It would be normal to think of the Scots as the second biggest nation in the British Isles with a population a little under five and a half million. But there is arguably a bigger tribe with a population over five and a half million, which is British expats. Expatriates are people with a country’s passport and a full right of residence in that country who choose not to live there and have at least a temporary right of residence elsewhere. This, of course, leads to semantic debates about why British people in (say) Spain are called expats but Polish people in Britain are called immigrants. There is no proper answer to that question, but in principle we could distinguish between those whose stay was temporary and permanent residents, but as in many cases they don’t know or might anyway change their minds. A rough summary of survey evidence for what it’s worth, which isn’t much, is that pre-Covid about 20% of British expats definitely intended to return and 60% didn’t. The historic context is that Britain, for all our concern with immigration in the twenty first century, had a net emigration rate in the twentieth century of around a third of a million a year. Arguably that makes our diaspora the biggest, but it also makes it easier for British people to be either emigrants or expats.
Technically I was once an expat insofar as I spent a year in California. But my real experience comes from being a visitor among the expats. My four brothers-in-law between them lived in more than two dozen countries: I also traveled for work and the two dovetailed for a couple of decades. Thus I have dined in predominantly – and often wholly – English company in Mumbai, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but also in Houston and Ottawa, Paris and Moscow – among others. If someone had funded me to research expats to the degree that I have inadvertently it would have cost them a lot of money. There are two major kinds of expat, those who who are primarily where they are to work and those who aren’t. My experience is mainly of the former, but I also know Dordogneshire and the various costas.
The most admirable thing about expats is their clubbability. Because on average they stay in one place for only three years they have to get on with the business of socialising. Not for them the awful English (or should I say Southern English?) habit of ignoring your neighbours or waiting until there is a crisis before talking to them. Day two at the latest you look up suggested contacts, join the British Club (or equivalent) and find out where the badminton or birdwatching or bridge happens. Thus many people have more friends as an expat than they ever do at home and you discover at Sunday brunch that two couples who seem like the oldest of friends have only known each other a matter of weeks. They are normally admirably inclusive: if you speak English and can fit in there are no barriers. (Thus the contemporary clubs of the former British Empire are often the same institutions as in imperial days, but work quite differently.) The Scots get on well with the English and the British with the Irish. Social class, defined in terms of origin is no barrier and people make friends with others they would probably never have bothered with or even met “at home”. If you’re in the club bar you’re already “one of us”.
Put together with high incomes and affordable local or sub-continental servants this generates a certain kind of self satisfaction which can be both endearing and mildly irritating. As the cocktails are served by the pool before brunch there is the tangible sentiment (especially to a passing stranger), “Who’d have thought that when I was growing up in (Sunderland, Bolton . . . any place where cocktails by the pool are a rare phenomenon) I would one day live this sort of life”. I dare say that such thoughts have crossed my own mind, but as I was generally moving on tomorrow or next week at the latest they had a different texture.
And there were some consequences of the nature of expat social life which did not suit me at all. Because of the need to fit in – and quickly – controversy is avoided at all costs. One does not talk about religion or politics in order to fit in with everybody else, but also, in a majority of cases, to avoid any chance of annoying the local authorities. Indeed a preference for aspects of local authoritarianism over aspects of so-called democracy back home is one of the few political remarks to risk. Thus if you want conversation to be about currently popular films and TV or sport or cars or Vietnam’s best hotels then expat social life may be to your taste.
I could live with all this quite easily for the lengths of time I was sticking around. What I found more difficult was the constant urge to belittle the home country. There is no doubt that this functions as a justification for one’s lifestyle, but I quickly and often found the exaggeration and criticism of the problems “at home”. It is often laced with a “this is the life” form of self-congratulation and an image of those who lived in England as stick-in-the-muds. But to the passing traveler who is well rooted “at home” it often sounds strident and silly. I was reminded of the theme of an introductory lecture I used to give to American students as a kind of culture jolt: It is natural for you to think of those who emigrated to America as the brightest and best, the seekers of opportunity and religious freedom. It is equally natural for us who stayed to think of you as the misfits, the criminals and the religious fanatics. Occasionally I would point out that I went to Oxford at possibly the easiest time for Oxford graduates to get rich and I only know of two people in my year at my college who are expats and they both own great swathes of their adopted countries. Those who have really got it made in their own countries do not become expats.
