#113 Conformity (except in their home country)
One of the great paradoxes of the Expat Aid Worker experience is that by not conforming to the norms of her or his host country and going out… there to be an exapt, she or he must – in order to be “accepted”, to have any hope at all of “blending in” (not to mention “going native“) – embrace the very behavior once disdained: Conformity.
EAWs rarely ever conform to the norms of their native country. They are too nomadic. Too misunderstood (aka “enigmatic“). Too out of touch with popular culture, of course (and probably finding themselves). But just put those same EAWs in some remote corner of the globe, and within a few short months (or weeks, if they’re really intuitive) they will get their conformity on.
There are a few key areas where EAW conformity is likely to be quickly observed:
Homophobia: It would be blasphemous to go around hating on gay people in Boston or Berlin, but plop the White in Shining Armor along the waters of the beautiful Ganges or Goma, and watch those gay rights fade into the rearview mirror. To ally with such a group would be unheard of in a place where homosexuality is seriously frowned upon (or illegal). And to question the EAW or EAW’s organization on their sudden overlooking of gay rights is even more unheard of. Rights are important to the EAW, but not for everyone, everywhere just quite yet.
Religion: most real EAWs are liberals in their home countries with very loosely held religious beliefs. But just get them ‘in country’, where that nation’s version of god reigns supreme, and it’s a different ballgame. One may witness the EAW feeling slighted when their local NGO director doesn’t invite them to church on Sunday, yet this very expat wouldn’t set foot in a place of worship in their local community if their lives depended on it. Those who really want to go the second mile, will convert to Buddhism or Islam.
Sex: There’s nothing that says you ‘get it’ and have earned your expat stripes than sampling the local flavor, but be careful: There are ‘rules’, and the expat must conform to them, lest they be perceived as the evil, lowly backpacker or all around heathen. On one hand, EAW men are free to shag and/or pay (in cash or kind) for sex til the cows come home (“supporting the local economy”, or “investing in local entrepreneurs”), but it is no longer cool for the men to marry local women. I mean, that just totally smacks of colonialism and patriarchiarchal yuck, and just doesn’t have the same breed of “wow” as when the expat woman finds her local man. Should she go so far as to marry and make beautiful babies with her special guy (the EAW equivalent to ‘some of my best friends are black”), then she can safely call herself an expert and should probably start charging for speaking fees.
Fashion: Hideous is hideous, be it in Havana, Hanoi or the Hamptons. Yet plop the EAW in a ‘local’ culture and that fashion sense goes out the window as a means to an end of being accepted, uh, I mean, being “locally fashionable.” Of course, when the expat brings their local colleagues to a fancy conference in Europe or the US, rarely will you see that person donning Western garb in the name of conformity. How could they? Then all the expat’s ‘cred’ goes bye-bye in the faces of a pair of blue jeans.
Clearly, EAWs are a uniquely empowered sort of global citizen whose general wisdom and capacity for nuance is exempt them from any of the social norms that they don’t feel like conforming to. Any volunteer English teacher or student hugging orphans on spring break can drape their white selves in colorful fabric and sway their asses to native drum beats and feel all one-with-humanity. But real EAWs have been around enough to know that some battles are simply not worth fighting. And the real veteran EAWs know that many of the battles worth fighting back home are not even battles at all out… there.