In Vietnam, I am, and always will be, a “Tây”, meaning “westerner”.
I can hear the call of “Tây-Tây-Tây-Tây-Tây” in any market as vendors announce my presence to each other, making it pretty much synonymous with the sound effect “ker-CHING!”
I’m not offended one bit by this label. Not even when I had new passport photos taken and the shop filled in the “Mr/Ms_________” section on the little receipt with “Ms Tây”, and filed it away under T.
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Because I am a Tây. Even if they would let me, I would never try to pretend to the Vietnamese that I’m just like them.
However, before I moved here, I envisioned making for myself a perfectly authentic, local Vietnamese life. I was sure I would assimilate beautifully. I was very much the kind of person who would travel to Asia and scoff at tourists eating pizza. “What’s the point of even coming overseas if you’re just doing what you do at home, eh?” I would say, indignant and unbearable.
Now, my favourite café in Hanoi is run by a Melbournian and serves soy chai lattes. I like Vietnamese coffee very much, and drink it often. But you know what I like more? Soy chai lattes.
I don’t care any more about my street cred or my authenticity, or being pleased with myself for being the only foreigner in a local coffee shop. That soy chai latte doesn’t lessen the Vietnam-ness of my life here; in fact, it makes it better, offering me enough comforting familiarity to better enjoy the rest of my very Hanoian day.
When visitors from Australia ask me to take them to my favourite cafe in Hanoi, I know better than to take them to this place, my real favourite café. The one and only visitor I’ve taken there looked around and said, “Hmm, there sure are a lot of foreigners in here”, and there was judgement in them there italics.
To me, this is like going to a Chinese restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown and complaining, “Hmm, there sure are a lot of Chinese people in here”.
The formation of communities with shared ethnicities and cultures is the most natural thing in the world. Liberal-minded, politically correct, cultural relativists like myself love them for bringing “diversity” and “colour” to our neighbourhoods. Yet those of us who move overseas seem to think we’re above needing the familiarity of such communities ourselves. We’re sure we’ll just slot right in to our new home because we’re so open-minded and adaptable.
No, we won’t become your typical expat. Now, there’s another word with its own synonymous sound effect: one of retching.
“Expat” conjures up two stereotypes, both of them unseemly: one clad in white linen, drinking gins and tonic, and oppressing the natives; the other sunburnt, overweight, subsisting entirely on baked beans and whinging about the locals. Both images emphasise that the expat is stubbornly, wilfully, unassimilated.
It’s a word with such awful colonial overtones. All at once it projects cultural superiority and barbarism. And for a word which is supposed to be all about someone moving to a new and different country, all it does it emphasise where they’ve come from: it seems you’re only an expat if you’re from the developed world, otherwise, let’s face it, you’re an immigrant.
It’s because of these connotations that people, like me, try to dodge the dreaded expat label. But despite my best intentions, I have become just another expat. I might not have a white linen suit, but I’m still a Tây who hangs out with other Tâys and does your typical Tây things.
So every one of my soy chai lattes could taste just like self-loathing, or I could just get over myself and own it: I’m an expat. I’ll still say it with teeth gritted against all those historical connotations, but I’ll say it: I am an expat.
Tabitha Carvan writes the blog The City That Never Sleeps In about the lighter side of living in Hanoi. She contributes to a number of publications and is a regular columnist for AsiaLife magazine and Vietnam’s largest news site Dân Trí. You can follow her on Twitter here.