Bursting My Expat Bubble: Am I A Global Nomad Or Just A Snooty, Elitist Yuppy?

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Homeless man reading a book on the street

Nicole Kidman was recently slammed for breaking quarantine when she traveled to Hong Kong to work on the TV adaptation of Janice Y.K. Lee’s novel “The Expatriates”. Well, she is playing a Hong Kong ex-pat so naturally, she’d get away with things others wouldn’t be allowed to — because expatriates (myself included) are some of the most entitled people I know.

In 2011 my husband’s job took us from Boston to Hong Kong — one of the world’s most cosmopolitan and most expensive cities. As a global mobility analyst, he had traveled and worked in more than 500 cities across the globe and our favorite post-dinner games were “What’s the capital of (insert name of country)?” or “What’s the currency of (insert country)?”

Secretly — and sometimes not so secretly — we took pride in the fact that neither of us identified strongly with the countries of our birth ­or the cultures we grew up in — Singapore for me and America for him — and that we saw ourselves as free-floating, transcultural citizens of the world, untethered to any single culture or country.

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Earlier this year, my husband got laid off. We decided to move back to the United States where we figured the lower cost of living would allow us to stretch our savings until he found a new job. We picked Portland, Oregon for our re-entry into American life.

Neither of us had been to this city before, but we had heard it was progressive and bohemian, with no shortage of impressive international cuisine. We also knew that being in the Pacific Northwest would give us easy access to the great outdoors, which we both love. So Portland it was.

On our first day in our new adopted city, we checked out the downtown area. This part of the city had been ravaged by the riots that began in 2016 and most of the nice restaurants were shut, so we scoffed down burritos from Chipotle.

Our explorations took us down streets lined with tents — the dwellings of houseless individuals who looked like they were strung out on meth, nodding off on smack, or just having too many really bad days. Outside some of these tents were plastic bottles filled with yellow-colored liquid. The smell of despair on the streets was as pungent as the stench of piss.

That night, jet-lagged and culture-shocked, we returned to our bijou Airbnb, consumed a few marijuana gummies, then huddled up together in bed and cried. “Toto, I’ve got a feeling our expat bubble has just burst”, I said.

Global Nomad or Uppity Yuppie in Disguise

Today is day twelve in Portland and things are looking up. In the midst of the very pretty but too-sleepy-it’s-creepy suburban serenity of southeast and northeast Portland and the pockets of urban squalor, I spotted members of my tribe in an area called the Pearl District in northwest Portland.

I never even realized I had a tribe, but when I feel like a fish out of water, instinct drives me to scan my environment for similarities.

And who are those whom I call my kindred? They’re the educated, affluent, expatriate jet-set — well-traveled 28-to-45-year-olds who have done their yoga retreats in Goa and Koh Samui, who have worked in London, New York, Dubai or Shanghai, who love their Lululemon, and who know their acai from their goji and their sakes from the sojus.

Wait a minute! Aren’t these folks the yuppies of the ‘80s? Perhaps so, but these days, you’re not a real yuppy unless you’ve done at least two geographicals so you can complain about how “provincial” and ignorant the people from your own country are.

For more than ten years, as an expatriate living in transient metropolises like London and Hong Kong, my friends consisted mostly of university-educated, culturally sophisticated, frequent travelers with enviable, white-collared jobs.

The people in my social circle believe slogging long hours is worth it if it means they can escape to faraway destinations at least three times a year, share photos of exotic, too-pretty-to-eat food on Instagram, or one day own property in Spain or Thailand.

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In Hong Kong, most of the people I spent time with had lived in at least three different countries before arriving to the former British colony, and many of them spoke at least two languages. Some spoke with strange accents cultivated through extended sojourns in different continents as boarding school students or senior-level corporate executives.

My tribe consists of the career ex-pat — those of us who find the idea of home and nation boring or stifling.

We’re the folks who are always looking for new lands, new experiences, and more bragging rights. We’re the folks who are always putting pins on maps, always looking for ways to get the next foreign posting. And we’re the folks who can never quite remember where we came from.

Like other members of my tribe, I too have lived in many places. I was born in Singapore and have lived in Perth, in Makassar, in London, then Boston, then Hong Kong. I speak English, Indonesian, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Hainanese.

My husband speaks English and German. He was born in New Jersey, grew up in London and Munich then lived in Boston before moving to Hong Kong.

The terms “career ex-pat”, “global nomad” or “third culture crowd” make me cringe, but as yet, I can’t find better ways to describe the type of people with who I feel I have the most in common.

When I left Singapore many moons ago, I did so because I did not wish to be confined by culture, or by the concept of tribe, clan, or nationhood. I’m afraid of becoming Americanized, and perhaps at some point in the future, Singaporeanized again.

I’m terrified of one day having to swear allegiance, or give my heart to any one city, region, country, or culture. I’m afraid that calling any single place “home” means giving up the rest of the world.

The irony of my situation is not lost of me. In choosing to denounce the concepts of nationalism and culturalism, I have isolated myself from much of the world — a world where most people are content with views of their own backyards.

I have unwittingly recreated the “us and them” dichotomy that patriotism and racism espouse, but with the “us” being those who are international and well-traveled, and the “them” being those who cannot or will not leave the cities, towns, and villages from whence they came.

Travel and experiencing different cultures ought to be enlightening; it ought to make one more tolerant, curious, and compassionate, but now that I’ve left a big, bustling city of international commerce for a smaller, quieter place, I can see the snobbery of the expatriate lifestyle.

I hear a haughty voice in my head say: “I am more progressive, more open-minded, and wise because I have seen more than those who never left their homelands. Because I have traveled so much, I am cleverer, wiser, braver, and more sophisticated than those who have not”.

For the first time, I caught this ugly train of thought and I felt ashamed of how jaded, small-minded, and elitist I was.

This morning, I chatted with one of the houseless residents of Portland.

He told me he’s lived in this city all his life and that Portland is “bee-u-tee-ful” and we’ll love it here. He doesn’t have a stick and brick house, but he’s got a tent that he calls home.

He’s got a city and country that he calls home. I’m tempted to judge him because doing so distracts me from having to think about my own avarice, workaholism, and ennui.

I thought about my adventure-seeking, overly ambitious, perpetually restless coterie of ex-pat friends, and of myself and my husband and our jet-setting lifestyle. We’ve been there and we’ve done that, but perhaps we are more homeless than Portland’s houseless men and women.

They may not have houses, or water, or electricity, or Lululemon jackets, or acai bowls, but perhaps it is us: us enviable ex-pats, us third culture, global nomads, and citizens-of-the-world, us transcultural yuppies — who have lost our homes.

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Michele Koh Morollo is a journalist, copywriter, and short fiction author. She's the author of “Without: Stories of lack and longing”.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.