Actually, the most extraordinary example of this phenomenon came not from a working expat but from one of the elderly French-based variety. In a park in Beziers a man heard me speaking English and approached me. Everything was better in France, he seemed to want to tell me, and asked rhetorically whether I’d ever seen a park as good as this one in England? Beziers is a run-down little town with a tragic history and the park was a sad little affair that reminded me of one in Port Sunlight; there are better parks at fairly short distances in every direction from where I live. I ended the conversation as quickly as possible rather than inflame the passions of the exile. I note that many of the people who’ve expressed this kind of sentiment to me on my travels often seemed remarkably ignorant about their own country; there is a tendency if you come from a clapped out mining village in Nottinghamshire to think that the whole of England is like a clapped out mining village in Nottinghamshire. But there is also sometimes the opposite phenomenon: I was once looking for a parking space on the Stanford campus and asked a gardener for advice only to be greeted with a familiar Lancastrian accent. “Did he like living in California?” “No, I bloody ‘ate it.” Why did he stay?” “‘Wife likes it.”
It’s difficult to say whether there is an original psychological difference between expats and the rest of us, but there is certainly one created by the experience reinforced by self-identification. Personally, although I’m a keen traveller, I’m clearly not expat material. After the first three months in California I disliked it a little more each day. The good things about it increasingly seemed trivial and the bad significant. I could list about twenty things in England any two of which would be enough to keep me here. They would include family and friends, beer, the countryside, the Royal Shakespeare Company and Burnley Football Club. The thought of sitting indefinitely in a Spanish villa or by the pool of an Asian club is clearly a “dream” for some, but a nightmare for me.
So the perfect storm which has hit most forms of expat life does excite sympathy in me, but I cannot deny a hint of schadenfreude: I have sat too many times listening to talk of the superiority of the expat lifestyle interspersed with boasts about tax avoidance and qualification, nevertheless, for domestic fees in British universities. As I write a former teammate is quarantined in Hong Kong and unable to see his pregnant wife. It’s a real quarantine, locked up and guarded and he has to pay for it himself; the food is apparently appalling. I also have two completely separate doubles partners who are used to flitting between England and Spain who are now unable to come to England because of quarantine regulations and who are trying to establish Spanish residency because otherwise, post Brexit, they will be subject to rules which only allow them to stay ninety days in Europe in every one hundred and eighty days. A close friend who lives in Canada but planned to spend a great deal of his retirement in England has not seen his homeland for over a year while a friend who has lived in Spain for thirty years is stuck in England and unable to see her partner. In extremis an acquaintance who has lived in California for half a century has become so disenchanted with the polarisation of the USA that he wants to return home and can’t. Between Covid, Brexit and local political conditions it really does look like the perfect storm of inconvenience and frustration.
Naturally, in “lockdown”, I am left repeating the old northern mantra, “There’s allus someone worse off than thissen”. It is one thing to be in lockdown in a substantial house with a garden full of herbs and vegetables (yes, even in January) and a cellar full of wonders with most of your relatives and friends within shouting distance in a district with ten thousand acres of parkland in a county that is 90% countryside. It is quite another to be stuck on the seventeenth floor of an apartment building in an Asian city with the club pool and the weekend up country or on the beach removed from the agenda. I may be a little bored, but there are much worse things than boredom.
Not surprisingly in the international business press and on a large range of websites there is apocalyptic talk about the end of the expat way of life. A major aspect of globalisation is in retreat and for most this is a reverse of all expectations. I was initially sceptical about such claims and I think if there had been one major spike and one period of lockdown the normal epidemic effect – in essence a blip – would have occurred. But this has now gone on so long that there is a kind of Covid of the mind: the world has become a bigger and more difficult place again and it may be some time before it is so easy to be an expat as it has been in the last two decades.
Lincoln Allison January 2021
(This was published by The Critic in January 2021.)