• Westerners arriving in Asia are for the most part welcomed. (Getty Images )
Why are western expats elevated into a privileged bubble, while migrants in the west are reduced to social disadvantage? Camha Pham reflects on her own experience as an expat in Cambodia.
By
Camha Pham

1 Feb 2018 - 12:17 PM  UPDATED 2 Feb 2018 - 2:01 PM

I arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as just another archetypal, wide-eyed expat, curious about the city and its citizens and excited to explore its inner working.

Yet, despite the fact that it would be my home for the next six months, rather than making a concerted effort to adapt to the city’s idiosyncrasies, instead I cloaked myself in a blanket of familiarity and viewed my surroundings through a self-imposed expat bubble – albeit a well air-conditioned one.

I frequented between hipster cafes serving tropical açaí bowls and on-trend vegan fare, but made sure to try the fish amok so I could tick the ‘ate local food’ box.

The only fragments of garbled Khmer that I picked up were bot ch’wayng and bot s’dum ­– I needed to be able to direct the tuk-tuk drivers, after all.

It felt, rather, like it was up to the locals to adapt to us and to learn alternate ways of living to make life easier for them.

 My failure to pick up the Khmer language and integrate into the local Khmer community is indicative of the experience of many expats.

There was no expectation that I should pick up Khmer simply because I was in Cambodia, nor was I ever placed in a situation where I was forced to learn the language.

There was also no hostility expressed towards foreigners by the locals despite the increasing number of expat enclaves that were forming all over the city.

It felt, rather, like it was up to the locals to adapt to us and to learn alternate ways of living to make life easier for them.

 Seeing as there are parallels that can be drawn between the expat and migrant experiences, it seems curious to me that my own overseas experience should differ so greatly from that of migrants from non-Western countries coming into Australia.

After all, at its most basic level, both events involve individuals building new homes in foreign places, whether the impetus is derived from necessity, economic benefits or personal desire.

While it should be acknowledged that such motivations may differ substantially on emotional, physical and mental planes, it can also be argued that irrespective of the initial provocation, both experiences operate from within a sphere of being an ‘outsider’.

Where Westerners arriving in Asia are for the most part welcomed, or at least not blatantly shunned, non-Western migrants coming into Western countries, for a long time, have had to contend with open hostilities, suspicion and contempt.

 However, there’s a wide chasm that exists between the individual expat and migrant experiences of outsiderness – a disparity that has perhaps stemmed and grown out of a historical basis in colonialism and its ensuing by-products of exploitation and oppression.

 Where Westerners arriving in Asia are for the most part welcomed, or at least not blatantly shunned, non-Western migrants coming into Western countries, for a long time, have had to contend with open hostilities, suspicion and contempt.

Western expats are seemingly elevated into a place of privilege, while non-Western migrants are immediately delegated to a place of societal and, often, financial disadvantage.

 They are told to go back to their own country and to stop stealing our jobs.

They are expected to instantly ‘assimilate’ into our hotchpotch culture.

They are attacked for erecting their own communities and for holding on to their traditions.

They are belittled for their failure to take up our local values, customs and ways of living.

 This dichotomy demonstrates a Western privilege and entitlement that has been defined and reinforced throughout centuries of colonisation.

 If there is anything that we should thank our colonial fathers for, it should be that they have gifted future generations with a privilege that we inadvertently possess by way of being born into a Western country; a privilege that at times presents itself unknowingly in everyday interactions, the places we frequent and the company we choose to keep.

 Colonialists flagrantly imposed their own cultures and customs over their subjects, and unfortunately very little has changed in the historical narrative.

Privilege begets privilege, and today we can still witness similar modes of thinking, even if it is now dressed up in more palatable terms. It is still the privileged who gets to dictate who is the ‘outsider’ and how experiences of outsiderness are lived.

The very words ‘expat’ and ‘migrant’ have carefully crafted and loaded connotations that irrevocably draw distinctions between us and them.

 The hypocrisy that is definitive of the dichotomy of the expat and migrant experiences needs to be recognised and corrected.

Because, ultimately, expats and migrants are on different sides of the same coin: on the outside, looking in. 

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