Expat Social Fallacies, Part 1

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Five Expat Social Fallacies

For those who don’t know of the thing I’m riffing on, well, you should go and give a gander to The Five Geek Social Fallacies. It’s a list of five fallacious beliefs that many geeks seem to take for granted, and which all too often (and too-annoyingly) govern social interactions among geeks, along with some psychological analysis of why this is the case.

It seems to me that there are also some Expat Social Fallacies, some analogous to the Geek Social Fallacies, and probably for comparable reasons. Over the next five days or so, I’ll be trying to identify some of them. Feel free to chip in with comments on them as we go alond. And when the cycle is finished, if you think of more, chip in. But be warned: I’ve prewritten the whole series, and they are scheduled to go up, one post at a time. I’m too busy to make major changes, though your comments are welcomed and will be considered!

Expat Social Fallacy #1:One Big Happy Family

We’re all expats. We should get along, right? There’s usually at least one person in the expat “community” (so-called, usually most often called so by this very person) who dreams of holding a big event–a Hallowe’en party, a rock concert, a drinking contest, whatever–where all the expats in town show up.

This person gets your phone number, sends mass text messages to everyone “inviting” them to events, and even goes so far as to keep a running tab on who turns up at “events” like Trivia Night. One may be subjected to lectures on why it’s important to participate in the “Foreign Community” or receive a comment of untenable disappointment at one’s failure to show up at some stranger’s pre-birthday bash.

What seems impossible for carries of ESF #1 to really conceive is that maybe not every expat fancies a Hallowe’en party, or getting hammered at a party where the people who turn up have nothing in common with them. Because, and here’s the heart of the fallacy–just being from the same country, or just being mutually not-from-around-here, does not mean we all have something in common.

The truth, for better or worse,  is that there is no expat community. There are little groups of people who come together out of common interests. Some guys I knew used to computer-game together. I myself was in a band for a few years. Some expats play RPGs together, or hike. Some go drinking together, every weekend. These are not communities, these are just people who know one another.

Communities, and families, have enduring connections. They have a stake in things, and their coming together must at least gesture toward that. The expat world does have communities within it, mind you; but they are much more rare than ESF#1 carriers would like you to think.

(Note: There is an analogous and widespread Korean social fallacy that all foreigners will somehow get along as well. It seems rooted in Korean cultural attitudes, particularly in the behaviour Koreans imagine they would exhibit while abroad — which, I’ve found, they often do exhibit while abroad — in terms of socializing. Just as Koreans abroad tend to prefer to company of other Koreans abroad, many tend imagine foreigners want the company of foreigners, differences in age, culture, attitude, intellectual background, and class nonwithstanding. This may manifest in terms of “introductions” with random expatriates by Koreans who assume they will get along, but can also be part of unofficial practices like the restaurants where, if another foreigner is present, one will immediately be seated as closely as possible to that fellow foreigner.)

Well, that’s it for Expat Social Fallacy #1. More tomorrow…

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10 thoughts on “Expat Social Fallacies, Part 1

  1. Is this a common social fallacy? At every school I’ve ever worked at, it often felt more as if the foreigners had no interest in socializing outside of work: everyone was already involved in his or her own thing. Or maybe that’s just my perception as a natural loner.

  2. I’ve seen this happen in a variety of places – bars and churches are the most common. Both are places that seem to get better the more often you go, and both offer a sense of community to those who go on a regular basis. There’s also the assumption that ‘if I like it, you’ll like it’ too, which isn’t always the case.

    Regarding teachers at work – I don’t typically socialize with other teachers because I prefer to leave work at work. I’d also rather not hear about what happened at the party from someone I want to see me as a serious worker.

  3. Kevin,

    I have seen it in workplaces. I remember a Christmas party that was held where my ex and I were urged to come, only to discover that the mentally ill bastard who’d lost his job here 4 months before, about 6 months after freaking out on my ex, had been invited for the party by someone else in the building. We managed to ignore him, but even that was a feat.

    And I find there are, in many places, all kinds of “social events” that get organized. For example, “all the foreigners working on campus” parties, or, in smaller places, “expat community parties.”

    Your mileage may vary. I suspect people working at Unis especially have their own thing going, and people who don’t may have less chance to. (In part, they work more hours in the same place. I know what I was at a Unigwan, I hung out more with teachers and students than I do in a proper Uni department.)

