Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Angry expat

Can. not. wait.

I realised that I am going to be travelling in Thailand when South Africa has its elections on the 22d of April. I am leaving tomorrow morning.

My original intention with this post was to ask any blogging and tweeting South Africans to keep me informed by making noise about what goes on during the election. I will have limited to no internet access, and this is great, as holidays are for escaping from it all. But I really am interested in the elections. And it is amazing how hard this information can be to come by on the internet, despite it being a big event.

I am not talking about who the actual President will be, because that is a foregone conclusion. But I am interested in the stats, the provincial results, the controversies, and of course your opinions. I have never voted in an election before. I want to be a part of some kind of a democratic system in some country. Maybe one day. But til then, you guys can keep me connected.

However a post on SARocks yesterday pushed me to extend this post. This subject has been weighing on my mind for months now, but I put off writing about it, because I feel that I can add nothing fresh or intelligent to the discourse, and because no one wants to hear another expat going on about it.

But if I don't write this now then it will buzz around in my head until I explode. So I apologise in advance for writing a long and tedious and badly written post that no one would actually want to read other than me. This post is for me. It is for my sanity OK? 

I have not encountered this attitude in anyone who reads my blog regularly, you all seem pretty chilled. This post is directed at the general anti-expat negativity out there in the world.

So stop reading now and have a fantastic Easter if you celebrate it, and I will be back to blog my usual nonsense in a few weeks.

And P.S. thanks so much for making me a runner up in the SA blog awards. I am aware that "runner up" in this competition means only that I did not win, and so I am one by default, but hey, it has a cool ring to it :)



There is a huge "thing" about South African expats. I don't even know how to describe it. A negative vibe, a debate, a controversy? It is not quite any of these things. And yet there is so much negativity going around about expats that I feel I need to go on the defensive even though I am not entirely sure what I am defending, or why.

Whenever I read ThoughtLeader or forums or blogs on the subject of expats the same old arguments and antagonisms come up again and again. And it tires me now. I never even thought of myself as an expat until I became aware of this debate. I was just me, a spindrifting seamonkey, letting life take me where it wanted.

And now I feel defined by a word that has morphed and mutated and gained so many negatative connotations that I cannot even begin to relate to it. I have always abhorred labels of any kind. Labels that diminish potential, diminish you in the eyes of others, labels that bring only debilitating cliches and premature judgements.

We South Africans have always been excellent at dividing the world into binary oppositions. World experts in fact. If it is not black and white, then it is expat and... what? Real South Africans? Sometimes it feels that way. 

There is a lot of bad feeling about (usually white) expats in South Africa. Here are some of the reasons I have come across:

  • we are whiny. We whine about our new countries and we whine about the state of South Africa.

  • we are miserable and wish we were back home

  • some expats actively badmouth South Africa and seem to wish harm upon the place.

  • some expats are very bitter about the situation in SA and/or are racist.

  • we don't move on with our lives and leave South Africa behind.

All of these accusations are true of some expats. However many of them can be applied to South Africans in South Africa too. So why is there this bad name and strong negativity directed at expats?

 Because we are a minority. The sins of the few always stick to the many with minorities. It would be ludicrous to imply that all South Africans are whiny and miserable and racist just because some are. But when it comes to expats we are all lumped together.

I often encounter the attitude that expats no longer have valid opinions about the country, that we don't count because we are not there, and our views are treated as insignificant. The fact that we may show an interest in SA and care about what happens there is seen as not moving on. It seems we are expected to forget we ever were South African, and should miraculously become something else. Unfortunately things don't always work that way.

I ask, moving on from what? How can I move on from what is within me? 

I am a South African, a woman, a climber, a scientist, an expat, but none of these things are all there is to me. I don't walk around obsessing about South Africa to everyone I meet. But I cannot move on from something that makes up my psyche.

My head is filled with my daily life: food, work, friends, family, food, boyfriend, climbing, food, books, movies. FOOD. And yes, politics too. And yes, sometimes politics in South Africa. It is hardly my sole obsession but it interests me. 

