The Ethics of ‘Expatvilles’

Is it right for expats to form isolated communities, or should they be expected to integrate?

It is not uncommon for people of a similar ethnic background to cluster together when moving to a new city. Chinatowns and Little Italies are scattered across the world, many of which offer great cuisine and at least some cultural memory of the original country. The same seems to hold true today in cities with a lot of rich expats* such as Hong Kong. The areas of the city in which high concentrations of foreign restaurants, and foreigners themselves, reside tend to be quite a bit different from other parts of the city.

Just a few days ago, I checked out Discovery Bay, a beautiful little expat beachside community just a 20-minute ferry ride from Central. Walking around, you’d honestly think you were in Europe; the décor was Mediterranean, the vibe was laid-back and peaceful, and there were white people everywhere. White people sharing picnics with a bottle of wine, white mothers playing with their children on the beach, and everyone was speaking either English or French. A beautiful place… but I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not.

Discovery Bay Promenade

The promenade in Discovery Bay

I have taken to checking out different areas of Hong Kong lately because I’d really like to move out of my shoebox-sized, shared flat and into a place of my own as soon as possible. Hong Kong offers a lot of diversity in lifestyle, both in terms of the population density and scenery of your neighborhood, and in its ethnic makeup.

I am a white girl from an upper middle class background used to living in a certain environment and culture. But I am also a girl who chose to try something new in coming to Hong Kong while accepting that things would be different here. And so when I look at where I want to live, I am always torn. Should I stay in an area that offers comfort and familiarity, as I will be engaging with the city anyways at the office and in my free time? Or must I immerse myself at all times in the most ‘Hong Kong’ environment possible, to get the full experience from this portion of my life?

The thing that raises the most red flags for me is that many expat-dominated areas are actually nicer than where a lot of Hong Kongers spend their time. Much of this is because of the city’s colonial past. Central district, for example, was originally built up to accommodate the needs of the British, and the Britishness of that area has been retained even after the 1997 handover. While many Hong Kongers spend time there and can afford to live there too, it is still amazing to walk down the street and see 50% or so white faces, whereas in most other areas it’s maybe around 1%. On top of that expats have continued creating new isolated communities such as Discovery Bay, where even native Hong Kongers with plenty of money would likely feel out of place.

When Chinatowns formed across America, it was not because Chinese people could afford to live in a nicer place than almost all of the local population. It was the exact opposite—they mostly stuck together because they needed to find financial assistance, employment, or translators to help them out. It must be acknowledged that there is a big difference in clustering together to find people to assist you in surviving in a new country, and clustering together because have no interest in speaking Cantonese and can afford a beachfront property. Expats don’t really need to live with other expats—they just want to. So in short, expat neighborhoods represent a form of privilege that other ethnic neighborhoods generally do not represent.

Discovery Bay plaza

Major shopping area in Discovery Bay

And yet, these expat havens may also serve practical purposes. Just like for Chinese people coming to America, who I’m sure were often overwhelmed by the culture, going the other way can be overwhelming for us too. Hong Kong is just very tragic in a lot of ways, and the more you speak to people here the more that can weigh on your soul. I have empathy for Hong Kong and its citizens but in the end their problems are not my problems, as I can go home at any time. Is it better for your own health, then, to stay in a place where you can in a sense “go home” each night?

I guess what the question comes down to is this: Should expats be expected to have a certain “goal” or maintain a certain moral code when they move abroad? Is it okay for an expat to go abroad with the sole intent of enjoying his or her privilege as compared to locals, or must there always be a higher purpose of wanting to explore a new culture and see the world through other people’s eyes?

It seems to me that although it would be impossible to set formal rules as to what expats should and shouldn’t do, I think it is very important for people in this category to critically examine our behaviors while abroad, and our motivations behind those behaviors. Abusing your privilege comes more naturally than you might think, and the cheaper a country is to live in, the more ways there are to do it. Living in the nicest environment you can afford with your own income isn’t necessarily an abuse in itself—but you do have to also ask yourself the question, what is my real motivation for choosing this particular neighborhood, and why did I not choose a nice home in a more ‘Hong Kong’ part of town?

If you choose to live in ‘Expatville’ in order to meet others with similar backgrounds, stay close to familiar foods, or have access to schools for your children to attend, I think all of these reasons are in some way justifiable. However, if you live in ‘Expatville’ because you don’t like spending time with locals, you think everyone else’s standard of living is too low for you, or you plan to stumble around the city a drunken mess every night with folks just like you, you might want to take a step back and think about why you even wanted to be an expat in the first place.

In the end, if it turns out you’ve only moved abroad to live out some neo-colonial fantasy, then I would suggest sparing the locals and staying in England.

* It’s worth noting that “expat” is inherently a racially loaded term, as it tends to mean “white person who lives abroad” (or at least someone from a mostly-white developed country like France or the US). When it’s someone from India or Ethiopia or something we tend to call them an “immigrant”… even though they’re basically the same thing.

Discovery Bay beach views

Tai Pak Beach, Discovery Bay

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