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Paradoxical practices of dealing with privileges

Date: October 22, 2020

By: Anna Spiegel

How do privileged migrants deal with their privileged social position? In our research project on expatriate managers of large multinational corporations, we found that a large number of expatriates happily embraced the lifestyle made possible by the economic and organizational support they received from their companies. However, a considerable number of expatriate managers and their families were, in fact, very critical of the privileges granted by their expatriate packages and the social and spatial segregation from the local host society typical for the expatriate ‘bubble’ life. 

First, many of the managers and their families tried to counter their image as affluent global elites with a luxury-oriented lifestyle and to maintain a ‘normal life’ through a set of different everyday practices. For example, the Kellys, a US-Korean bi-national expatriate couple assigned to China, worked on ‘undoing their elite status’ by choosing a place of residence where they would be in direct spatial proximity to local nonelite groups instead of living in the socially and spatially exclusive gated communities for expatriates or local elite groups. Mrs. Kelly explains: 

“We wanted to […] live just bog-standard. So first we lived in a courtyard, our cleaning lady lived just across the street and here where we live now, people are taxi drivers or you know, blue collar workers, or even just retired. And when you walk on the street, you can see them. […]It’s just nice to be bog-standard people.” (Mrs. Kelly)

For the Kellys, the decision to live in the same neighborhood together with her ‘cleaning lady’, ‘taxi drivers’ and other ‘blue collar workers’, has been the main instrument to break the spatially and socially secluded elite lifestyle usually practiced by Western expatriates in China. Other families, decided not to use the company’s generous housing allowance and have instead rented a smaller house that costs much less than the company pays for the monthly housing allowance. 

In contrast to the Kellys, the Novaks, a German-Slovenian bi-national expatriate couple assigned to the US, did not question living in a very wealthy local elite neighborhood. However, they seem rather lost in their villa, which is extraordinarily big for German standards, with a spacious entrance hall and the typical structure of separated formal and informal living and dining areas. Their social practices of how they use the house do not correspond to the architecture of the house. The Novaks counter their elite status within this very private realm by converting representative spaces connected to social practices of the local elite into ordinary family space. The entire formal living area, designed to be the place for representative social gatherings, is nearly empty and is used by the family as a gigantic play and sports room for their two-year-old son to play with lots of balls and run around. 

In addition, many of the managers and their families developed different practices of countering the image of the cultural exclusiveness and homogeneity of expatriate communities to different degrees. To opt against living in nationally homogeneous expatriate compounds, thus, represents a way to establish spatial proximity to different cultural Others. For some of the managers, the main issue was to transcend the boundaries of their own national expatriate community. One family consciously opted out of living in a gated community known as being German dominated so that their children could at least have some exposure to cultural differences. For others, the main concern was to work against segregation from the host country population. The Kellys chose their neighborhood to undo the socio-cultural distance from the local population: 

“Well, we have opted against living in a compound, because if you live like this, then you don’t live in [China]… you could easily think that you‘re in Dallas, in Texas, walking around in such a compound. And the same is for these Western style high rise buildings in the city center. But we decided that we wanted to experience Chinese life, not only an expat life. […]We wanted to be in the middle of a Chinese neighborhood.” (Mrs. Kelly)

In contrast to expatriates living ‘outside China’, the Kellys pursued spatial proximity to locals and actively worked on positioning themselves ‘in the middle’ of China through their dwelling practices. They refused the idea of a globally standardized home shaped according to the aesthetics of a stereotypical US-American home and instead looked for spatial immersion into what they conceived to be local normal Chinese life. 

The most far-reaching attempts to break distance from cultural Others, defined either as non-nationals or as locals, were practices related to pursuing not only spatial proximity to locals but also social proximity, by attending international churches, local Chinese schools and avoiding the typical gatherings of the expatriate community, such as “charity events and coffee mornings for expatriate wives”. However, all of these attempts were highly ambivalent if not paradoxical. Whereas the Kellys have opted for a location to dwell in which they are constantly confronted with locals and especially with locals with different socio-structural background and enjoy this exposure as part of an intercultural learning process, this spatial proximity has not directly led to social proximity as the contact to neighbors has never gone beyond greeting. Their wider social networks also failed to reflect social proximity to China. Mrs. Kelly reflects very self-critically about the fact that she has no Chinese friends, whereas all people she would consider to be her friends are located either in Germany, the US, or are other expatriates located in China. Although they actively sought for local attachment and exposure to everyday Chinese life through their housing practices, this proximity remained spatial and did not directly transferred into a social proximity. 

To sum up, the detailed reconstruction of expatriate managers’ active positioning in the social and spatial environment of their host localities revealed a number of strategies of undoing the elite status and the culturally homogeneous ‘bubble’ life. However, these countering practices notwithstanding, most expatriates and their families have not been able to escape social segregation from the local population, including local elites. In this sense, they are unaccomplished and frustrated cosmopolitans.

More info

Spiegel, Anna, Ursula Mense-Petermann and Bastian Bredenkötter (2018): Expatriate Managers. The Paradoxes of Working and Living Abroad, New York: Routledge

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