For me, taking an interest in the state of South Africa is as natural as breathing because it is where I am from, and it is the country that shaped my view of the world, that made me who I am. 

And I love South Africa, flaws and all. I still hope to move back. I fully acknowledge that I may not. I think it would be self-defeating to decide to move back at the cost of all other options or situations that arise. But if possible I want to move back some day. When/if life leads that way.

I feel that I will always be passionately interested in SA, even if I never live there again. I blame studying  Philosopshy and Literature via UNISA (both subjects have strong African components); it keeps SA closer to my thoughts than I expected. I have to write essays about things like affirmative action, ok, and I have to research these things. How can I not reflect on the socioeconomic situation, the attitudes, the prejudices and the confused attitudes that make up the country?

Why do expats from other countries not have such strong and cliched connotations attached to themselves? Why is it such an emotive subject for South Africans? This question has been flying around for ages, and I do grasp the basic psychological theories, although I am sure there is more to it than these.

Firstly, expats sometimes leave because they feel forced to, either due to crime, or an inability to get jobs, or because they are afraid of the future in what they perceive as an unstable country. They are therefore angry or bitter and go through a phase of badmouthing the country and those who choose to stay. You who stay represent expats' disappointments and frustrations.

I had a friend who, because of bad personal experiences, went through this bitter phase. And yes, it was just a phase. He got over it. He now recommends SA as a holiday destination to everyone, and he is no longer bitter. People get over it.  Expats are not all permanently bitter and twisted. Any that are do damage only to themselves.

Then of course there are the people who are still in SA who lash out at expats. They are possibly feeling insecure about their decisions and take it out on expats, because we are seen as cowardly, apathetic or whatever other pejorative terms have attached themselves to this evergrowing cliche of a word. We are your scapegoats, people. We are an easy target. We represent your own insecurities.

Stop falling for the cliche. Nothing in life is as cut and dried as we so desperately wish it was. We all have our reasons for staying or leaving. Some of us in both cases are interested in the country, some are not. 

If we are, it is not always because we cannot move on, or are sad, or whatever. Maybe we have phases where these labels are true. But they are always phases. And being interested in your home country is natural. 

I know that I achieve nothing and provide no benefit to the country by being "interested" in  or "caring" about what goes on in SA. I am not so egotistical as to think I am a better person for taking an interest. I just do and I have the right to and I am not going to defend this any more. 

I am what I am, a South African who has hybridised to England, and may rehybridise somewhere else, and who mostly grapples with being the only non-Chinese person at her workplace.

I think what I am trying to say in my laboured and confused way is that we are all stumbling about trying to make sense of life. None of use know what is going on. We all go through phases, and we all change constantly. Nothing is fixed. We are all processes. We have to work it all out in our own ways.

Don't tell us to move on, as if we can discard South Africa like a piece of litter. We will if that is something that is necessary in the process of our lives. It is not a necessity for everyone. An expat is not only expat. And don't try to simplify complex issues by dismissing them with cliches. 

I am unapolagetically South African, now and probably in the future.  That is just me. I don't claim that for all expats. So write me and my opinions off if you want, but I am not going to subdue them any more just because I feel that you feel that they don't count.


Ches said...

Po, can't believe you're going to Nam! I leave in 2 weeks time!! So awesome, you're going to love the East.

If you've got time, try get to Chang Mai in Thailand and Ankgor/Siem Reap in Cambodia...must seen!

Have a blast dude.

po said...

Ches: cannot wait! I won't make it to Cambodia this time but as the bfg's parents live in Thailand, maybe the opportunity will arise.

The Spear said...

I have blogged on this issue a few times at It irritates me tremendously. Many of us do laods for SA by buying their products, sending money there, spending money there, tell people to visit etc. I say "Behead those that critisize us expats!"


Sorry, I've been in the Middle East too long.

Anonymous said...

people who talk negatively about ex-pats or say because they've left the country their opinion shouldn't count etc, are just jealous because they dont have the resources to leave.

