Colonialism and Modern Day Expats in Southeast Asia

by Adelle Tamblyn

I was five when my father got expatriated to a coal mine in the middle of the jungle in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Moving from a cosmopolitan environment (Sydney, Australia) with a population of a few million, to a tight-knit community of Westerners (predominantly) in a population of approximately 150 people in an expatriate setting was a complete contrast of lifestyle. In Sydney, we were an average, middle-class family. In East Kalimantan, however, we lived a life of luxury. We were a fairly isolated community, but in no way deprived: our town had its own elementary school, commissary, mess hall, and a restaurant that everybody called “the cafe”, as well as complete, free access to a pool, a golf course, squash and tennis courts, and a man-made beach with sailing boats. The town we lived in was specifically built for expatriate employees of the coal mine, about 40 minutes away from other towns, some of which were starkly different to our own. The isolation of our town, as well as a community of seemingly affluent expatriates brought about a new type of employment opportunity to the local community: as maids, cooks and gardeners. Through this setting of Western owner and Indonesian server, it set a tone of race relations that, in the minds of some, placed the expatriate higher on the racial hierarchy than the Indonesian community.

In his book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson refers to colonial racism in a chapter entitled “Patriotism and Racism” (p. 150). Anderson states that in colonised communities, colonisers felt a sense of “inherited superiority”: in an imagined community away from home, the Englishmen were to the “natives” what English lords were to Englishmen, thus heightening “antique conceptions of power and privilege” (p. 150). In this way, I believe that modern-day expatriate communities and colonised communities can be paralleled: in line with Anderson’s description of heightened senses of superiority among colonisers, the same can be said of expatriates in a tightly-knit community, in which the expatriate—in a dichotomy of wealthy and white, and a worker for white people and local—may begin to imagine him or herself as superior to the local community. Such a mindset worked to distance the Western expatriate community away from the Indonesian community, creating an imagined sense of “we” and “them”, creating, as Anderson describes, a “solidarity among whites” (p. 152).

As with the misconduct, adultery and even violence that ensued in colonial empires, the similarly isolated environment in the expatriate community allowed for deviance and foul-play amongst some expatriates: behaviour that would surely not be accepted back home. Not only did this colonial community effect have an impact on adults: taking sociological cues from their parents, some children became accustomed to the idea that they, too, were superior to the local community. One example of adolescent deviance involved the baiting and killing (involving stoning and running over) of wild dogs. Another incident involved one adolescent who acquired a BB gun and fired at Indonesian civilians.

Making local workers in a modern-day expatriate community setting only helped to create two separate, imagined communities that is reminiscent of colonist communities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A tightly-knit expatriate peoples, set next to a work-hungry local community in Indonesia gave birth to class differences divided among race. As Anderson aptly states, racism forms within national boundaries, and helps to justify “domestic repression and domination” (p. 150).

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One thought on “Colonialism and Modern Day Expats in Southeast Asia

  1. Pingback: Jordanian Delegates meet with community leaders in Detroit | The Arab Daily News

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