    Even at tyhe uni where I work, there’s a certain tendency to hang out with people at work, but also the expectation we should get along. I remember one foreigner who was hired to tenure track last semester (he’s already gone) who got into a drunken altercation in Hongdae, got arrested, and was marched back to campus in the morning in cuffs. He expected me to be cool with it and was shocked when I dared to tell him it wasn’t cool. Every time he saw me he seemed to think I should be friendly, be a “fellow-expat” and the fact I pretty much ignored him seemed to piss him off.

    And yeah, Chris, it’s true, churches and bars are common ones.

    By the way, I’m not directly talking about that invitation to your birthday party that I got a few weeks ago.

    (Though it was weird, being invited to a birthday party where I know almost nobody, considering I’ve likewise never met you, and tend never to go out for “Hongdae nights”! It could be an (innocuous) example. I’m more talking about the overbearing examples, though, where one is pressured to join in…)

  4. I’ve never really gone for the “we’re all not Korean, so we should get along and be friends” thing, but I do think that expats in Korea should look out for each other in a broader looser sense.

    i.e. if someone gets in a real rough spot. Then it’s good to help. I mean truly tough spots ala The woman whose son died in the sauna, the guy who had the serious infection/surgery thing.

    In another sense these get togethers for foreigners – either organized by other foreigners or Koreans – are IMO better suited for newbies or people who are generally outgoing and like to have a bazillion friends/aquaintances.

    Personally I like to keep a pretty small circle of friends and its’ been that way my whole life. I’m much more outgoing on the Internet than I am in real person…

  5. Gord,

    This is interesting to me, and hopefully I can provide an alternative view.

    You are absolutely right. We are not one big happy family. This is a bit of a straw man fallacy, though, if you are hoping it proves we aren’t a community.

    Of course, it depends on the definition of community, but I would argue that expats in Korea are a community. You say that “just being from the same country, or just being mutually not-from-around-here, does not mean we all have something in common.” I disagree. Those are, in fact, two things in common. It may not be enough for you to feel connected to that person, true enough. However, most people, especially people new to Korea, are actively looking to expand their social circles, and those two meager things are enough to start looking for other things in common, even with optimism.

    Similarly, while you add the requirement that these relationships must be lasting, many people (and I would argue this includes you as well) do find their relationships last a year, two years, maybe some relationships last decades or for life.

    The definition I looked at before responding required two things about community: 1) same geography and 2) interaction. I think that living as an expat in Korea meets these two criteria.

    Really, though I think you are dissatisfied with these people who are trying to be social connectors. They do use guilt to manipulate you. That sucks. Also, many of the people aren’t your cup of tea. That’s fine, too. You have plenty of social connections; you can be more selective. You know your purpose and don’t need distractions. Don’t hate them for trying though. Take it as a compliment that they want your participation. I would even argue it is good to give in sometimes. I went to Dabang concerts even though they sucked (haha).

    It is also worth criticizing that many of the events do seem to be about drinking. It seems true that the ones that don’t seem to revolve around church. Other things, like the expat art exhibits, often do need people to support them, and that is when these social connectors are useful. By useful, I mean useful to me.

    While we may not be one big happy family, we are a community. While some of the things the social connectors do annoy us, they may be useful to other people. Even so, there are plenty of things to criticize about this community we do have.

    1. Mike,

      You are absolutely right. We are not one big happy family. This is a bit of a straw man fallacy, though, if you are hoping it proves we aren’t a community.

      Heh, well, I don’t wish to prove that, I wish to say that the assertion is too-often used to impose the expectation of a community feeling or community dynamic on people who don’t necessarily with to partake of it. I think I’m more aware of it from Koreans I know complaining about the more overt form of this dynamic that exists in Korean culture.

      Maybe I’m one of those people who asks for more. There are people with whom I feel community — including you, for example, even though we don’t share geography anymore — but I don’t think that sharing geography and interaction suffice. There must also be shared norms, a shared stake in shared issues, and at least some sort of mutual desire to form community itself. That is to say, community exists where it is mutually constructed. Community doesn’t just happen.

      The problem with the social connectors, I find, is that they set their standards so low for community (as a group of people with shared geography and interaction) that community in the more useful sense (ie. common interests, a shared stake in things, real connections) become more difficult to form.

