Hating the Expat Hierarchy

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches


It's fast approaching the end of the year which means we have time for just one more Expat Dispatches for 2011. As always, your faithful expat dispatchers from the four corners of the globe are:


North: Linda in The Netherlands at Adventures in Expatland

South: Russell in Australia at In Search Of A Life Less Ordinary

East: Me, Expatria, Baby, in Japan

West: Maria in Canada at I Was An Expat Wife


The December edition of NorthSouthEastWest is something very dear to our hearts. It’s the thing or things that drive us crazy as expats. This month’s theme is therefore an open invitation to have a good ole fashioned rant and is called It’s driving me round the bend! 

Over at In Search of a Life Less Ordinary, I share my (absolute lack of) love for packaging in Japan.

At Adventures in ExpatLand,  Russell is wondering why it’s always so flamin’ hard to get any sleep in Australia;

At I Was an Expat Wife, Linda examines the discomfort of discomfort; 

And here at Expatria, Baby, Maria is breathing a sigh of relief to be free of the expat hierarchy.


So sit back, enjoy these four no-holds-barred posts, and look forward to a wonderful festive season wherever in the world you and yours may be!

Hating The Expat Hierarchy 

by Maria Foley




I have many memories of our family’s years in Singapore, and most are suffused with a warm, rosy glow. It was a great place to live: fabulous weather, good food, wonderful friends. My kids were deliriously happy, and that fact alone would have made it Paradise. The only thing marring the perfection of living in Singapore (aside from the crazy drivers, the chewing gum ban, and the SARS outbreak of 2003) was the existence of the Expat Hierarchy.


Singapore has such a massive expatriate population that it was inevitable an expatriate taxonomy would emerge. Lumping all foreigners together under a single expat umbrella seemed crude and clumsy, considering such a wide range of nationalities, demographics, and socioeconomic levels meant that our outsider status was often the only thing we had in common.


It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others, but I’d never considered it a competitive sport until I lived in a so-called expat community. I wasn’t used to being so nakedly judged by the car I drove or the bag I carried. I guess I was naïve, but this was a type of culture shock I hadn’t anticipated, and never really got used to. 


Placement in the hierarchy was determined by two different scales:


The Rags/Riches Scale


Also known as the “I’m Richer Than You” scale, this involved a complex logarithm based on such criteria as residential neighbourhood, domestic arrangements (maid? gardener? driver?), expatriation package (club membership? travel allowance? First Class, Business, or the dreaded Economy?), and legitimacy of status symbols (real Louis Vuitton, or Johor Bahru knockoff?)



The Newbie/Veteran Scale


Sometimes referred to as the “Been There, Done That” scale, based on number and length of previous expat assignments plus the desirability and/or exoticism of assignment locations. (Extra points awarded for enduring sudden evacuations (due to natural disasters or social unrest), hobnobbing with celebrities, or living in a locale that was “so pure and unspoilt before the tourists discovered it.”) 


I couldn’t stand the subtle and not-so-subtle fishing expeditions for information that would make my place in the social pecking order clear. (For the record: I scored points for living in a nice neighbourhood and flying business class, lost points for not having a maid, and evoked pity for carrying a logo-less bag and buying my clothes at the Gap.)


Not everyone played the game, of course. I met a lot of people who couldn’t give a toss about who washed my dishes or made my sunglasses. They were far more interested in determining shared values and interests than they were in scrutinizing class markers. I liked to call these folks “my friends.”


Surrounding myself with genuine people turned Singapore from a nice place to live into a real home. And while I miss that home — and those people — very much, I’m happy to report that I don’t miss the expat hierarchy in the slightest.