And all the ones who say "we're staying coz it's our country too and we'll fight for it" are dellusional because they can't face the reeality that the country will surely go further down the tubes and everything will get worse. and also coz they dont have the resources to leave :)

Ches said...

Anon - I have the resources to leave. My folks own a flat in London, I've lived in Aus and Nz. My god-mother lives in the UK and my mothers Irish. But I'm still here, and so is my family. I'm happy as Larry. So whats your f#*king point?

If you don't live here, and you don't vote, then you have no room to complain. Some Expats find nothing better than to bitch about SA even though they haven't been back in 20 years. Some Expats, do nothing but rave about the country and say how much they miss it. But they're just settled else where and still support the Springboks. So again, whats your f@#king point! You know nothing!

Sorry Po to use your blog as a vent but these types of loosers just piss me off!

Ches said...

PS. I don't think you even read Po's post because she is saying don't generalise about Expats and here you go and generalise about SA Locals.

Make me so angry! You negative people!

Anonymous said...

omg chester! I have the resources to move too, lol I'm not saying because you have money you shouldn't stay. But why can't people just let other people be, why does it bother some people so much what ex-pats do or say, it doesnt affect our lives personally. So I said the ones who go on about ex-pats and say what I said in my previous comment are like that coz they can't move away or something.

People can have opinions on SA if they havent lived here for 20 years, we all have opinions on other countries whilst never having lived in them. Why does it bother you what ex pats do or say or think.

relax buddy. Thanks for your comment to my comment. and oooo big deal a flat in london, wow wee. your first paragraph was totally off the mark to what I said :) My family is all here and we all have foreign nationality and have land overseas blah blah blah. I never implied that people who can move should move or that all people who live here don't have the resources to leave.

and it's spelt "losers" not "loosers" :(

po said...

anon and ches: I agree with some of what both of you say and disagree with other bits.

But my point is: I am not voting because I did not qualify to. But I don't think I lose the right to care about SA and what goes on there.

po said...


Vent all you want people. Better out than in. I feel amazing after writing all that shit. It felt like taking a good dump!

Champagne Heathen said...

Man, I am not keen to be an ex-pat soon just cause of reading the ridiculous comments that are on places like THOUGHT LEADER, and cause of what a few people's reactions have already been to me & My Guy saying we're moving. And godforbid, we're moving to AUSTRALIA.

We've had people start up with "I think we all KNOW why we're moving" at an Oz Immigration Expo.... Uh. I am moving cause of a lucky study break. And I am finding it FKCING difficult to leave right now with SA in such a fascinating transitional stage. So no... I don't think we all know why we are leaving.

To people giving my guy grief for "throwing in the towel"... this said to him by the most racist bunch of folk I have had the misfortune to meet.

Plus there is this whole little phenomenon called "globalisation" that allows most folk to live all around the world & experience all sorts of incredible cultures & financial opportunities & lessons (& food!!!). And this phenomenon is not dictated by finances, I have met&befriended the poorest folk who are taking advantage of globalisation.

(hmm. Here's my rant).

All in all, I am fighting for my country wherever I am in the world... location is not what it's all about. And I have always voted & paid my taxes. So I'll tell narrow-minded S.Affers in & out of SA to fck off & let me enjoy my travels! :)

Ches said...

"...are just jealous because they dont have the resources to leave..." and "...they can't face the reeality that the country will surely go further down the tubes and everything will get worse. and also coz they dont have the resources to leave." - you really can't read can you!

How far is this country down the tubes? Are bullets flying over our heads? Is there no food in our stores? Do you think all but half the BEE Executives really want their wealth to go down the tubes? I'm tired of trying to change foreign perceptions of this country because 'some' expats are always bad mouthing it, and you just sound like one of them! This country's about positive change, if you can't believe in that then by all means, buggar off. But don't sit and point fingers from over the ditch.

And some losers are just so stupid they deserve an extra 'o'! You almost qualify for loooser! But I wouldn't bestow that honour on you just yet.

