Are Ex-Pats A Force For Good?
Who are you?
I mean, how do you identify yourself?
Vacationer, Tourist, Travel Fan, Global Business, Long-term Ex-Pat, Migrant, Exile, Emigrant?
Each of these terms has a unique meaning, mostly having to do with the length and intent of travel.
At one end of the scale we find casual travelers, takers of long weekends or two-week holidays “to get away and relax”. Vacationers may or may not be invested in the destination- they just want time, secluded in the woods or by the sea- as Tourists and Travel Fans who likely see the destination as important, perhaps as a learning opportunity.
Global business (frequent, short-term, goal-focused travel) and long-term expatriate travel (mission achievement, legacy building) generally involve more inter-cultural investment while keeping a home-base, either physically or emotionally.
At the other end of the scale, we find more emotional turmoil- Migrants who must leave their home base to follow or find work (includes seasonal, non-existent at home, or higher paying abroad); Exiles who are forced to leave by politics, religion, or other reasons, but who still maintain a sense of loyalty to their home base; and Emigrants who, for a variety of reasons, feel they cannot or no longer wish to remain in their home country.
Who are you, why do you roam the globe? Do you travel, yet keep a home base like many diplomatic and oil company workers who maintain a “permanent” storage pod or garage space for a life that waits at the end of a career?
Or are you one of the millions who have traded one country for another residentially with no intention of going home? Do you consider yourself a resident, a citizen or a guest?
“I am not now, and never will become–at least, not by my own desire–an expatriate,” said African-American writer James Baldwin while living in France in the 1960s. “For better or for worse, my ties with my country are too deep, and my concern is too great.” Baldwin was typical of Americans who fled their homeland. Alienated from it, they continued to ponder its meaning for clues to their identity.
The U.S. Expatriation Act of 1868 noted ‘the right of expatriation is a natural and inherent right of all people, indispensable to the enjoyment of the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.
When you look back on the long history and tradition of sending workers to faraway lands to accomplish goals and dreams, and sometimes miracles, it seems like there have long been “expatriates” willing to pull up stakes and go.
Early records talk about expatriates as those who left their home country to live somewhere else that more fully agreed with them or their lifestyle. People like Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, even Christopher Columbus- an Italian who later passed away in Spain, after some rather important travel adventures.
So where are we in the 21st century?
Global sentiment has shifted away from colonization, down-played self-centered wish-fulfillment, and the modern globalization of business with its impact on economies has come under criticism with social policy agreeing that companies which endeavor to work in developing countries should ‘give back’ in accordance with what they take away.
We have seen the growth of social responsibility alongside foreign investment, giving rise to a new breed of global nomad. (This is where I find myself on the scale.) Not so much the disenfranchised ex-citizen, and yet also not quite colonizing missionary.
Today’s ex-pat is often called upon to be a “force for good”. Making a difference has become a mantra. We share cultural touchstones and bring back new foods and customs for the cultural melting pot the world is becoming today. Technology has enabled a cultural exchange smorgasbord, if you will, as it makes almost anything possible to share.
I often wonder, though, at what cost? How many times have you heard ex-pats wistfully recall “the good old days” when the developing culture was pure and authentic, as they find locals dressing up for benefit of tourists, then going home to cellphones and other trappings of modernity? What are we sacrificing for progress?
In the former Soviet Union, I witnessed instances where companies “donated” or completed projects that completely changed the village culture. Just as I wrote about the oil discovery on family land in west Texas and New Mexico providing a steady income and the chance to never work again, sometimes a gift isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
I watched as families who rarely had any rubbish, soon became, in the name of progress, almost indistinguishable from American families with way too much packaging going out to non-existent landfill areas as they changed from Saturday outings at the bazaar to weekly trips to the international market, with everything packaged on styro trays, shrink-wrapped in plastic.
Now, I know there are two sides to this story. Some will say, good for them, join the world, it’s ok- their sons and daughters need to move away, go to University. Others will cite something more akin to Star Trek’s “Prime Directive” (“there can be no interference with the internal development of alien civilizations”).
Which path is right?
Can expats be a force for good without destroying cultures in the process? Can we bring good practices and learn from mistakes? Or should we let nature take its course?
What’s your position on this? Which traveller are you- dispassionate, or invested emotionally?