Carrie Frais is the founder of MumAbroad and has lived in Barcelona for nearly 20 years. Born in the UK and brought up in London, she studied European Studies with modern languages at University and has always seen herself as European. During Covid she edited and co-wrote an anthology #LivingTheDream, in which, among other topics, she challenged what she views as the outdated image of the ‘expat’.
I have always disliked the word ‘expat’. For the British and possibly the Americans among us, it smacks of Western white privilege. From the British colonial days particularly in India, Britain’s Jewel in the Crown, the image of the Brits who lived there also known as the British Raj (over a period of nearly 90 years) was one of life living in large colonial style homes looked after by the local staff. The typical dress would be white linen suits, cravats, brimmed hats, military uniforms or possibly jodhpurs for polo for men and women in long dresses or skirts with shawls. British female expats were never depicted working. At the time Britain thought it was doing India a favour by modernizing its infrastructure, but as with many colonized countries, the conversation once it had regained its independence in 1947 had changed.
Many Indians view British colonization as a period of exploitation and oppression. They point to economic exploitation, social injustices, and political suppression disregarding the welfare of Indian citizens.
They say that the British exploited India’s resources (cotton, wool, iron ore, coal, tea) and wealth for the benefit of the British Empire. They levied heavy taxes to finance their administration. Valuable historical artefacts were looted to showcase in British museums. Industries in India were geared toward serving British interests, leading to economic disparities and poverty among the Indian population. It was a time of severe hardship for many Indians.
The colonial period is also seen as a time of resistance and struggle for independence. British rule was a catalyst for India’s freedom struggle, led by prominent figures like Mahatma Gandhi and other freedom fighters, was aimed to end British rule and secure self-governance for India.
It was the same story in Africa – the colonization of countries such as Nigeria, and Ghana. Kenya, Zambia (formerly Rhodesia), Zimbabwe, S Africa and Uganda disrupted traditional political structures, imposed new borders and administrative systems, and facilitated the extraction of resources for the benefit of the British Empire such as gold, silver, diamonds, minerals, rubber, palm oil, tea tobacco, coal, uranium, tin-copper and ivory, which resulted in a massive reduction in the elephant population. There was also forced labour on plantations and in mines.
The legacy of colonial rule continues to shape political, economic, and social dynamics in many African countries today. Depictions of social gatherings might show expats attending parties, dances, or other social events with fellow expats and local elites, dressed similarly to how I described it in India.
Both India and Africa were victims of the appropriation of intellectual properties, exploiting cultural heritage without any kind of compensation
Is it bad to say I feel ashamed when others may argue that British colonization of India and Africa left behind a legacy of infrastructure, including railways, roads, and administrative & education systems, which contributed to modernization in both places? I would argue that these developments primarily served British interests and were not without negative consequences.
So when I am called an expat in Spain, that is the image that springs to my mind. I am not an expat in the way I view the word. That term has surely run its course. We, those of us living away from the country in which we are born, are immigrants, economic or lifestyle. People are now living abroad for a myriad of different reasons. By being called an expat, it can set us apart from our adopted culture when in fact we are trying to do exactly the opposite. And most of us know that living abroad is not all sunshine and parties. Living outside one’s country can be exciting, stimulating, enthralling and glamorous. We are sometimes viewed as courageous, uprooting ourselves from the security blanket of having our extended family close by to face new adventures and experiences in far-flung corners of the earth. #LivingTheDream right?
Yet our lives – as immigrants – like anyone else’s – can be confusing and challenging. But yet, we still find ourselves victims of ‘toxic positivity’ when people tell us how ‘lucky’ we are because our lifestyle is ’coveted’ but in doing so can undermine some of our day-to-day struggles and life-changing moments. When we experience anxiety, stress, insomnia, loneliness, fear or even depression caused by, amongst other things, culture shock, rootlessness, social exclusion, grief or bureaucracy, we struggle with people’s perceptions versus our own reality. Most of us do our best to ‘fit in’, to communicate and present ourselves as effectively as possible in the face of cultural challenges and language barriers. Friendships that take years to cement are lost as people come, and then go. The concept of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ is a constant conversation.
This is not a cry for sympathy. We are all responsible for the decisions we make in life and, overall, most of us are very content with the lives that we are living. But, we are not always ‘Living the Dream’. I feel a need to unravel the reality of life away from ‘home’ for what it really is and to dispel some of the ‘rose-tinted’ perceptions. We are real people facing real challenges in the real world. Just sometimes, when you want to put your head in the sand, it is true that the beach is only around the corner.
Read more stories on our blog from women living abroad