(The Humanitarian Social Network)
We talked at the dead ashes of the cook fire.
“You heard the lion?”
This, a politeness, was also a rudeness as we both knew for we had discussed the phrase, “Ndio, Bwana,” which is what the African says always to the White Man to get rid of him through agreement.
-- True At First Light (Hemingway)
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Do we "live like them?" It is a perennial question and debate within the global community of expatriate aid workers. It is a question that even the founders of AidSource debate among themselves. When we live in another country, as expats, how far do we go to try to live like local people? Do we live in the expat part of town, or do we live in a local neighborhood? Do we hire a housekeeper in the name of “supporting the local economy”, or do we insist on doing our own laundry and mopping in the name of “solidarity with the poor”? Where do we draw the lines, and why? Should there even be lines?
I’ll confess that I certainly spent my share of time as a younger, greener aid worker traipsing around the villages of rural Southeast Asia, trying to dress like a Cambodian farmer or take my som tam with as many green chilies as the residents of Ubonratchathani, somehow believing that these things made me “local.” There was a time when I ritualistically endured long local bus rides across the Mekong Delta, when I could have taken a company car (we had the budget for it), all for the sake of showing my “solidarity” or “oneness” with people who I would in all likelihood never ever see again. And oddly, but not uniquely, somehow also believing that doing these things made me “better” than the well-coiffed expats wearing white shirts, safe in their offices in Phnom Penh or Bangkok. I was practically Vietnamese/Cambodian/Thai (or so my local friends told me) and those others, but well-paid interlopers.
In the intervening years, though (and there are more of those intervening years than I care to acknowledge), I feel like I’ve come to understand better what it means to live and work in another place. In particular two things that I have come to understand better in recent years:
No one expects us to “be local” – And even if they did, we couldn’t. Very often place unreasonable burdens of expectation on ourselves while living in or visiting foreign places. Obviously we have to respect local culture and local laws, and obviously there are places where these have an effect on how we might dress, talk, eat, interact with others, and so on. But while of course we have to learn to be polite and dignified in other cultural contexts – maybe cover our heads, use correct personal pronouns, or reach into the food bowl with the proper hand – this is not at all the same thing as becoming local. Very often our staff or colleagues or neighbors in a place foreign to us will say things like, “Oh, now you’re practically UgandanBurmeseAustralianEcuadoran…” But even if they say this (and there are few things expats cherish more than being told they’re “practically local”), we’re not. And they don’t expect us to be. More to the point, they expect us to be different. Because we are different.
This is the reality, no matter how much we like our local friends and their culture, no matter how well we speak another language, no matter how convincingly we dress in local clothes or how delicious we find local cuisine. We can develop deep, lasting friendships with local people (we might even date or marry one of them – I and the majority of my friends are in interracial/intercultural marriages). We can gain understanding and immense respect for local culture. We may even find particular aspects of local culture that we want to adopt permanently into our own lives and behavior.
But our attempts to “be local” are misguided. Rather, our emphasis needs to be on finding ways to live appropriately – in a manner that allows us to do what we have to do, but/and that doesn’t offend or offput those with whom we must work. I can’t say exactly what that means in every instance. It’s one of the things that we all have to figure out for ourselves. I personally believe that we as expats attach far more importance to things like what kind of house we live in or what kind of vehicle we ride to work in than do our local colleagues (they’re usually far more interested in whether or not we actually work and whether we treat them with respect and fairness). But in any case, trying to “be local” essentially distracts us from our core purpose as expat aid workers and makes us look like fools to the real locals who know better.
We have to live simultaneously in multiple worlds. It’s very common to meet expats in the field who have become so immersed in all things local that they’ve essentially become less able or maybe even unable to work effectively with or in the “outside” world. Very often this is worn as a badge of honor, and it’s among the most frequently emulated behaviors by new aid workers. But it’s ultimately a mistake, and perhaps even a performance issue (depending on the person’s actual job). By simple virtue of the fact that we’re expats as well as the nature of our jobs, we have to simultaneously live and be functional in two or more separate worlds. In fact, I would argue that ability to successfully navigate multiple worlds simultaneously is one of the few things that expats (potentially) bring to the table that actually adds real value in the aid/development enterprise.
It is important that we manage carefully the extent to which we abandon or ignore one in favor of the other. We do have to inhabit multiple worlds – a local world with its own customs, demands, needs; the NGO/aid world with its own language, politics, currencies and dynamics; and the world of our personal lives. Our families back home, with us in the field, or elsewhere, and the very real responsibilities and obligations that invariably come into play. (And it is the world of our families and personal lives that we most frequently underserve, almost always to our extreme detriment, although we usually do not recognize it until it’s too late.)
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by AidSource member J.
(Photo: the author's daughter as a young expat, clearly not local...)