16.1.11

Expatriates are the Immigrants of the 21st Century

Previously, the notion of an expatriate to me was a person who had become dissatisfied or even just bored with their present living situation and moved abroad to “see the world”, be adventurous, or even retire (I guess I can thank my high school English lit. class and Hemmingway’s “The Sun also Rises” for that stereotype). But after living in Vietnam for a year, I’ve come to know a fair share of expatriates via work, local events, as well as through social media. It turns out that the majority of them have come to Vietnam driven more by necessity than leisure. Many expatriates’ blogs now include resumes and they’ve placed “location” as secondary on their priority list to job security and benefits. As a result, we are now seeing an increasing number of foreigners come to Hanoi on a work related initiative and for them, Vietnam has become the new “land of opportunity”. Businessmen, ambassadors, and executives often relocate their entire family here, including pets, shipping hundreds of moving boxes overseas to replicate as best they can a familiar lifestyle in a strange new place.

Most families seem to adapt well. Children always pick up the new language and attend international schools, their parents relocate to neighborhoods comprised predominantly of members of a similar geographic or at least linguistic origin, and life returns to a relatively normal state. Expatriates, therefore, are the immigrants of the 21st century. Until I looked back to America from the other side of the world, I wasn’t able to see this. Take for example Vietnamese communities established in the USA, and especially in California where their population density is considerably high. Thousands of Vietnamese immigrants have settled there and transformed entire cities such as Garden Grove or Westminster into a pseudo Vietnam dominated by their native culture, where English is not needed to lead a productive life. Grocery stores, medical centers, even dentists and lawyers all cater to the Vietnamese immigrant community. The population is homogenous; by, for and about Vietnamese. This phenomenon is presently occurring to a lesser degree in the country of Vietnam itself. The shore of West Lake has become a neighbourhood of upper class residents from around the world, and home to Al Fresco’s, Le Pub, Hanoi Rock City and the soon-to-be British fish and chips restaurant. Commercially, similar development is creeping throughout Hoan Kiem district as well. Again, a person who has relocated to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City does not need to know the Vietnamese language to lead a fulfilling life. Of course, from a cultural perspective, one can argue that a person will never be able to fully connect with the native community and thus, will daily encounter a series of inconveniences and obstacles as a result. But the point is not about connecting with the existing community, it is about establishing a new one altogether and largely to avoid the very aforementioned difficulties a newcomer faces here. Expatriates are an undeniable part of modern Vietnamese culture and will continue to have an increasingly greater influence over the direction of the nation, just as Vietnamese, Spanish, African American and various other minorities do in the United States today. Expatriates, whether or not they are conscious of it themselves, are a driving force in multiple aspects of economic development including the business, health, education, and tourism sectors.

Personally, I am excited about Vietnam’s future prospects as a result of its growing receptivity to international residents. I’d also like to encourage fellow expatriates to make a greater effort to connect with their Vietnamese neighbours. While not essential to life here, it is still very rewarding.

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