It was a gorgeous January or February day last year; blue skies, warm temperatures, no rain, no wind—perfect. I put on a pair of shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, sandals, and a fedora; grabbed a book, ice cold beer, and headed downstairs to enjoy the sun. On the elevator I was joined by two Taiwanese, each wearing winter clothes. One had a tuque, down-filled jacket, long pants and winter boots. The other was wearing a heavy three-quarter length parka and snow boots. As I looked around the elevator it occurred to me that I’m never going to fit in here.
Apparently, I don’t fit in back in Canada either. Friends and family tell me I’m no longer Canadian. I suppose that’s true. They think I have changed, become more Asian. Maybe. But, I believe Canada has changed while I’ve remained the same. I am a throwback to an earlier Canada. One example is since I’ve been gone Canada has been in an almost constant state of war. It has changed Canadian’s perceptions of themselves and their country. Jingoism has become more normal, a blind patriotism that Canadians used to hate in Americans. I cannot easily relate to this new national attitude. It is not just Canada, but throughout the world ultra-nativist nationalism and regionalism is on the rise. We can see it in Trump’s America, among Brexiteers, and in the rise of ultranationalist movements throughout Europe.
Some of this is in reaction to globalization, which has left behind many disaffected communities worldwide. It is perceived as benefiting the elites and being the world order of multinational corporations, international bankers, and globetrotting moneyed elites. The emotional component of this trend seems to be bigotry, voter’s fear of the [scary] other, generally immigrants. As an expat, I can’t condone such attitudes. After all, an expat is just an immigrant with a few less legal rights.
I come from Western Canada. Embarrassingly, if Canada were America, then Western Canada would be Trump country. It is an area of Canada where the regressive features of Canadian political life—anti-immigrant sentiment and barely concealed racism—are finding fertile soil.
My life as an expat stands in stark contrast to the attitude of insular nationalism apparently sweeping the world, and certainly my region of Canada. Almost by definition I am a globalist, certainly not the elite globalist of popular imagination. Like most expats, I am simply a worker—an international worker. We are, through circumstance or inclination, able and willing to work outside our home countries. We are the real leading edge of globalization.
As an expat I am heavily invested in the current global order. If the WTO or other trade relationships collapse I don’t know what happens to expats. Certainly our quality of life would decline precipitously. I have previously commented on how much nicer expat life is when you have access to international products (here). But, if trading relationships were hindered, many would find themselves unemployed. Most expat jobs are predicated on international trade. Even ESL teaching requires students who think they’ll benefit from English; generally via the chance to study in an English-speaking country, global job opportunities, or international trade.
Most expats are what I loosely term transnationalists. Our interests are global, not nationalistic, encompassing, not exclusionary. It makes expats extremely open and willing to accept other groups. Backwoods westerners who maintain the prejudices of home don’t last long as expats. It is not easy to be a xenophobe while living in another culture, surrounded by other religions, ethnicities, and races; where even expat friends are likely a very diverse group. The expat lifestyle demands a certain openness.
One benefit of the expat’s global perspective is it gives you a view of your home country devoid of petty regional squabbles, internecine warfare, and politics. It is kind of the view from space. It is a unique and more honest way of seeing your country. One of the things Canadians struggle with is a sense of national identity. We’re a young immigrant country and many wonder what defines us. Most who think about such things want the answer to be English-speaking, white, Christian, etc. As a Canadian whose lived abroad for many years, I can tell you what defines Canada—multiculturalism. Our public policy that emphasizes the importance of immigration, and encourages diverse racial, religious, and ethnic groups to maintain their cultures while living in Canada. This is unique. It defines Canadian culture—diversity is the definition.
Earlier I questioned where I fit in. I don’t fit in Canada and I’ll never be accepted as Taiwanese, so what am I? I have lost my national identity, but I have gained something more. I truly believe that I can be comfortable living anywhere, among any group of people. I will find what is best about that place, those people, and come to enjoy what is unique about that society. Expats are constantly forced to adapt, change, and, I’d argue, better themselves. That’s what makes them compelling individuals. In contrast, I find myself stunned by anti-immigrant sentiment and fear of cultural change in the West. For someone who thrives on the challenges and joys of a life full of cultural diversity, it just doesn’t make sense.
Who am I? I’m a citizen of the world.