And it's 'reality', not 'reeality'. If you want to brandish pathetic typos!

Helen said...

I have to admit i have always said that i love SA and will never leave unless I'm forced to, but these elections have scared me into reconsidering my options. I love this country, I love the people, I love the landscape, I love my friends and family, but at the same time I have spent the last few years watching friends of mine who have been high achievers with skills and talent and enthusiasm have to eave because they're not hireable for purely demographic reasons.

It's so sad, I think that the country is crippled at the moment because so many people were denied a proper education, and now we're chasing away the people who could actually help to fix the situation. And while I would hate to move away, I think that it's quite likely that I will have to if I ever want to be able to support myself.

It's all so depressing! I could go on for hours and hours but I just had a huge discussion about it with my labmates and i'm all vented out!

Tamara said...

Ehm... After all the heated comments on this post I feel like I don't really have a right to say anything - my opinion is not that strong. But that never stopped me before and I haven't been around to comment for two weeks, so I'll go ahead anyway...

I think South Africans have an almost urgent sense of national pride. We are nearly on par with the Yanks when it comes to patriotism. Maybe it's because people have been fighting for / about SA for so many centuries that it's become part of us as a nation. But whatever the reason, I think that most South Africans who move abroad will retain that sense of patriotism towards their home country. It's pretty normal. But those who don't fit into the patriotic group tend to swing the other way. It's almost as though there's no middle ground - you have to feel something extreme for SA, whether it's pride or shame. Just not apathy.

Some people who stay in SA feel that expats have abandoned the fight, which they can't understand because it has been ingrained in most of us. Some expats feel that the fight will never end, so they question the point of it all. And why not? The struggling has been going on for hundreds of years.

My point (yes, surprisingly I do have one) ia that everyone is entitled to their opinions and emotions. The problem is, as always, that we all tend to judge other people on theirs.

Just my rambling thoughts.

Have a great trip, Po. I'm very jealous. And just so you know, your word verification for me is 'stick'. Hehehe... how apt.

Goblin said...

You go monkey! Loved the post :) Although you really shouldn't read ThoughtLeader - that shizz is not good for anyone.

Enjoy the holiday! I hope it's frikken awesome!

Anonymous said...

Firstly...I want to go to Thailand too!!!! Their McDonalds is pretty cheap :-)

Secondly...I agree 100% with what Tamara said. I have friends and family who live abroad who will always be South African regardless of where they live, and whatever their reasons were for leaving, it's not my place to judge.

po said...

Thanks for some interesting points of view guys, actually you are far more meditated on the whole than what I come across elsewhere. I will hopefully reply to you all in more depth after work.

LadyFi said...

Great post!

Have a lovely time in Thailand.

po said...

Ches and anon: I don't think all saffas who criticise expats are jealous. Perhaps slightly insecure. IT also seems that saffas see it as they are staying behind to build the country.

As Tamara says, people who stay behind often see at as staying for the fight. That is a weird attitude that is not found in other countries, but it is understandable for many reasons. MAybe some of us white people feel the need to fight to stay relevant in South Africa, or fight to keep the dream of a fully functional integrated society, or the dream of maintaining the priveleged lifestyle in the new SA, or all sorts of things. I understand that, but I also think it is an illusion because there is no real fight. Or maybe I am wrong. I really don't know. What is the fight?

Can anyone enlighten me?

po said...

Champagne heathen: I guess the best thing is to ignore what everyone says. This is impossible but hey. You should just go with your flow and experience whatever it is you need, be it anger, commitment, confusion, denial betrayal, joy, contentment, whatever. They are all phases.

Don't let the expat nazis get to you!

Helen: I understand the situation you are in. that is not why I left, I just wanted to travel. But if you cannot find work what choice do you have? I think the Science field is quite narrow and difficult to find work in in SA, and it pays badly too. Not that this is stopping me from wanting to go back, because I am not a real scientist anyway, I am just a faker.

Tamara and Arkwife: I agree with you. There is no need to judge anyone. We all are just trying to get on with our lives.

