When you live abroad, you become an expert in your country.
You learn the culture intimately. You find the food you love. You soak up the nuances of social behaviours. You know it so well.
And once you’re ‘in the know’, there’s nothing more irritating to an expat than people at ‘home’ assuming that you’re the same as when you left. You’ve changed and learnt stuff. The more humble amongst us would not make the full claim, but we’ve learnt nearly enough to call ourselves an expert.
You’re not going to like this, but my answer is ‘No’ and ‘No’ again.
Right about now, your head is filling with examples of where you know that you were/are at one with the culture.
There was that time wasn’t there, where you weren’t seen as the foreigner because the food stall holder laughed wholeheartedly at your joke? It was great wasn’t it? I’m still smiling.
I’m thinking of that moment too when the coffee waiter became our ‘friend’. We were really connecting. He wanted to show us around the next day too. It was A…MAZING.
I’m blending and I really ‘get’ this place and the people I meet.
No you’re not….And, I’m sorry, but you don’t.
Why am I not an Expert?
In early February I wrote about my experiences with racism in Harlem, New York and discovering my own infallabilities.
This time only had the massive impact on me because I went from being an observer to a very brief participant.
When we live elsewhere, we so often remain the observer. We get glimpses into a life. If our heart and mind are open we hear it, but we know nothing of its layers.
When my parents told their cleaners that they were leaving Chile, one of the ladies looked at the other and said in Spanish, “Why do all the best ones leave?“. It wasn’t for mum and dad’s ego affect. It was in Spanish to her friend.
So, you imagine… What do the worst ones do?
Seven words that lead to another whole experience of life if you’re willing to ask.
We need to be full particpants, not to get a glimpse of another’s life, but to completely embody what that different life means. I don’t mean ‘participant’ in the sense of volunteering at a soup kitchen or helping out in a poor neighbourhood. I mean participant as someone who lives and breathes that life E.V.E.R.Y. S.I.N.G.L.E D.A.Y.
In Harlem, I experienced a miniscule snippet of ‘participant’, but I still had white skin and I still was able to walk away to my Privilege.
Recently with coronovirus, the rallying chat amongst postive-thinking people and those wanting to make the best of the situation, tends to focus on ‘we’re all in this together’.
We think we are (said the white woman), but others know we’re not.
In the USA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends wearing masks made out of a hankerchief or bandana. Seems like a good idea when stocks of medical masks are low?
Aaron Thomas shares another view – a Black man with genuine concerns about risking his life if he wears anything other than an official protective mask.
You need to live that tension and threat EVERY day to call yourself a participant.
… and you need to be a participant before you can call yourself an EXPERT.
Being an expert isn’t so attractive now is it?
Let’s shift to what we do know. Our own lives.
Experts of our own lives?
I know about being a white, red-headed Australian lesbian who lives in England. I am an expert in that and I write about identity and belonging in the context of expat life.
Well at least I thought I did.
Recently I heard an interview with the author Sara Collins, who talked about the pressure that writers of colour face to address Race in their work. People assume that she will always write about ‘Black issues’. She went on to comment about the double standard, “white people think they’re writing about humanity, but in fact they’re writing about white issues.” Sara Collins is not afforded the same luxury when writing about humanity. She is told she writes about Race.
Us ‘white experts’ assume liberties from our positions of comfort.
It’s that little thing again called Privilege.
We’re like that racing horse with blinkers covering the sides of our eyes; self imposed blinkers to make sure we don’t get frightened by the reality of our context (people of colour sharing their truths) as we head to the finish line to soak up the glory of winning (being seen as an expert on participants).
Does this blog make me one of those ‘experts’ on participants?
It’s highly likely. Unfortunately, yes, I believe it does.
It’s like I said in my piece about Harlem, I don’t have the answers, but I’m not going to do nothing either. Nothing is an easy option and that does not sit comfortably, especially when I hear the Coronovirus statistics coming out of America.
In Chicago 68% of people who have died are in the African-American community despite making up only 23% of the population. Socioeconomic inequality detemines that we are NOT all in this pandemic together.
And I want the Privileged amongst us to be aware of what our privilege means.
It’s a matter of life and death.
So yes, maybe I am being that ‘expert on participants’.
In reality, I’m not a participant or an expert on anything other than being a 43 year old white, red-headed Australian lesbian who lives in England.
I’ll also be damned if I know these inequalities exist and I stay silent.
I have much to learn.
I’m being public about my personal exploration, in the hope that you see yourself in my musings and explore your own internal dialogue.
I firmly believe that this is how we change the world.
LEARN, in order to GROW internally, so we can EMBODY WISDOM, which leads us to ACTION.
“ Wisdom tends to grow in proportion to one’s awareness of one’s ignorance.”
– Anthony de Mello
I want to find out that I am wholly and massively ignorant.
That would be a good day.