The Colored Expat

By K. Anis Ahmed

The West has many immigrants, but why are there no colored expats?


The world is now full of an air-borne class of people. By air-borne I mean people whose fates are in so many ways and senses defined by flight.


I myself am such a person. I flit between two worlds. At the moment New York and Dhaka. Though I spend the greater portion of my time in New York, I still consider myself "based" in Dhaka. This is largely because I have not actually immigrated here. And probably never will.


The perspective on dual residency, or dual identity, in the West is tied up with the figure of the minority. This is not to say that plenty of white people do not actively contend with conditions of duality. What interests me is that one of the categories common to white diasporas is almost totally missing from colored ones; namely, that of the expatriate. One even hears of exiles, but almost never of colored expatriates.


Before we go any further in this eccentric debate, it’s time for definitions. By immigrant I understand people who have left one country for another with the intention of settling there. Exiles are different only in that their condition or motive of flight is political. But what of the expatriates? What kind of people are they? As the term itself suggests, they are people living away from home. But who do so without the intention of settling in the host culture.


Now to return to my original, and at first sight trite, observation: Why are there no colored expatriates? Surely, they exist. By my definition I should be one. Or, take the example of my aunt who works at the United Nations. Whenever she has been posted in the "field" — Afghanistan, Indonesia, Laos or Malaysia — she has been considered and called an expat. That is not a description that is available to her here in America though.


You might wonder what she is called here. The answer is nothing. We don’t have a category. I know other people — like us, non-white — who are here with no intention of settling down. Yet there is no name for us. At best we get asked, will you go back? Implication: you are an immigrant-in-waiting. That is the most we are allowed to consider ourselves. Think of it as a kind of suspended identity.

White people in dark countries, however, are invariably called expatriates. Even when an Englishman lives the better part of his life in India or Kenya, he is not considered an immigrant. Nor are American fortune seekers in Hong Kong or Singapore called immigrants. Ernest Hemmingway was an expat in Paris in his youth. Paul Bowles was an expat in Morocco — even after living there for almost 50 years!


I don’t introduce these literary examples carelessly. The absence of the colored expat is fundamentally connected with issues of perspective and commentary. I don’t think identities in any culture get sanctioned absent-mindedly. The terms of the so-called global culture are set by white people. Like all cultures it too has well-considered slots for people to fill. The immigrant is one such slot. The expat yet another. It is no accident that they are filled unevenly by whites and non-whites.


The West likes to hear from its immigrants. Not the Haiders and Le Pens or their followers. But most of the others love to hear from immigrants. Hence the boom in colored writing. One sees this hunger for immigrant expressions not just in literature. It has spread to all aspects of culture. Look at the pop-charts, look at culinary fusion. People who once saw mehendi and nose-piercing as markers of such a deep difference that they couldn’t understand them without the aid of anthropologists, have now to contend with those signs on the bodies of their oh-so-hip children.


Let the fads and vagaries of mainstream culture run its course. And let us return to the more heady issue of perspective, which shows up so well in literature. Look what a marvelous career Westerners have made out of expatriatism. Conrad owned Africa like Kipling thought he owned India. Forster was too mild to own anything. But his modesty was amply rectified by David Lean in the movie version of A Passage to India. That’s the weird thing about the West. Its faith in its ability to render the World intelligible to itself and to others is tenacious if nothing else. After Orientalism we get The Beach.


The West loves to visit and talk about other places. It will frame those places with words and images. But heaven forbid they should have any patience for a reciprocal gesture. Syed Haq the Bangladeshi writer has written with great perspicacity about London. But his work has never been translated. (Fans flock routinely around indubitably lesser talents who write in English.) Then again Gunter Grass comes to Bengal and gets it all hideously wrong. Yet his take on Bengal gets read as somehow authoritative.


When it comes to Third World writers, the West is interested in the perspective of the immigrant. Sure there are exceptions. Like the brilliant Sudanese writer Tayib Salih. But even he doesn’t have the wide circulation of say an Amit Chaudhuri or an Edwige Danticat. Can it really be that the vernacular writers are consistently less interesting than their glamorous cosmopolitan cousins? How can expatriates and immigrants from the same culture be so disparate in their intrinsic ability? Or is their supposed interest-value determined by something other than their talent? Like their designated place in the world?


What gets published and what gets read, I mean really widely read, has a lot to do with who buys the books and what they want to hear. The West likes to hear from its immigrants. They even like to hear about other places, but either from their own people (like Greene or Theroux) or from people who write in Western languages (like Roy or Ben Jelloun). This is not to say that plenty of these immigrant or postcolonial writers don’t have tremendous talent and don’t merit a wide readership. But there are other writers and other voices, which are widely ignored. And their neglect has very little to do with their actual talent, though that spurious imputation has been gaining ground for a while. Sadly at times with the abetment of the likes of Rushdie.


Basically the choice of a language determines the relationship to an audience. Such choices can be made even within the same language. In America, for example, the same things don’t get said in White English or Black English. Similarly, colored people writing in White or Black languages also end up saying quite different things. What gets said in the Black languages is something in which the West has no interest at the moment. Hence the absence of the colored expatriate. You don’t need to have or name a category from which you don’t want to hear anything.


In the world as we have it, to be an expatriate is the privilege solely of imperial citizenry. Others are free, more or less, to be immigrants. This is in no way to suggest that there is anything wrong with being an immigrant. Or that being an expatriate is somehow a finer destiny. But to say that the invisibility of colored expats richly bespeaks the imbalances of the global culture we live in. An imbalance that Western multiculturalism sometimes wants us to forget.


Originally published in Little India in 2002.



© 2020 by K. ANIS AHMED.

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