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Among the expats

Cartoon of a "native" with bone in hair

The natives are revolting

Gender works differently for expats when compared to domestics. Very few expat wives work. At one end of the spectrum stands the modern English wife, struggling to complete her tasks, which usually include a full-time job, and to pay the bills, which usually include a substantial mortgage. At the other is the expat executive wife living in a luxury flat which is paid for by her husband’s company – as is her maid. This kind of wife can afford to be a lady, holding coffee mornings and playing bridge and treating shopping as a supreme and refined art. Expat wives resemble middle-class wives of an earlier era. My mother (born 1914) would have felt entirely at home as an expat. Come to think of it, she behaved like one anyway: we lived in Lancashire and she was from elsewhere. She referred to most of the people around her as “the locals”, a kind of functional equivalent of “natives”.

Expats are not intellectuals; indeed, there is an anti-intellectual element to their culture. I don’t (of course) mean that they are not intelligent. Many are science graduates who can give you a highly articulate and thoughtful exposition of what is going on in the oil industry. I mean they don’t engage in idle chatter about politics, philosophy, religion or the arts. In many respects their dinner parties are the opposite events of those of my youth based on a new university: disagreement on serious subjects is not encouraged. The general reason for this is that “you have to get on with people”: the world may be big, but some global networks are really quite small and a reputation for being eccentric or difficult could cost you, five years down the line. Religion and politics are divisive subjects; the politics of the country you are in – unlikely to be a liberal democracy – is a doubly forbidden subject. This, too, descends from empire and from the unpopularity of those, especially missionaries, who insisted on moralising about native practices.

There is little access to the fancier arts, even where there is an interest, and entertainment is based on much-discussed ways of accessing global television on giant domestic screens, often achieved with (to my mind) mind-blowing sophistication. Sport becomes, as in the Empire, the bastion of social life and a major topic of conversation as are cars, the successor to the horses of the Empire.

But the most interesting contrast between expats and domestics is the combination of uncertainty about the future and ambivalence about “the UK” (as it is always called). People like me can live in the same house for forty years (it’s currently thirty-eight) and assume that we will leave it in a box, but for expats there is always doubt about where they will end up. Much of this doubt is associated with a tendency towards another doubt, sometimes mild, sometimes ferocious, about whether the UK is fit for habitation.

If you have chosen – or been forced – to live your life outside your native country it is natural to emphasise its inadequacies. I am reminded of an old Punch cartoon which showed marines rowing manacled convicts into Botany Bay: one of the convicts shouts, “C’mon you Pommy bastard, put your back into it!” In the immigration museum in Sydney when browsing I did come across a letter in which a young woman, writing home in the early nineteenth century, said something like, “I have been here for ten days now and already I am feeling quite Australian”. If your country has rejected you or if you have little prospect of returning to it, it is natural to embrace a different identity.

Thus expat websites are full of debate about “the return” in which considerable hostility is sometimes expressed towards the idea of coming back. The UK is cold, unfriendly, over-crowded, in decline and expensive and has a vicious tax system and a low standard of living. The translation/response is that it has a rather nice climate which doesn’t make you sweat all the time or require air-conditioning; it is friendly enough, but naturally puts more emphasis on lifelong friendships than the hail-fellow-and-welcome world of the expat. Whether it is expensive rather depends on your income and tastes – certainly, servants cost more. “Decline” can also be seen as just change. The same considerations apply to “standard of living”: if you like live theatre, real beer and country walks, England is a pretty good place to live. (And it would be a pity to have to fly back all the time for Cheltenham, Wimbledon et al.) The UK tax system is among the most generous to those who have saved substantially and sensibly.

There is an interesting class element to this. Complaints about the UK tend to be fairly muted from those who have a large income and/or have retained a UK property in a desirable place. They are likely to be bitter if no property is owned or only one in a former mining village haunted by hooligans. It occurs to me that of my generation at my Oxford college, a privileged stratum and generation of society, I know of only two people who live abroad and they both own large tranches of the country they live in. If you are well off and you don’t fancy spending the next week in England, given the weather forecast, then you can simply go somewhere else. It is only the relatively poor who think that you have to be in the same place as your property. How many lives have been ruined by the British belief in real estate as an investment?

The class distinction between those who have made it at home and those who have made it as expats is something like the seventeenth-century distinction between the established and aspiring gentry. Even for a successful expat the return is not easy and is fraught with dilemmas. Where will you live? One property or two? How will you find a maid? Or adapt to life without one? What if the bridge club (or similar) proves to be unfriendly? How will that touch of arthritis respond to the unfamiliar cold weather? For better or worse, these questions are a central, even definitive, aspect of expat life.

© Lincoln Allison April 2015

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