Thursday, July 16, 2009

Expat Kids

It happened again.

I was at a party where a group of expats were talking about the hollowness of expat life, which was fine because it’s an opinion that sounds fascinating only in the telling and not necessarily due to any intrinsic merit. It’s the kind of topic that can be lovingly embellished with all the sarcasm one can find and still gasp for more.

And at a party, what else do you need?

I don’t want to reveal the nationalities of these expats since it would be quite pointless doing so. It’d only reinforce some generalisations and that’s something I don’t want to do. Generalisations are a useful crutch for the intellectually lazy but it can be cruel when it becomes the sole prop for knowing, understanding... and even defining people groups. Now that is a topic for a separate blog-post altogether since it also happens to be one of my pet peeves.

Generalisations never fail to agitate me and, more so, when it is spouted by people who are educated, articulate and well-travelled.

Maybe it was for this reason a certain generalisation that evening got me seriously annoyed. It’s not that I made a scene at the party and knocked some sense into everyone’s head. I simply stayed silent and listened. I wanted to know what kind of embellishments will be given to this particular generalisation and what new nugget of information was I going to learn this time.

One of the expats in the group exclaimed that expat kids – or rather, ones who grew up here in Bahrain – have led a rather privileged and 'deprived' life and then went on to say that children in his home country lead more exciting lives. He described his own childhood to be full of rich experiences that expat kids only read about or get to watch only on their TV screens. Suddenly everyone seemed to be in agreement and began adding their comments, insights, what have you.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard anyone make these remarks before and it isn’t the first time that I haven’t heard anything ‘new’ spoken on the subject.

Now I happen to be an ‘expat kid’ myself and so, for me, anything that was said had to be taken personally. The only difference being that since I happen to be in my 40s the others in the group thought I would not only get what they were saying but also agree with them.

Somehow everyone expects that the fortysomethings have already sorted out their existential and identity issues and can be counted upon to give a more experienced argument or a more nuanced tongue lashing against all what ‘expat kids’ stand for. A weird assumption that the confusion expat kids go through lasts only till they are 25 or 27and that when they approach their 30s or get married, somehow by magic, it all goes away and they immediately take on the characteristics, absorb the world view and imbibe the experiences of adults from their home countries. And heaven help an expat-kid in his or her 30s or 40s who dares say this is not so, and speaks candidly of the confusion and identity crisis that’s natural for an expat.

Now I have to say that my life as an expat kid hasn’t been that fantastic and many of my peers would agree with me that being an expat kid is not necessarily very rosy. Our sense of belonging is more conceptual than local since we can’t claim ‘ownership’ over familiar geographical contexts. Our cultural moorings lack any regional or provincial dimension but are a mish-mash of things picked up in our global wanderings. We are always regarded as outsiders no matter where we are because our sense of belonging seems more negotiable than definite. It is for this reason, for example, we can’t apply for any scholarships, fellowships or awards, and in those instances where we do qualify,the fees are on the higher side because it is assumed 'we are floating in oil'.

We have to struggle for everything and work hard to achieve all that we dream about and aspire to reach. We can't claim any concessions or seek some privileges on ethnic grounds. We have to work hard and achieve success or suffer failure on our own steam. We are the default outsider and, hence, the default expendable component in any environment. And since, this has defined our worldview, the pressure to work harder is so much more intense and the need to exceed one's potential and excel is that much more urgent.

Having said this, does it still make us deprived?

Maybe those of us who grew up in Bahrain never had the pleasure of climbing trees, hiking through dense forests on weekends, going to the river for a swim, drinking fresh milk direct from the udder, knowing the names of the different colours one can see in nature or getting wet in the rain... in comparison, our adventures would seem rather mundane: watching TV, listening to 96.5 FM, reading books from the (now closed) British Council Library, cycling through the streets of Manama, hunting for the best shawarma or samboosa, eating hamburger and pizza with friends, playing acrobatics on the bannister, mall cruising and for the present generation... surfing the web in the comforts of one's home.

