Oh My God, I am an Expat.

After spending so much time in SE Asia, the word “expat” started to take on a fairly creepy meaning.

If you’ve been to Vietnam (or any other Asian or developing country), you’ve seen them. White men. Somewhere between the ages of 50 to 65 years old. Big bellied. Almost always smokers and readily spotted at a bar of some sort. You don’t often see him talking. He just sort of sits there. Beer in hand and a local woman sitting next to him who is half his age and quarter of his size.

A lot of the older, long-term expats in Vietnam are Americans who couldn’t leave the country behind after loosing themselves to the ironic addictions of war. Some of them are French, descendents from the legacy of colonialism. Others are Europeans who came maybe for the women, maybe for the easy lifestyle this new world offers them with a foreign currency pension.

I have always been fascinated with these men. I’ve never known a group of people to appear completely alienated, alienating, lonely, unapproachable, and haunted all at the same time.

It usually takes a fair amount of booze in my system to actually make any contact with them. And the times I did never went particularly smoothly.

An American veteran in a backpackers in Da Nang viciously accused me of knowing nothing about the country my father came from. I got in a heated shouting match with a Frenchman/bar owner in Sapa who thought Americans were “fucking idiots” and that the Vietnamese were basically the worst people ever (even though he was married to one, had children with her and had lived in the country for a ridiculously large amount of years).

All in all, these were never the most pleasant of encounters, albeit interesting and entertaining in their own right.

But this afternoon, humility smacked me good and hard across the face.

Today, I walked down to New Zealand Immigration’s Wellington Branch and submitted by migrant levy fees to finalize my recently approved New Zealand residency status.  As I walked home, it hit me.

I am an expat, too.

Up until now, I’ve never found any commonality with the people I associate with the word “expatriate”. In fact, I’ve always been sort of disgusted by these guys and have judged them pretty harshly (as evident by the first half of this post).

But perhaps I was being unfair.

Because the stark truth is that in many ways, we are kindred spirits.

Maybe some of those guys expatriated for love, like I did. Maybe they moved because they were trying to find a sort of satisfaction and sense of belonging that they never could find in the places where they were born and brought up in, like I did, too.

Maybe we are all just trying to find a piece of home that a strange past and an unconventional personality just sort of screwed up for us.

I mean, I’ve shacked up with a local, too. Have been known to enjoy Asia’s cheap beer. Sometimes lose myself to memories gone and get so desperately frustrated by Kiwi mentality and culture that I curse it, hate on it, and critically compare it to America and all the things I miss about my home country only when I am far, far away from it.

In any case, I may look more like the Vietnamese woman these guys have hooked up with, but I am pretty sure I have more in common with them than these girls do.

So it’s time for me to claim my title. Be proud of what it means. Because that is the first step in recovering from whatever hardships an expat inevitably suffers from at some sort of level.

“Hello, my name is MaiLynn. And I am an expatriate.”


5 thoughts on “Oh My God, I am an Expat.

  1. I share your feelings about the creepy 50 to 65 year old male expats with big bellies I see in downtown Saigon, until I remind myself that I am a 66-year-old male American VN war vet with a big belly living here in Viet Nam as an expat. I don’t smoke and hang out in bars, though.
    But I have to sit back and ask myself why I think I am any different from them.
    I lived in Saigon for a year 41 years ago while managing construction with Vietnamese contractors. Because I enjoyed working with these people, I always wanted to come back to Viet Nam someday, and did so 7 year ago. So I don’t have an addiction to the war so much as I have an addiction to working with Vietnamese people to create and build new things.
    I stay here simply because life is more fun and challenging here for me than it is back in the USA at this time. I have very few expat friends here, but I do have lots of Vietnamese friends, because I live in a thoroughly Vietnamese neighbourhood and I enjoy Vietnamese life and food, talking and relaxing. It helps immensely to survive in this environment because I have a Vietnamese wife, who is younger than me at age 52, and she knows how to get things done.
    It may be that the expat men I see in downtown Ho Chi Minh City have similar stories and goals — I just haven’t tried to approach them to find out.
    So welcome to expat life. I have to remind myself regularly that I am an expat, and that there are all kinds of expats just like there are all kinds of people with stories back in the countries that we came from.

    1. Hi Mel,

      I really appreciate your comment and perspective on things. You’ve really got me thinking about my own point of view.

      I think as a young American, I grew up sheltered from many different cultures and lifestyles, including the one my father grew up in. So when I started traveling and meeting all sorts of people, I stared stereotyping people without even really realizing it. I often forget that I have more in common with all the other travelers/expats I meet while on the road (including the Frenchman who I got in an argument with) than 99% of the people living in my hometown.

      Our moms and teachers taught us that you can’t ever know someone until you put yourself into their shoes. It’s crazy how difficult this notion is, as easy and obvious as it sounds.

      There are a million reasons people decide to expatriate. I’m sort of an asshole for making sweeping generalizations about other people, and about my own reasons for moving abroad. Truth is, it’s complicated – at least for me.

      Again, many thanks for reading and sharing. It’s nice to know I have a couple “homes” in this world. I hope you find have similar thoughts.


      1. MaiLynn, I know what you mean by stereotyping people when travelling. I did the same thing (and unfortunately still do to a degree), but increasingly I am realizing that there are far fewer cultural differences between peoples, and far more character differences that are independent of ethnicities, races, and cultures. Human beings are complicated individuals with complicated stories that have formed their habits and beliefs. I often recognize characters here in Viet Nam among the Vietnamese that are similar to characters I grew up with or encountered in America, as well as other countries.
        This reminds me to go back through the early days of my own blog to recognise some of my early stereotyping of Vietnamese.
        — Mel

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