      You’re probably right, too, that I have an axe to grind with certain social connectors I’ve met. (To be honest, one in specific especially, but not exclusively… there’s a few “social connectors” in my sphere today who are less like her, but who still engage in the fallacy somewhat. They just don’t push me as hard to submit to it, so I find them okay.)

      Anyway, whatever your experience, I just don’t have an experience of community by default with fellow expatriates in Korea. I simply don’t, and telling me we’re a community, or implying that it’s self-evident, doesn’t change that. I’m willing to agree, on the other hand, that communities form and (consciously or unconsciously) set the bar lower or higher depending on what they want out of it. But community-formation is a mutual thing. It may be that this is one reason I tend to have more of a community feeling with intellectuals, with people who’ve been here a long time but also have some grad school behind them, or people who are writers by trade or training, people who love SF… with those people, I find the experience of community much more readily. I’m not saying I refuse to be friends with someone who’s never been to grad school, but rather that the communities that form among people who’re of a more scholarly bent tend to appeal to me more, and the opt-in seems worth it emotionally and intellectually. The opt-in with the Saturday night Hite OD crew seems not worth the time and money, let alone the guilt trips, boredom, and the rest of it.

      At the core, the fallacy is the assumption that people who would not consider themselves part of a “community” in their home country, even living on the same street, suddenly become members of the same community just because they’ve both relocated to the same city in a foreign country. In both cases, both individuals need to actually want to be mutually members of a community before we can reasonably say they are.

      So: fundamentally, by saying, “We are a community,” you’re saying, “I’ve opted into this community” idea. Which is fine for you, but the bottom line is, for someone who hasn’t mutually opted-in, it quickly becomes obvious the statement reveals more about the speaker than about fundamental reality of the expat population in a place.

      You’re right to some degree that communities can be more transient than I suggested, but I think community formation (of the sort I’m interested in, rather than the “let’s drink together” or “Wednesday night trivia” form of “community”) is much, much harder when you’re dealing with highly transient populations of people.

      It is also worth criticizing that many of the events do seem to be about drinking. It seems true that the ones that don’t seem to revolve around church. Other things, like the expat art exhibits, often do need people to support them, and that is when these social connectors are useful. By useful, I mean useful to me.

      Definitely, I’ve seen the dichotomy of beer or Jesus a bit too often. Actually, it’s socializing with Korean SF fans that is a break from that — they’re all about SF and fandom and it’s a nice break, since in that case we actually DO have something in common. (In fact, in some cases, I think, much more in common than I have with many Westerners I meet here.) Also, there’s the fact that when things focused on other stuff develop, they’re usually necessarily diluted to appeal to as many people as possible — by the social connectors them
      selves, since they seem to tend towards quantitiative rather than qualitative evaluation of events and groups. It seems in their nature.

  6. Sean,

    Yeah, I agree, there are times when watching one anothers’ backs might be a good idea. I’m aware of the former case you mention, but not the latter. (Unless it was the funding drive that went a while back?)

    I agree that foreigner-heavy get-togethers are usually best for newbies or friend-collectors. I am neither, and usually don’t get on so well with the latter. (The former can be okay, can be not-okay, in about the same proportions as people back home.)

    I too have a small circle of friends, and like it that way, mostly. Busy enough as it is, and need my writing time! Speaking of which… off I go, 1000 words or bust.

  7. Gord,

    I guess what a sociologist would call a community and that sense a group of SF enthusiasts feels, that feeling of communinty, are different things. I argue that a sociologist would call the expats living in Korea a community.

    Regardless of that, people who pressure you to do things you don’t want to do… well, they suck.

    Furthermore, I have to say that feeling of a postive, supportive community of people who shared my interets was lacking, if not completely, enough that I left.

    In short, I am just being jerky and picking nits.

  8. I think I like Roboseyo’s argument about the expat “community” (or lack thereof): there’s a pretty thick line between newbies and expats who have remained 2+ years.

  9. Whoops, a bit slow to get back to this, I was…

    Yeah, it’s only in the past year and a half that I’ve had a group of expat friends with similar interests to mine… and passions. (Having passions at all, actually; one meets so few people here who are impassioned about anything!)

    Of course I have individual friends like that, and have done for some time… but a group, that’s new for me. And as the group is slowly disintegrating, I am thinking that leaving is the solution for me too.


    Well, but as I go to great pains to show, these Expat Social Fallacies seem to exist both among newbies and among lifers, though they often manifest in slightly different ways between the two groups.

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