I suppose , on a purely superficial level, our life does appear rather dull, uninteresting and, yes, 'deprived' in comparison to what children in other countries have to face. Their adventures seem to be far more energetic than the mostly indoors fun that we seem to have grown up with.

But I disagree.

I believe that the wonders of childhood cannot be measured merely by what one has done as a child but by how those experiences end up shaping, informing and influencing the thought patterns and mental make up of one's adult life. And on that score, I think, our life as 'expat-kids' in Bahrain have been a true blessing.

In Bahrain, we have grown up with and have had close interactions with people of various nationalities and cultures, and so, a global world view is not a foreign concept to us. It's what has shaped our social circle since our childhood. Access to entertainment and information from various international sources have enriched our tastes and made us aware of diversity of experiences. It has broadened our cultural contexts and made us aware of a 'different' point of view. Even the so-called negative of not having a place we can call our own is a blessing in disguise because it has protected us from xenophobia, parochialism and narrow loyalties to one's ethnic background.

Now it's not that we've grown up without a sense of our own culture, or some sort of pride in our nation of origin or lacked knowledge of our country's heroes, founding fathers or heart throbs. It's just that we've realised the greatness of our countries does not immediately give them the right to be the centre of the universe. Yes, we do love our countries but we've been made aware that their uniqueness is not an excuse for arrogance but for a humble realisation that this uniquness forms a crucial thread in the vast tapestry of nations that constitute this planet we are part of.

More than anything, a global mindset is one of the biggest blessings any expat-kid can have, and this has been one of the most defining feature of our childhood and adult years.

I must admit that in recent years there has been a negative trend. Many expats have chosen to ghetto themselves in their own ethnic group. A few of them do not mingle with the 'other' and base their opinion on some preconceived notion that they've brought with them from their home country. Generalisations have become the favourite tool in cultural understanding and are robbing the expat population of the dynamism that it is capable of.

But this is just an aberration and cannot be considered a defining feature. At the end of the day, it all depends on individuals and how they see themselves, how they want their children to be, and what is the source of their pride. If they want to enrich themselves with the diversity that's all around, then, they'll be that much more richer and broadened in their mental make up. But if they want to shelter themselves only with people of their colour, race, language and ethnic background, then, they will be the losers.

So are we - expat kids - still leading deprived lives, as the party folks suggested?

Not a chance!!!

3 comments:

Biser said...

Unfortunately, I can't quite relate because I did not grow up as an expat. But I can, in a minute way, understand your perspective as I've experienced being an expat. I respect the fact that you admit and acknowledge your "status" as not rosy, and yet, as a blessing.

While an expat, I took deliberate effort not to hang around only with people of my ethnic background. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised at my discovery, because deep within the core of all humans beings, regardless of race, nationality, language, religion, is the same need for love, respect and acceptance. Nevertheless, how wonderful it was to discover that people of such a different (mind you, I say different, not better or worse) background could become some of my very best friends. Granted, it took years to build trust, but once it was built, it became a solid fortress of honor and respect that will carry on for a lifetime of friendship.

Yes...I, as a domestic child, may have had more experiences with nature, exploring my outdoor world. That might have a lot to do with the lovely climate here and the availability of lush fields, woods, rivers and streams. But the biggest exposure I had to diversity in my younger years was with a few black students and a Jehovah Witness classmate. We (the “majority”) were smart enough not to outcast our black fellow students, but we somehow had found a way of excluding our Jehovah Witness classmate just because of (what we or I now realize) our stupidity and ignorance…because she was different. Whoever made up the silly idea that differences make someone or something better or worse?

No one is deprived who understands the value of each and every (whatever or wherever they may be) circumstance in their lives. Bravo, meister.

…we played acrobatics on the banister, too! :)

bint battuta said...

Lovely post, Ashish.

Expatriate said...

very nice blog please keep it up...
The worst countries in terms of expat experience are the United Arab Emirates and China, where most expatriates find it extremely hard to integrate into local society or make local friends.