas and oranges – when they were all imported back in the Philippines (except for the banana of course). Why can’t atis be my mental image when I think of fruit. Guyabano. Chico. Buko!

Fragmented again.

These are those days where I don’t know how it means to be Filipino. Is it me, or are the rest of the Filipinos as fragmented as I am? I’m really confused. But, the good thing is, I know I can be an individual because I can’t define my social group. I’m happy with that because I have always been the weird kid since kindergarten. I have my rules and live by them because the sense of individuality is the best gift you can give yourself.

Then I hear the ubiquitous “Gong xi gong xi gong xi a mis” song being played, then the next thing you know a dragon dance is being performed in the shop. I couldn’t even get a proper picture because people were enthusiastic for them blurring my shots. Everything stops in the shop. Can’t pay, can’t weigh. You have to watch. I did. It was nice. But I walked away from that party as soon as I can and entered another grocery. It was sedate, even with red lanterns all over it.

And the best part, Zero 7’s In The Waiting Line is playing. I belong here.

Adjustment: Can Previous Expat Experience Help?

I remember when it was my first time to move to a different country to work, it felt like a summer course. You know, long term holiday but not really. I was excited. The second time I moved to a different country, I was jaded, tired and just wanted to get over the process of adjustment. If there was a shortcut to social integration, I’d buy it.

Unlike learning a language where you master vocabulary and grammar rules and you sort of get better with practice, moving to different countries is a different animal altogether because most of the things you are supposed to get better at are new and unique every time you move. No country has the same cultural norms or even language. Everything is quite different from what you are used to from food, to clothes, to language and even climate!

Truth be told, I have never stayed in one place for more than a year since 2012. I want to say I get bored but it’s just luck, really. Well, and my decisions that lead to that luck of course: funky co-teachers, low salaries, no benefits, my love. There are reasons why I did what I did and I have no regrets, even though what I do is quite eyebrow-raising for most people (I have answered a lot of “Why’s?” in that aspect and man I just want to shut people up and leave me alone). Maybe add to the fact that I am very curious and adventurous so I tend to seek new stuff. Because of this adventurism, when a new prospect of moving to a different country beckons, I’m like, “Should I try to go there?” and the answer would most probably be yes.

I also get that confidence because the thought “I did this before, it will be easier for me” enters your mind. Oh it will be a snap!

That’s the honeymoon period. Now I’m on that period where it’s just like a passive “Okay” all the time, and honestly, I couldn’t care less about it. Which is good because when you are adjusting to a new place, you’d actually feel unsafe at some point because, well, trust issues I suppose. You’re an outsider, an alien in their country. My mind always tells me, these people don’t care about you. And a passive “Okay” from you always appears to be non-threatening.

People can say, oh the same things happen when you move to a new country, but just packaged differently. I beg to disagree because you cannot translate your experiences from one country to another because of the cultural diversity and differences they have from one another.

I believe that there is a biological explanation for the process adjustment, and I think that the brain, when in a new place, gets stimulated with all the new stuff: say the language and smells. Then the poor brain, which cannot find patterns, gets uncertain. Uncertainty builds stress and we don’t like stress, so it soothes you into thinking that everything will be all right and that will be repeated: new stuff, anxiety, patterns, uncertainty, stress, soothe until the novelty fades and you start to become integrated and adjusted to the new environment.

Is there a shortcut for that? Well there is that thing called anticipatory adjustment wherein you learn what to expect in a new country before even stepping off the plane to make the experience of adjusting less painful. But is this true? If you google it, the opinions are divided. So screw that.

This is my take on it: Generalizing traditions because the countries came from one region is in vain. Cultural-specific knowledge is named that because it is cultural-specific! It’s like forcing your values on another person. That can’t ever work.

However, it is always good to read up on cultural-general (as opposed to cultural-specific) knowledge and as an expat with previous experience you know the power of culture and how the strangeness implicitly affects the way you think so you can act accordingly. You have to know that to act and function properly in your new environment, and that’s how you grow: you cease being judgmental, you become more open, patient and hopefully better in communication. You get to become culturally-sensitive and trust me, that will be useful in all cultures.