Goblin: I pretty much avoid Thoughtleader nowadays. Sometimes decent writing is destroyed by pettiness in the comments.

Ladyfi: yay, thank you!

sass said...

great post po. and have an awesome time in thailand. i'm jealous!

Champagne Heathen said...

Ha ha, Po! I will ignore away! And I like that you point out that I can feel all sorts of emotions during my travels away! And can feel happy & justified in all, as each to its own phase!

And ja, no more reading things like the comments on THOUGHT LEADER!

6000 said...

Yes - I did this last week. What a waste of time and money. And look how vocal TwoHats and her Desperate Alternative about it all. And now - silenece.
Emboeressing? You bet.

Enjoy the trip. Don't get mashed or crushed.

Tamara said...

I love that this post sparked such debate and made people think. Way to go, Po.

Have fun in Thailand.

PS: I dunno what "the fight" is either. Or if it exists at all. But I certainly feel like it's the attitude many saffers, black or white, young or old, seem to have towards the country - fight for it or fight against it. Bizarre.

henno said...

I've been in Vietnam for 3 years and personally I haven't encountered any negativity directed towards me from anybody about being a SA expat - other expats, SA expats or locals. It must be said, I sorta zone out and start thinking about coconuts when people go on rants about stupid shit like that so maybe I haven't been paying attention. My friend Chris and I who left SA together just came to teach English and stayed cause we enjoyed it and the money's good, much more than we can make at home, or in a lot of other places. There was no political decision involved. In three months I'll be moving to Brisbane, coz my girlfriend's from there. Some people don't leave because they think things are crap back home or they're scared, there's just a bigger world out there and I'd kick myself if I were old one day and couldn't say I tried my best to see or experience as much of it as I possibly could. It's not that hard not being angry.

henno said...

PS: I hope all this unrest in Bangkok doesn't hinder your travel!

Dash said...

Hey dudio,

Ex-pats here have a few negative connotations associated with them. IE the country that we are living in has tags attached to ex pats...not the country we're not living in.

Most of them are probably self-induced...but the general perception is that ex-pats have a lots more money than everyone else and therefore pay too much for things they shouldn't. And we all hang out with each other speaking English and ignoring all sorts of cultural faux-pas'

Miss T said...

from one expat to the post hun. Enjoy Thai!

Jeanne said...

You are right - no other country's expats that I've met beat themselves up (or get berated by their countrymen!)like Saffers do. This weekend when I was still in Cape St Francis, a friend of a friend asked me where I lived. I said London and she replied "oh, so you're a sellout?". Everyone suddenly has an opinion when you say you live abroad, and everyone presumes to know why you are there. Which is rich when you yourself have precious little idea of how you got here!!

I haven't emigrated, I haven't "left South Africa behind" - I am just living elsewhere at the moment. And when I have finished seeing and doing the things I want to in London, I may move back to SA, or I may try life in anohter country. Being born in South Africa is not some sort of student loan that you have to work back - why shouldn't we travel and live abroad if we want to?

Having said that, I actively avoid South Africans here in London (and there are quite a few...) who bitch that they "cannot ever" go home, of how kak it is here AND there, and how tourists mustn't visit SA for fear of death. The fact that these guys are unhappy wherever they are says nothing about the country where they find themselves and everything about THEM!! File under: miserable gits

Lopz said...

Didn't read the whole lot Po, but I did catch your conversation with Nick the other day, and on behalf of all those temporary expats whose loyalty is still to SA, thank you for calling him out on what was a very narrow minded and discriminatory post. Glad it got him thinking too.

A good source for info is the DA website. They have been sending regular e-mails about the London vote, as well as general election info. If you only manage to connect once or twice, go there for your info.

Have a fab trip chick, I want to hear all about it when you're back cos we're going in March next year! x

Miss Definitely Maybe said...

That holiday in Thailand will definitely work on getting the anger out of the expat.
At least south african elections are quite 'peaceful' you only need to see and expierence the sh*t that goes on in other afican countries during elections to understand