Travelers vs. Expats
The number of countries and contexts that I have been in this year has been numerous, to say the least.
Coming back to Asia, ever since I hit that 6 month mark and realization when I arrived in Bali (read more here), I’ve started a lot of reflection on this year itself. I’ve started trying to understand the progress I have already made; therefore not only looking forward at future travel endeavours.
My two months in Indonesia and 3 weeks so far in Vietnam have been interesting in terms of my narrative: what I am doing here, where I am going, and so on. As you meet more and more people, you are forced to build a narrative of your own story; often finding similarities and differences upon which to continue the conversation.
My narrative at the beginning of this trip was the following: I am a South African backpacker setting out to travel this part of the world. I have only a vague idea of where I’m going. I know I’ll be traveling more slowly than the majority of other backpackers I will encounter.
Somebody pointed out recently that it was difficult to not get sucked into the “backpacker heavy drinking and smoking culture.”
Only in hindsight have I realised that I entered (and exited) this cycle. It’s made me question – what is my identity as a current traveler? I am not solely backpacking and experiencing new places for a handful of weeks. I am making other countries my home, one at a time, living the majority of the time with locals as well as working with/for them. This may or may not fit with your idea of backpacking, depending on your definition of the concept. I just realised at a point that I was not fitting the mold anymore, so I had to take that word out of my narrative.
During my second month in Bali, I lived in a village called Canggu.
Canggu is a surfing hotspot on the Bali’s West coast which particularly appeals to young Australian “adults” 😉 In my ignorance I expected, like most other places, to arrive here and find an overall mindset focused on traveling and broadening ones horizons, growing and developing, and that general quest for knowledge like you and I know many travelers have. In some ways this was true; I don’t think I’ve seen so many yoga studios and vegan restuarants in my life! But it seemed that the general idea was that most people were there to rent a villa (or room in one) for a couple of months, filling ones day with surfing and socialising. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with this. I am simply stating that in my ignorance, I didn’t realise the majority of people there would not be doing what I was doing, on the same sort of mission as me.
Anybody who has been to Canggu will enjoy how golden this photo is
A similar thing can be said for Vietnam.
I have met many expats here, 9/10 of whom are here to teach English. And why not?! The cost of living is so low, teachers get paid a LOT, and if you are a Native speaker from a Western country (more about this discrimination in another post), people practically beg you to work for them. So – the average narrative goes like this: Hey what’s up, my name is [x], I live in a shared house in the Tay Ho area, I teach English here, I am here for 6-12 months. (Me: Why?) Ah, I’m at the age where I want to do something different/I didn’t know what else to do/why not?! And fair enough – it is a totally unique opportunity to be teaching here and living this lifestyle, one that is likely not going to be available to my children or future generations.
However, the core ideal of many young expats here remains similar to the universal (well, modern Western) mindset: Work hard now, reap the rewards later. Vietnam is just providing a unique opportunity in which large groups of young adults can be earning a relatively high income, with relatively little qualification and with relative ease. Someone remarked recently “my degree actually means something in this country!”
Sure, life is different and interesting here.
Were all the expats back in their own countries, perhaps they wouldn’t be sitting on the corner of the street drinking beer (and inhaling helium balloons) on a Monday night. So there is the element of doing something different somewhere new, and being able to be fully financially independent at a younger age. But it is still not synonymous with being a traveler free of commitment and constraint. Which is why I’ve been mulling over the differences between travelers and expats lately.
I guess this is just me rambling on trying to locate myself, a fish seemingly swimming in more than one metaphorical sea. Humans by nature try to define and categorize themselves, to make sense of the world around them and where they fit. Perhaps I will simply introduce myself as Kirsten. Just Kirsten. Here, now, alive, and willing to have a chat. Maybe that is all that is necessary.