Apart external knowledge, a good insight is what you also need. Self-knowledge is key to proper adjustment too. This makes handling stress easily because culture shock drains you emotionally, mentally and physically. You get to avoid certain behaviour and establish routines to help yourself. You know how long it takes for you to settle in as well and you give yourself some love. For me, I know it takes at least 3 months for me to settle in a new place.

But the best advantage previous experience gives to you is realistic expectations regarding expat life. It’s not as glamourous or easy as one might have thought romantically. You get to be more forgiving of your mistakes and take them as prices of information because you understand that the road to social integration is one hell of a bumpy road. In other words, you know that it’s the journey that matters, not the things you pack.

How To Cope With Homesickness

Living abroad is something many people dream of and actually do. It is exciting, thrilling and most of all an incredible adventure. Most of the time, before we leave the home country, we stuff our minds with ideas and pictures that conjure romantic ideas: weekends on the beach, exotic meals, classy apartments, smiling locals – but when you reach your intended destination, that idea kinda falls apart when you realise the opposite is true.

It gets worse. On some days, you will be struck with that really empty feeling where you just want to reach for a bowl of mac and cheese for comfort (and you can’t find any decent one) after seeing your family enjoying dinner without you. You ask yourself why the hell did you leave the comforts of home, where everyone knows you and you’re the big fish.

That’s silly though. Living abroad has made me a better person tenfold and I truly recommend living in a foreign country to anyone. Although I feel like it’s a luxury to connect to my friends, being apart from them makes me discover who I am. Of course one can’t deny that homesickness can strike at any moment, and in any case, you have to cope with it. I decided to share what I do when the rare time of homesickness comes to play.

1. Do/Have something familiar. I am lucky I have a very loving, supportive boyfriend. We have our routines, and do it everyday and it makes me feel rooted, even if we are not in the same place. We watch movies together, we eat together (his lunch, my dinner – oh time zones), sometimes nap together. I go to the gym, an activity that we used to do together, to keep me fit and busy. Oh and food. I am a sucker for Oreos. McDonald’s French Fries. They instantly bring me back home.

2. Speak in your native tongue. I’m lucky that I can Skype my friends who speak the same dialect (Ilonggo) as I do. Speaking your native tongue in a foreign country feels strangely empowering. Also, the bf comes into the picture. Although English is my second language, I practically grew up with it and as a foreigner, English has become the lingua franca. We talk a lot and well, our conversations feel like home.

3. Pursue a new hobby. Although this comes contradictory to number one, pursuing a new hobby can take your mind off homesickness, especially if you put a goal to achieve. Learning a new language for example, has been a fun hobby. Duolingo is one of the best apps for this. It’s fun and it’s presented in a game-like platform, you learn language fast and easy. Another thing is listening to podcasts. Before the boyfriend came into my life, I didn’t give a thought about it, but now thanks to him, when I find myself doing nothing, I try to look for a good podcast to supplement my knowledge. My favourites are Joe Rogan, Tim Ferriss, The Psychology Podcast and NPR. TED videos also do the trick.

4. Cook. This is really a personal thing for me. Whenever I miss home, I try to create the meals my mother made. Or at least my yaya made. Nothing takes me back home than pancakes, puto (okay I buy these stuff), or fried bananas. When I get an oven though, I’m pretty sure baking will hog the spotlight. Brownies and cakes mean home.

5. Be grateful. This is something I try to do more. When you feel down, list the things you’re lucky to have right now. Not every one has three meals a day. Not everyone has internet. Not everyone has a luxury of having me time! Perspective changes everything. Now go ahead, start small. Try listing down the things you can do abroad but you can’t do at home. You’ll be happier.

So don’t worry, you’re fine. Realise that you’re a lucky bastard for doing things worthy of story telling sessions in parties. You are embarking on an adventure. Make the most of it.



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