Expat Otherness: Does it exist?

Expat otherness

I’m a bit of a word geek, and now that I’ve subscribed to Word of the Day, the lovely folks at Merriam-Webster send me a new word  to tickle my cerebral cortex every single day. Wordie heaven!

Yesterday they sent me this little gem: alterity. Derived from the word “alter” (to make or become different), it’s a noun that means “otherness,” or more specifically, “the quality or state of being radically alien to…a particular cultural orientation.” The timing was perfect, because I’ve been thinking for a while about doing a post on Otherness. This was just the push I needed.

“The Other” is a term for any group (or group member) whose deviations from the cultural norm condemn them to an eternal state of “not belonging” in the eyes of the dominant cultural group. It’s most often used in relation to the marginalized and disenfranchised members of society.

Perceiving The Other as being distinct from ourselves is a way of organizing and making sense of our world that begins when we’re very young. But it’s more than a benign process involving awareness of difference. As we develop, it takes on an element of judgment and exclusion: an “Us” versus “Them” mentality. Seen as lacking fundamental traits that are valued by the dominant culture, The Other, by definition, is an inferior being.

Blinkered vision compounds the problem, because when we rely on our own cultural values and assumptions, we don’t consider alternative viewpoints. Things become dangerous when we start to view The Other as subhuman. Stereotyping and prejudice are obvious outcomes; this is also the path to racism, sexism, and all the other “isms” that cause so much misery in the world.

Otherness is not quite the same as Outsiderness. The Outsider, although situated outside the dominant culture, may in time integrate sufficiently to be accepted into the group. Not so The Other, whose stain of inferiority guarantees a life lived perpetually on the fringes of society.

As expats, are we The Other? Are we perceived as being somehow less than human by host country nationals? I’d like to hear your experiences of Otherness or Outsiderness in your expatriate life.

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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8 Responses to Expat Otherness: Does it exist?

  1. Judy says:

    I think Western expats, for the most part, are considered Outsiders in most cultures and most of us have experienced that. Otherness is much darker, but it exists more than we’d like to think. Some of the stories of maid abuse which have come out of the Gulf countries recently are quite shocking and can certainly be considered examples of Otherness. Although it’s easy to say that attitudes are not changing fast enough, slavery in the region was only officially outlawed in the 1960s. For the most part the Gulf countries have come a long way in a relatively short period of time.

    • Maria says:

      There were some horrific maid abuse stories in Singapore when I was there as well. More examples of the powerful preying on the disadvantaged, and a good reminder that Otherness results from socioeconomic factors as well as cultural ones.

  2. Andrew says:

    For my part I like the Outsiderness of being an expat. It is one of the things that makes me stay. To return to my “dominate culture” (ie home country) and blend right back in would be pretty unpleasant.
    One of my phrases that I use is that “I don’t belong here, but I am not supposed to so it is ok. When I feel like I should belong at home and don’t, it doesn’t feel ok.”

    • Maria says:

      When things were going well for me, I felt exactly the same way! But in my darkest times, the alienation that comes from being on the outside looking in was demoralizing. And yet, the feeling of belonging I thought I’d get from returning to my home culture didn’t materialize; living as an Outsider had changed me just enough that, like you, I felt “like I should belong at home and don’t.” Some people are never satisfied, eh? 🙂

      I just had a peek at your blog, Andrew. Awesome stuff. I’m going back to have another look at “Master of the Between.” You’ve captured a lot of things I’ve felt but could never manage to put into words. The photos are beautiful, too.

  3. Very interesting question. I definitely felt like The Other when living in S. Korea and Thailand and still do in Germany, but am hoping that I will get to the point, where I’m an Outsider, less so than now.

    • Maria says:

      You haven’t been in Germany very long — I’m sure that’ll come. I imagine it would be harder to break into Korean and Thai society. I’m looking forward to reading about all that on your blog!

  4. bookjunkie says:

    I love everything about Japan, but I have this feeling of otherness when I visit Japan. I guess it may have to do with Japan having a homogeneous culture so anyone different sticks out like a sore thumb.

    • Maria says:

      That’s something I hear a lot about Japan. One of the differences between Otherness and Outsiderness is that the Outsider’s descendants may eventually be welcomed as full members of the dominant society, while the Other’s descendants never will. From what I understand, Japan’s society is fairly closed in this regard — non-Japanese aren’t likely to be accepted by the mainstream. I’d love to know more about this, though. Japan has been #1 on my bucket list since I was about 10 years old, and I haven’t managed to find my way there yet. 😦

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